Sisters Joan Walz and Mary Agnes VonderHaar: “They have an incredible spirit of Saint Angela”

After four years as principal and teacher at St. Joseph School in Paul, Neb., Sister Joan came to Earlington, Ky., to a mini-high school with few students. The bishop decided to close the school, so Sister Joan went to St. Joseph’s High School in Mayfield, Ky., from 1962-65, when it too was closed. She came back to the Mount from 1965-69, and there were plenty of students in those years.

“We had them hanging from the ceiling,” she said. The average attendance during the 1960s was 171 girls.

“We were with kids all the time. We were responsible for students in the dorm, but also teaching,” Sister Joan said.

Sister Joan taught social studies and religion at the Mount, and was a dorm monitor. “The girls tell me all sorts of things now that they did,” she said. “Some of the girls went to St. Alphonsus one night,” where the boys were across the highway. “We decided to lock the doors. They stayed in the cellar that night.

“I’d find boys on the fire escape,” Sister Joan said. “I appeared, they scattered.”

Sister Judith Nell recalls the little extra Sister Joan did when she taught her history while she was in the novitiate. “We weren’t allowed to listen to the radio or keep up with the news,” Sister Judith Nell said. “The first few minutes of class, she’d give us an update on current events. Since then, I hate to miss the news.”

After teaching four years at Whitesville Trinity, Sister Joan came back to the Mount from 1973-80 as the first director or retirement, which meant being in charge of activities for the senior sisters. It was the ministry she enjoyed the most.

“Lay people were retiring at that age, people thought sisters should too,” she said. “Volunteerism was a push, that life was more than working. We started a senior citizen group in Curdsville,” she said. “We thought senior country people should socialize as the senior citizens were doing in the city.”

Sister Joan encouraged some sisters to come home, and urged them to become aware of social problems and write to senators. “We had a workshop on nuclear problems. We had our property declared a nuclear free zone,” she said.

Her involvement in some peace groups gave her the opportunity to travel. “On my 40th birthday I had my first plane ride, St. Louis to LaGuardia,” she said. A sister whom she’d met at a workshopwas to be her guide around the city. When her guide was unavailable, Sister Joan toured New York City by herself.

The crabby character “Maxine” is a favorite of both sisters.

Sister Joan was elected to the Leadership Council from 1980-88, during which time the Academy was closed. “It definitely needed to happen, but it was hard,” Sister Joan said. She visited Chile and Guatemala because Sister Mary Irene Cecil, the superior at the time, was ill.

It was a relief when her term on leadership ended, she said. “We don’t look at those positions as prestige, it’s more a service role,” Sister Joan said. “We’re really interested in what’s for the good of the sisters.”

It was a workshop she had one summer that led to her next mission.“I had a nurse come to offer a class, and some of the younger sisters decided to go into nursing,” Sister Joan said. “I had an aunt in the infirmary with Parkinson’s disease who I visited often, I saw the real need there. I decided to take my turn.”

She went to Jefferson Community College in Louisville to get an associate’s degree in nursing. She was 57 years old. “I was the grandmother in the class,” she said. She worked for a time at a hospital in Louisville before coming to the Motherhouse for five years of nursing.

In 1999, she went to the Manna House of Prayer in Concordia, Kan., for two months of prayer and spirituality. There was too much strain to go back into nursing, and more lay staff was being hired, she said.

“I was still really undecided what to do,” Sister Joan said. “I came to Hickman to stay the rest of the year, and Sister Mary Agnes was having knee surgery. I felt she really needed help.” She did religious education, RCIA, housekeeping and served as a Hospice volunteer.

“By that time, we knew neither of us needed a full-time job,” Sister Joan said. “We decided to go someplace together.” They moved to McQuady together in 2004.

A good team

Sister Joan said she and Sister Mary Agnes work and live well together.

“I do the manual work, Sister Agnes does the brain work, so we balance,” Sister Joan said. “Both of us are inclined to push for change, we want to see the community grow and enriched. We’ve both been very committed to our elderly members.”

Sister Judith Nell, who along with Sister Julia Head remains close friends with the two sisters, said, “I’ve always been impressed by both of them. I’ve never seen two more selfless people, they give 150 percent all the time. They have an incredible spirit of Saint Angela.”

Sister Julia said the two sisters “have been living examples of what it means to honor the diversity among us and to respect others who have differing opinions and attitudes about what community living means and how it should be done.

“They both have a great sense of humor and can make fun out of many a difficult situation,” Sister Julia said. She noted that they both have a strong appreciation for the crabby cartoon character “Maxine.”

“I think that a person’s ease with laughter says a lot about the inner self,” Sister Julia said. “I so enjoy hearing both Joan and Agnes laugh.

“Their faithfulness to the congregation and its needs, their availability to the people among whom they live are striking examples of the goodness of these two women.

“I feel privileged to have walked alongside these two women who in many ways exemplify the spirit of Saint Angela today,” Sister Julia said. “At least, I feel as if I know Saint Angela a little better because I have had the privilege of sharing conversation and laughter with Joan and Agnes.”

By Dan Heckel