Sister Joanne Connell, MM

Born: July 23, 1920
Entered: December 28, 1940
Died: February 17, 2006

Ten years ago St. Cecilia’s Parish in New York City presented Joanne Connell with a Certificate of Appreciation “for her courage and example in helping the community of East Harlem stand up for its dignity and rights.” Joanne had joined parishioners to protest the attempt by the City’s Housing Authority to place a garbage compactor in the lot next to the parish center and rectory. She was arrested twice for this action, at the ripe, young age of 75. Today’s first reading is from the prophet Isaiah. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation…“ (Is 52:7) We gather this morning to celebrate the life of our Sister Joanne Patricia Connell, a woman who did just that, who announced peace, and salvation and who brought good news to the streets of East Harlem, the classrooms of Bolivia and the airwaves of the altiplano of Bolivia and Peru.

Joanne was admitted to hospice a month ago, on January 16, 2006. Those who kept vigil with her, among them her faithful sister, Sister Sylvia, were aware of how precarious was the thread that held Joanne among us, until on February 17 around 2:00 p.m., in Maryknoll Residential Care IV, Joanne gave up one final breath into new life. She was 85 years of age and had been a Maryknoll Sister for 65 years.

Joanne Patricia Connell was born in Wilmington, Delaware on July 23, 1920 to James and Elizabeth Cokeley Connell. They had four daughters and two sons. Joanne graduated from Ursuline Academy in Wilmington, Delaware in 1938 and studied for two years at Women’s College at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware, before entering Maryknoll on December 8, 1940. At reception she received the name Sister James Elise. She made her First Profession of Vows on June 30, 1943 at Maryknoll and her Final Vows three years later in Bolivia. She earned a BA degree in Education from Maryknoll Teachers College in 1944.

Joanne’s life in mission can be divided into three landscapes: the jungle, the altiplano and Manhattan. She lived in Bolivia for 28 years, in Peru for 15, and was a member of Eastern US Region for 13 years.  Assigned to Bolivia in 1944 Joanne was one of the “pioneer” Maryknoll Sisters in Latin America. She was principal and taught at schools in Riberalta and Guayaramerin and was the foundress of Our Lady of Carmel Parish School in Riberalta. She also served for six years as principal and teacher at Santa Ana Parish School in Cochabamba.

Joanne moved from Bolivia’s jungles to its altiplano in 1970 to become director of Radio Schools for Radio San Gabriel in La Paz. Basic adult education in the Aymara language was offered to hundreds of people via the radio. Joanne announced salvation. “I try to get ideas such  as justice, liberation and so forth into our programs. I love work on the formation of the teachers preparing them to do the actual job on the air, while I stay mostly in the background.”

Two years later Joanne took up a new assignment, this time in the altiplano of Peru. She helped to set up the Social Communications Center for the Prelature of Juli. As coordinator of the Center she, with team members, developed radio programs, prepared audio-visual presentations for evangelization, and designed educational pamphlets and bulletins. Joanne brought good news. “I became very conscious of entering into a relationship with people of a very ancient and rich culture… the Aymara people taught me much about the value of life and the great inequalities that exist.” Taking a year off for study in England, Joanne earned a diploma in Christian Communications in 1985 from Trinity and All Saints’ College in Leeds.

Desiring to support her sister Mary, who was in poor health, and convinced there were pastoral needs in New York City to which she could respond, Joanne completed her work at the Social Communications Center, returned to the US, and in 1988 was assigned to the Eastern US Region. She served as Religious Education Coordinator first at Good Shepherd Parish in Manhattan and then from l992 at St. Cecilia’s Parish on 105 Street, East Harlem.

In an environment of drug-dealing, violent crime, poverty and cases of child abuse in East Harlem, Joanne wondered how it could be possible to help the children in the religious education program, to learn about and to live the Gospel of peace and love. The result of these concerns, and a dream come true for Joanne, was the creation of a Peace Pageant, which involved not only the children but also their parents and the catechists. This community-building event helped the children develop the attitudes and skills needed to become peacemakers. Joanne announced peace.

Joanne returned to Maryknoll and became a member of the Rogers Community in 2001. This past December she joined the Eden Community. Pax Christi, Sojourners, Network and similar groups helped Joanne keep focused on social issues. Whatever she did she did well. Joanne said she liked to be a hostess and see people enjoy themselves. She spoke beautiful Spanish. She had a capacity to call forth the gifts and leadership of the laity. She was a gifted writer who left behind touching reflections about the customs and rituals of the Aymara peoples, about life on “our wind-swept plateau by the blue waters of Lake Titicaca”.

Dear Joanne, we present you with our certificate of appreciation. Your feet were beautiful upon the mountain, in the jungle and in the city. You were a messenger of peace and justice.

We welcome all of you and our Maryknoll Father Carroll Houle and Father Francis Lasrado, who studied in England with Joanne, who will concelebrate the Liturgy of Christian Burial.