Sister Joan Marie Ryan, MM

Born: September 12, 1913
Entered: December 7, 1933
Died: March 8, 2001

In this Lenten Season, as we relive the Paschal Mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus, we gather to celebrate the life of our Sister Joan Marie Ryan. The familiar words of this morning’s First Reading from Paul’s letter to Timothy so aptly describe the life of our Sister Joan Marie:

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness which our God will give not only to me but also to all who have longed for Christ’s appearing.”

On Thursday evening, March 8, 2001, Sister died peacefully, at the age of 87, at Phelps Memorial Hospital, Sleepy Hollow, New York.

Mary Katherine Ryan was born September 12, 1913 in New York City, the first-born of five children, to Albert and Catharine Roneghan Ryan. She grew up in a loving and close-knit family with her one sister and three brothers. Mary Katherine received her early education at Resurrection Grammar School and after graduating from Theodore Roosevelt High School, worked for two years as an office clerk in New York City.

Mary Katherine’s interest in religious life and the foreign missions was awakened as she read stories written by missioners about their experiences living and working among peoples of different cultures. She envisioned herself living the life of a missionary and applied for admission into Maryknoll. She began her 67 years as a Maryknoll Sister on December 7, 1933. At Reception, Mary Katherine received the religious name of Sister Joan Marie. She made her First Profession June 30, 1936 and her Final Profession three years later, both at Maryknoll, New York.

In 1939, Sister Joan Marie was assigned to Kaying, South China. Here, she worked closely with Maryknoll Bishop Francis Xavier Ford, doing direct evangelization. As World War II caused untold hardship and displacement, Sister used her considerable organizing skills as Coordinator for the Kaying Branch of the United Nations Kwangtung International Relief Committee. As Coordinator for relief work in the provinces of Kwangtung, Kiangsi and Fukien, Sister was responsible for the logistics of relief shipments including the distribution of food. She supervised the establishment and maintenance of relief kitchens and hostels along refugee routes as well as the resettlement of refugees in Kiangsi. She also planned self-help projects to raise funds and employ refugees.

Sister Joan Marie was an extremely intelligent woman who spoke three Chinese dialects. She was described by one of her Chinese colleagues as “a woman with seven intelligences”. While in China, she took several courses that would help her with her work, including Basics of Building Construction and Chinese Architecture at Ling Nam University Extension at Meihsien. Sister then supervised the building of a Cathedral in South China which included securing supplies to the isolated area and managing workers according to local customs. She also took a course in Aspects of Chinese Law at Kwangtung Provincial College in Canton because it was needed in connection with Diocesan deeds for Church property. In addition, she took courses on Cooperatives as well as Chinese Accounting Systems, Chinese Classical Literature and Chinese Religious Thought.

After eleven years in China, Sister’s years of direct ministry to the people in Kaying came to an abrupt halt on December 23, 1950 when she was placed under house arrest and then imprisoned in Canton. Throughout her two years in prison during which she endured and witnessed incredible suffering, her love of Christ and the Chinese people remained strong and firm as she lived the words of St. Paul: “Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Neither trial, nor distress, nor persecution.”  Sister Joan Marie was released from prison on September 2, 1952 and arrived in Hong Kong on the same day. In a letter to Mother Mary Columba written one week after her release, Sister wrote:

“Your welcome cable, Mother, was the first message I received… Sister Rosalia has been God-sent help… It is wonderful to be with our Sisters again; their exquisite charity is overwhelming. They can’t do enough to help me. I am so grateful for all the prayers for they truly helped. How difficult it was to cross that border and leave behind our people and children. I kept looking back until the Hong Kong police officer finally asked me if I had some friends coming over! I cannot tell you, Mother, how grateful I am to God for my Maryknoll vocation and all that it has brought me.”

Shortly after her release, Sister Joan Marie’s sister, Margaret, who was a Navy nurse stationed in Japan at that time traveled to Hong Kong and accompanied Sister as she returned to the Center. For the next seven years, Sister Joan Marie served the Congregation as Procurator.

Sister requested to return to the South China Region and, in 1959, was assigned to Miaoli, Taiwan. She was in mission for six years in Taiwan where she did pastoral work in St. Ann’s Parish while living at Rosary Convent. Later, Sister took over the running of a hostel for girls who came from mountain villages into the city of Miaoli for school and who needed a place to live. She took care of their needs and helped them with their studies. Sister Eileen Franz who lived in Rosary Convent at that time recalled that Sister Joan Marie was always there for the girls and their love for her was obvious. Sister had a special gift of empathy, and people who were troubled or burdened by suffering were drawn to her and she was able to help and console them. Another of our Sisters who knew Sister Joan Marie wrote to Mother Mary Coleman saying:

“I have known Sister Joan Marie since my assignment to Kaying in 1946 and in Taiwan where we met often at the Center House in Miaoli. I know Sister to be a person of great depth of character, of superior intelligence, quick wit, a discerning person with a compassionate unselfish interest in people, but quiet and reserved in her manner and in her approach to others. She was always generous in helping us out with bookkeeping or shopping or other needs even when her own work was very demanding of her time and energy. She had a delightful sense of humor and can be lots of fun with persons with whom she feels at ease.” In 1965 failing health necessitated Sister Joan Marie’s return to Maryknoll.

Here at the Center, Sister contributed her gifts and talents in planning and programming as her health permitted. Ever keen to continue learning, she enrolled in a Liberal Arts program and earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree (Summa Cum Laude) from Fordham University, New York City in 1977. Sister was also involved in projects that promoted mission and there is a lovely photograph of Sister Joan Marie and Sister Leona Michiels in the May 1991 issue of Maryknoll Magazine. Both Sisters had read over two thousand submissions for the Student Essay contest on Christian Solutions to Contemporary Problems and helped to select the best essays.

We wish to acknowledge the kindness of the Kaying Catholic Community who lovingly expressed their sympathy to all of us, and sent flowers to show their esteem and remembrance of Sister. We thank you for the love and care you have given Sister over the years.

We are pleased to welcome Maryknoll Father John O’Brien, who will preside at this Liturgy of Christian Burial as we thank God for the life of Sister Joan Marie, a woman of faith committed to the Mission of Jesus.