Sister Joanne, baptized Helen Susan O’Connor, was born on April 5, 1920, in Chicago. She was the sixth child born to the Irish Catholic family of Daniel and Corinne (Barry) O’Connor. Her father was a graduate of the University of Notre Dame who, after serving in the army during World War I, became a real estate agent and efficiency expert. Her mother was a California native who had studied at the University of California in Berkeley and, according to Joanne, was a gifted artist and poet.
In 1922 everything changed for this young idyllic family when their mother died of pneumonia. In her autobiography, Sister Joanne described how she, her siblings and her father coped with the impact of their mother’s death.
My father’s courage in coping with the dilemma of six youngsters, for whom he had to be both parents, has always filled me with awe and respect. He attempted at first to keep us together by hiring housekeepers. However, none of these satisfied his criteria of child guardians so he decided to place us in Catholic boarding schools. When I was three, my sisters and I began this phase of our lives with [two years at St Angela Academy] in Morris, Illinois; [two years at Immaculate Conception] in Davenport, Iowa; and [two years at St. Mary Academy] in Notre Dame, Indiana. My two brothers were placed in boarding schools as close to us as possible so that my father’s visits could include all six of us. For Christmas and summer vacations, we gathered in a rented house or apartment with a housekeeper to care for us. These times together were precious hours when we learned to know each other and our father in a more normal home environment. Perhaps his dual responsibility caused my father to become quite strict and exacting in his treatment of us, so I learned early that manifestations of love and affection would be found in my siblings rather than in my father. I am certain that this has greatly influenced my life.
Read more about Sister Joanne (pdf)
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