Update: This article was written in 2009. Later that year, a merger of parishes in Louisville meant Sister Joan began serving at Mary Queen of Peace, where she continues today.
When Joan Riedley decided in 1963 to announce she was joining the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph, the sisters who lived in the convent at St. Denis Parish in Louisville, Ky., gathered in the parlor for the announcement.
That was 59 years ago, but after ministering as far away as New Mexico, Sister Joan has come full circle – her office is now that very parlor.
“It’s like home to me,” she said.
A home has been awhile in coming for Sister Joan. Since Thanksgiving of 2007, she’s agreed to temporarily live in two rectories at parishes that have closed, has changed employers, and is in the midst of a merger that will ultimately unite four churches into one.
None of the tumult has sapped the energy or knocked the smile off the face of this sister who nearly everyone calls “Joanie.” She rises by 4:30 a.m. to head off to the YMCA for her daily workout, which at times includes pounding a bag using her boxing gloves. She doesn’t settle down until after her evening practices with two church choirs.
“I love being at the gym, it clears my mind,” she said. “I love the camaraderie. It’s a whole new community.” In 2007, she walked in the Kentucky Derby Mini-Marathon.
Her other great love is playing music, which she’s done since learning the guitar shortly after becoming a sister. “Music has been ingrained in me since grade school,” she said.
It was during her eight years of grade school at St. Denis that she fell in love with the Ursuline Sisters, who were the sole teachers at the school in southwestern Louisville. That area was populated with many middle class or farming families, and Catholics were so numerous that there were four Catholic churches within shouting distance of each other – St. Denis, St. Helen, St. Matthias, and St. Basil.
The girl next door
Sister Joan’s parents grew up on neighboring farms, and it was her grandfather who donated part of that land to build St. Denis. The Riedley family lived next door to St. Denis, and Sister Joan’s introduction to the Ursulines came as an infant.
She was born with a hole in her heart, and couldn’t get enough oxygen, causing her to turn blue. Sister Margaret Joseph Aull was one of the sisters who lived at St. Denis then, and remembers being awakened in the night so the sisters could say a novena to the Infant of Prague for the baby’s survival.
“My mother passed out the Infant of Prague prayers to everyone,” Sister Joan said. “Some of the sisters called me the ‘blue baby.’ Every time I’d see them, they’d welcome me.”
Sister Margaret Joseph, now retired at the Motherhouse, remembers Sister Joan’s first starring religious role.
“We had a Christmas play one year and Joanie was the baby Jesus,” she said. Years later, the two would minister together in Grants, N.M., where Sister Joan taught her to play the guitar.
As a student at St. Denis, Sister Margaret Joseph was her favorite teacher, Sister Joan said.
“Her name always comes up when we have reunions,” Sister Joan said. “She was just a loving, kind, wonderful teacher.” Her other favorite teacher was Sister Mary Raymond Smith, her first grade teacher, who died in 2002.