Remembrance of the Life of Joan Blessum Mahan CoL
Author’s Note: The following is drawn in large measure from a remembrance by Margaret Blessum, the youngest of the Blessum family, in celebration of her older sister, Joan. It was delivered by Margaret at the service before Joan’s burial in Louisiana.
There were 10 children in the family of Ray Benjamin and Maynelle Stevenson Blessum. Their third was baptized Mary Joan Blessum, born April 29, 1933, in El Paso Texas. It was during the great Depression, but our father was an electrical engineer who worked for the telephone company, so we always had a house to live in and food on the table. We were very lucky. First came Joan’s oldest brother Norman, then her sister, Laurel, just two years older than Joan. They were lifelong friends, so close growing up and so close in their old age. John came next after Joan; all four were born in El Paso. But then the family moved to Albuquerque, N.M., which had been the family home for several generations.
In Albuquerque, Laurel and Joan were old enough to ride bikes all over the city. Such freedom and it was an adventure. As a child Joan was really adventuresome, and she caused a lot of trouble at the same time. She got into trouble so much that one day, when mother called her into the house, Joan immediately worried what did I do this time. But mother said to her, there’s only one piece of chocolate left here; would you like it. Joan remembered that all her life; it wasn’t just the chocolate but the fact that even troublesome girls were loved in our family.
Bill was born and then Paul, who died of pneumonia at 18 months. It wasn’t long after that when Mark was born. The older children went to Catholic school in Albuquerque to the Sisters of Loretto — so that was where Joan met Loretto. Our father moved on to a better job in Denver and Elizabeth was born there and again the children went to school to the Sisters of Loretto at St. Philomena’s and St. John’s. And then the family moved on to California and Cathy was born. When my father turned 40, he had his mid-life crisis, and he gave up his engineer job because he always wanted to be a farmer. There hadn’t been farmers in our family for several generations. He moved the family to a farm just outside of Albuquerque. It was an apple tree farm, but the farm never really did too much, and the family moved back to California where Margaret was born.
Joan was 15, had already attended four different grade schools and two high schools and really wanted to attend the boarding school at Loretto in Kansas City. Which she did, entering the school as an aspirant to the Sisters of Loretto. She came home for a visit and that fall, in 1949 Laurel joined the Carmelite Sisters and Joan, at just 16 years of age, entered the Sisters Loretto.
The pastor at Holy Family Church wrote a recommendation of Joan for the novitiate: “She is a child of a very large family. Her father is a convert to the faith and does not quite understand a young lady shutting herself away from the world at Joan’s age, although her older sister has left a few weeks ago for the ‘poor Clares.’ I think Joan received her father’s blessing after much explaining. He feels better about a teaching order.”
Loretto turned out to be a wonderful place for Joan to go. From the novitiate, as Sister Mary Josephine, Joan went to Denver, teaching for eight years in grade schools while she worked on her undergraduate degree from Loretto Heights. The Sisters of Loretto gave her a fine college education at the Heights; she graduated Magna Cum Laude with a major in history and a minor in education — so, of course, she became an English teacher, and she loved it. The years that followed were very fulfilling. She moved to teaching high school English — at Machebeuf in Denver, then at Newman in Sterling.
In 1962 a young pastor came to Denver to speak at a Baptist church. At that time Catholics were not supposed to enter Protestant churches, especially not nuns, but Joan got permission to attend that speech. Joan said Martin Luther King Jr. spoke so calmly, but with a fire inside. The Sisters of Loretto were very socially active. They were active in the civil rights movement. In 1968, Joan enrolled in a master’s program at Morgan State College, Baltimore, and while studying taught undergraduates; it was the beginning of the era when college campuses came alive with activism.
Growing up, Joan said she’d always had a younger sibling on one hip, and she’d had enough of children, although she loved them. But that changed when she was assigned to Santa Fe, N.M., to teach and chair the English Department at St. Michael’s High School where a Christian Brother was the principal, Ralph Mahan. Over the next two and a half years, the two talked and shared ideas. After a while their feelings became so strong for each other that Joan was shocked; she didn’t know what to do. Halfway into the third year she asked for a transfer back to Denver. But there the feelings didn’t change; if anything, they got stronger. So, she and Ralph each sought dispensations from their religious vows. They were married 1974 in Holy Family Church in South Pasadena, Calif., where many in the Blessum family were married and where Sisters of Loretto could be present as well.
They didn’t go back to Santa Fe; it was too small a town for an ex-brother and an ex-nun to find jobs. They went to New Orleans where Ralph’s family was, and Ralph took a job as principal of Chapelle, a large diocesan girls’ high school. They knew they wanted children, so Joan went back to school to get a master’s degree in library science so she could work as librarian at Chapelle and also have time to raise their child, Irma, who arrived two years later. Joan went into parenting like she went into everything else. But she was always a tease. She used to say to her daughter, “I carried you for nine months and you have the nerve to come out looking just like your father!” and they would both laugh. Joan and Ralph loved to entertain. They had parties for the faculty of Chapelle. They had out-of-town visitors. Irma said it was like having a procession. So many Sisters of Loretto were like adopted aunties to her. They came to visit and Joan took them around to see New Orleans.
At the time of their marriage, Ralph told Joan that he had two inherited diseases that would limit the time he could live. They had about 13 years together. When Irma was just 11, Ralph died, just before Mardi Gras — which seemed to have been Ralph’s plan, to share Mardi Gras with his family … always celebrating. Joan and Irma continued entertaining, taking in anyone who needed a holiday meal, and having many visitors. Joan did cultural tours of New Orleans and the plantations nearby for various museums and cultural centers.
When Joan retired from Chapelle, she moved to Albuquerque, where the cost of living would make her retirement income last longer. While Ralph’s home was in New Orleans, Joan’s family home was Albuquerque. So she moved and immersed herself into everything there; she gave tours, was involved in museums, even on TV talking about New Mexican history and culture. Many family and friends would visit her there. Always the family historian, she’d take visitors to all the houses where family members had lived. Even to Silver City where their great- great- grandparents had lived. The Sisters of Loretto continued to come and visit because Joan was a companion with the sisters all of her life.
When Joan turned 70 she had a crazy old ladies party and all the women of the family came, four generations came and wore purple clothes and red hats. Her brother, Mark, and his wife bought the house next to Joan and they had so much fun together, cooking and gathering all sorts of people at their table and talking long into the night. They were about as diametrically opposed as you can imagine in politics … but they always laughed about their arguments later.
Bill came some years later, and when Mark moved back to California, Bill continued to live next door to Joan, with his girlfriend Karen, who was trying to find her way as a new widow. Joan said to her, “I’m a widow; come over anytime and we’ll talk.”And later when Joan needed help Karen was the helper.
Finally, the family decided that Joan needed to be in assisted living, so they moved her back to New Orleans where Irma could watch over her in the assisted living place. Irma would take her out to all her favorite places to eat. And she’d buy her outrageous pajamas and they would laugh over that. The day Joan died, Oct. 6, she was wearing pjs with black cats and pumpkins. Irma was there, and they talked and laughed. But when Joan stood up to go to bed, she collapsed and died quickly, so quickly.
In her commitment statement for Loretto Co-membership, Joan wrote: “Loretto has in large part formed my understanding of the world and spirituality. Sister Pascalita once matter-of-factly put it, ‘Heck, Josie, we raised you!’ I am part of Loretto, and Loretto is part of me. I care about what happens to each of us and each one’s efforts to further Life.”