Sister Joan Muriel Higgins, MM

Born: October 27, 1921
Entered: December 7, 1939
Died: September 7, 1999

Sister Joan Muriel Higgins died peacefully on Tuesday, September 7, 1999 in the Residential Care Unit at Maryknoll, New York. She was 77 years of age and had been a Maryknoll Sister for nearly 60 years.

Doris Helen Higgins was born October 27, 1921 in Yonkers, New York, the daughter of Edward Higgins and Catherine Sullivan Higgins. She was one of four children. She attended Sacred Heart Elementary School in Yonkers and graduated from Sacred Heart High School in 1939. An accomplished musician, she studied piano during both elementary and high school. Doris became interested in mission through hearing about the work of her cousin who worked as a missionary in China for five years. As she read The Field Afar, her dream of becoming a missioner continued to develop. She sought guidance from her high school principal who wrote to Mother Mary Joseph on her behalf.

Doris entered Maryknoll on December 8,1939 at Maryknoll. At Reception she received the religious name of Sister Joan Muriel, the name she would retain for the rest of her life. She made her First Profession of Vows on June 30, 1942 and her Final Profession of Vows on the same date in 1945 at Maryknoll. Sr. Joan Muriel attended Maryknoll Teachers College from which she graduated in 1945 with a Bachelor of Education degree. She was assigned to St. Louis where she taught elementary school for one year. Sr. Joan Muriel was assigned to Panama in 1946. In Panama she taught kindergarten in Ancon from 1946 – 1955. She was also a regular visitor of the patients at the Palo Seco Leprosarium during this time.

While she was still in St. Louis, Sr. Joan Muriel first expressed her desire to Mother Mary Joseph to become part of the Maryknoll Cloister. During the next nine years it was a recurring theme in her correspondence with Mother Mary Columba. Though she was not given any encouragement to pursue assignment to the Cloister, she continued to express what she describes as “…a great longing for a life of more intense prayer and sacrifice… This desire is still strong in my heart and will grow stronger the longer I stay in Panama.” In 1955, her application was approved and she left Panama to enter the Cloister in September, 1955. After two years in the Cloister, Sr. Joan Muriel requested assignment to active ministry once again. She was assigned to Los Angeles where she taught kindergarten from 1957 – 1959.

In 1959, Sr. Joan Muriel was assigned to Chile where she would spend most of the next 21 years. While in Talca, Chile, she became interested in pastoral work. This was a new experience for Sr. Joan Muriel as she had previously been involved in primary school education at the kindergarten level. She participated in an innovative pastoral program which brought young women from the surrounding rural communities to a central location for two week long courses in catechetical formation. The courses included both theory and practice teaching as well as the opportunity to develop simple teaching materials that the young women could make themselves. Sr. Joan Muriel wrote “… each time a group of young women return to their homes after completing a course, my hope for the Church in Chile increased. The girls have been changed and inspired by what they learned and they leave the courses with new zeal to bring the ‘good news’ heard at the course up and down the length of Chile.”

In 1967, Sr. Joan Muriel returned to the Center where she served as Group Leader in the local governance structure until 1969 when she returned to Chile. She worked as part of a pastoral team in the parish of Galvarino. Sr. Joan Muriel participated in an experimental pastoral program where a priest came to the parish once a month for Mass and Baptisms. The Sisters along with a group of lay leaders administered the parish. On Saturday evening and Sunday morning, the team led the community in a Celebration of the Word. Sr. Joan Muriel wrote: “On Friday evenings we meet with a group of about 10 leaders who help to prepare their parts for the Saturday evening and Sunday morning celebrations… We here in Galvarino are attempting to form small Christian Communities in which all of those who belong show love and concern for every other member. We have been preaching but one commandment and that is love of God and neighbor… And what do I think of all this? I think it’s marvelous… I feel that it is a real privilege to be here with these people.”

In 1973, Sr. Joan Muriel spent some months of her Renewal time in the Maryknoll Cloister reflecting on her own call to a deeper life of prayer. She returned to Chile after Renewal and began what was described as a contemplative-pastoral ministry in El Quisco, Chile. Sr. Joan Muriel shared her vision of this new ministry: “We would make the burden of our prayer the very substance of the struggle of the Chilean Church to actively promote justice and peace… we would open our hearts and our home, our prayer and our purpose to the people among whom we would pitch our tent.”

Sr. Joan Muriel made the decision to return to pastoral ministry in 1980 and went to Peru. She joined Sr. George Anthony Kayser in the rural area of El Chivay. The Sisters lived in the parish of Yanque where they did pastoral work.

In 1984 Sr. Joan Muriel returned to the Center for Renewal. She was happy to be present at her nephew’s wedding in August, 1984. After returning to the Center that evening, she was gravely ill. From this illness she was unable to speak and with paralysis of her right arm and leg. After discharge from the hospital, Sr. Joan Muriel was determined to become as independent as possible and she worked at the difficult task of rehabilitation with great enthusiasm. After months of rehabilitation, she was able to walk again although spoken communication remained difficult for her. During her many years in mission, Sr. Joan Muriel communicated regularly with her many friends and family. Despite her difficulties in speaking, she continued to struggle to communicate with her friends and received many visitors even though communication was a difficult and sometimes frustrating experience for her. It was with music that Sr. Joan Muriel was able to communicate freely as she adapted piano music so that she could play it with her left hand. Many of us were inspired by Sr. Joan Muriel’s piano concerts and several nursing homes in this area were fortunate to have her visit and play piano music for the residents.

We offer our deepest sympathy to Sr. Joan Muriel’s family and many friends. We welcome our Maryknoll brother, Fr. Stephen Wood, who will preside at this Eucharistic Liturgy of Christian Burial as we lovingly remember and give thanks for the life of our Sr. Joan Muriel.