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A life in snapshots

By Sister Joan Schaefer
Current image of Sister Joan Schaefer at the retirment community at St. Anthony's Gardens in Covington, Louisiana.

Some sisters often have many different ministries throughout their life. In the case of Sister Joan Schaefer, her ministry life has taken her from St. Louis to Ghana, Rome, Dallas and Chatawa, Mississippi. Each location has impacted her in a variety of ways. She reflected, “Wherever I am, I will continue to live gratefully to God and all the wonderful people who appeared in the varied snapshots of my long life.” Enjoy her full reflection.


Looking back on my life, I see it as a collection of snapshots sorted in a good number of albums. The first album, of course, is life as the youngest member of our large family, five boys and six girls. As I was growing up, they all tried hard to make me grow up, too. However, I did that better after I joined the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) Aspiranture at Sancta Maria in Ripa in St. Louis. I chose to go there for high school due to my desire to be just like my seventh-grade teacher, Sister Rosetta, who was a SSND. Becoming 'just like' never happened, but I did make it through more years of learning and became a teacher.

The next album covers the 23 years I taught in schools in the three Texas cities of Longview, Corpus Christi and Dallas. I also taught in Metairie and Baton Rouge, which are both in Louisiana.

Sister Joan Shaefer has been to many areas of the world in her ministry work. This image is of her and another sister and some local workers cleaning the front steps in Ghana, Africa.

Another album was started when I felt called to become a missionary, and in 1977, made my way to Ghana, West Africa. My first ministry in Ghana was in a co-ed secondary school, and the next was as a co-director of the Catholic Conference Center with Brother Peter van Uffelen from the Society of the Divine Word. In 1985, Brother Peter agreed that we could host our SSND Extended General Chapter. The 45 sisters from different provinces around the world who were attending, were offered opportunities to see for themselves our SSND African ministries. I was very happy to have them join me at the nearby women’s prison where I conducted weekly religious services and Bible study. All the sisters were deeply moved by the women prisoners who, in spite of their hardships, gave great praise to God with their singing and dancing.

After nine years in that area, I moved to Sunyani in the western part of Ghana. There I was a teacher in the boys’ seminary for two years. Bishop Owusu of Sunyani pleaded with the former Dallas provincial leader, Sister Dorez Mehrtens, to open a new high school for girls. Four of us answered the call, and in 1987, I joined Sisters Mary Busson, Dorothy Ann Balser and Marie Therese Nowakowski in welcoming our first class. That became a very challenging and rewarding venture for each of us. After five years, I had a sabbatical year, and then returned to Ghana for two more years where I ministered to children in the Orthopedic Training Center.

This image is from 2006 of Sister Joan Schaefer and the staff at St. Mary of the Pines Retreat Center in Chatawa, Mississippi.

Next comes a back-on-the-home-front album. I trusted that God would once again show me the path I was to take next. God did, and before too long I was asked to be the postulant director for the former Dallas Province. After those five years, I moved to Chatawa, Mississippi, where I was entrusted with the ministry of director of the former St. Mary of the Pines (SMP) Retreat Center.

Then came the final addition to the Africa albums. After my eight years at the SMP Retreat Center ended, Sister Mary Kerber asked me to consider returning to Ghana to help with secretarial work for a few years. Prayer and discernment led me to a happy 'yes,' and three blessed years, which included the special event of Africa becoming its own province in August 2011. At the end of 2012, I said my final goodbye to Africa and headed back home…for a while.

In 2013, a much smaller album was inserted into my life when I spent six months helping at our Generalate in Rome to assist with the archives. I came back to the United States to celebrate my 60th Jubilee, and then went to help out at the former provincial house in Dallas for four months. Back at Chatawa again, my community started asking when I was going to settle down once and for all. Well, I did just that, going back to the SMP Retreat Center where I could give a hand to the new director, Sister Sue Von Bank. She and I were there when the big decision was made to close the SMP Retreat Center, and all of us had to say goodbye to our beloved St. Mary of the Pines. That was a sad time for us, but we knew it had to be.

At the end of August 2019, the first group moved from Chatawa to St. Anthony’s Gardens in Covington, Louisiana. Several went to Trinity Trace for skilled care. Eventually, more than 30 of us were settled into our new home. We decided very early that we were in a comfortable, life-giving environment. Here at St. Anthony’s Gardens, we are enjoying the company of women and men, many of whom are Catholic, and we all appreciate the services of our two resident priests. Is this the final album? Only God knows, but wherever I am, I will continue to live gratefully to God and all the wonderful people who are featured in the varied snapshots of my long life.

Learn more about the Province of Africa.


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