Remembrance of the Life of Sister Jean (formerly Sister Regina Rose Burke) Johnson SL
(Editor’s Note: The first portion of this remembrance is Sister Jean Johnson’s autobiography. The latter portion was written by Eleanor Craig SL.)
“On May 12, 1927, I arrived, the fifth child of my parents, Daniel and Elizabeth Burke. The fourth infant, a brother, had died shortly after his birth and my sister older than I was already almost 8 years old. I am sure my parents were joyful that I had arrived safely, but no doubt apprehensive about how I would thrive. But thrive I did with two older sisters and a brother as coaches. Just before my second birthday I became big sister to a baby brother, [and within five years, three more had arrived.]. Fortunately for us, Dad was a farmer, and we always had food to eat [even] during the depression days.
“Our elementary education was in a one-room school house about 3 miles away. Dad usually managed to give us a ride to school in the morning; we walked home when the weather was good. For the most part church and school were the extent of our socializing. It was not unusual during the summer months that we would not have contact with anyone outside the family from one Sunday to the next. During the school months we had catechism class once a week. Sometime during the summer we had two weeks of catechism classes. Our faith formation depended greatly upon our parents.
The high school was in a town 12 miles away. What a change from being the only eighth grader to come to a class of fifty freshmen. By the beginning of my senior year the thoughts about a religious vocation were very much on my mind. My only contact with Sisters had been the summer catechism classes. My pastor introduced me to the Sisters of Loretto. I made the decision to go to Kentucky to learn to be a Sister and teach. A close classmate, Geraldine Goy, was preparing to enter nursing school, but when she heard what I was doing she changed her plans and we both went to Loretto. To this day she says she would not have gone if I had not been going.
“The days at Loretto were filled with silence, prayer, study, work and recreation, along with the ever-erupting homesickness. Having completed two years of novitiate we made temporary vows. Two days later I was on my way to Louisville to be a substitute teacher for fifth graders [at Christ the King.] We all made it to the last day of school. My assignment for the next year was to teach third grade in the same school.
“My teaching career spanned second through seventh grade with third grade as my favorite. I had the opportunity to live and teach in Denver, St. Louis, Arlington, Va., as well as Louisville. It was my privilege to attend classes at St. Louis University, Loretto Heights College and Catholic University in Washington, D.C. The years I lived in Louisville I took classes at Nazareth College. After 10 or 11 years of taking classes part time I received a bachelor of science degree in education from Nazareth.
“While I was teaching in Virginia, one of the Sisters had major surgery followed by complications. The doctor told her she could recuperate at home if she had someone to change the dressing on the wound daily. I don’t recall whether I volunteered or was volunteered; either way I took care of the wound until it was healed. Word spread about the good job I had done and as a result I was to come to Loretto for the summer to work in the Infirmary caring for the sick and older Sisters. I did this for two summers. Before the end of the second summer, it was suggested that I not return to teaching but remain at Loretto and give myself time to discern whether I should pursue studies and become a Registered Nurse. In September 1963 I began the nursing course at Sts. Mary and Elizabeth School of Nursing in Louisville. What an experience! I lived in the dormitory with the students and had very little contact with Sisters of another order who lived there. One of my classmates was a girl I had taught in the third grade.
“Once a Registered Nurse, I returned to Loretto to work in the Infirmary, first as a staff nurse. Then, in the summer of 1969, I was appointed Administrator of the Infirmary. If I thought I had faced obstacles and challenges before in my life, they were mere molehills compared to the challenges I faced in this position. Change can be difficult, and there were changes that I believed needed to be made. With the support of my Superior and some of the Sisters, this mountain was climbed.
“I have no doubt in my mind that all of this was an influence in my decision to be dispensed from my vows and return to the lay state. In December 1969 I received my dispensation from Rome.
“Since I was licensed to nurse in Kentucky and I was familiar with Louisville, I decided to seek employment at Jewish Hospital. I soon realized that a bachelor of science in Nursing was important, and the fall of 1970 found me back at Nazareth College, now called Spalding College, studying nursing. I was renting a small apartment and with work and study I was quite busy. I completed my studies for the nursing degree in May 1972. Now I realized that a master’s in nursing would be beneficial, and I began to plan.
“My relationship with the Sisters at Loretto had remained friendly, and I went to visit the Motherhouse frequently. I was invited to spend Derby Day 1973 with them. As usual there was a Derby party and a friend, Charlie was there. He asked, “Has Clarence Johnson called you?” Clarence’s wife had died in January 1972. Then and there, Charlie decided to go to New Haven and bring Clarence to Loretto to meet me. It was mutual love at first sight.
“September 1973 found me exchanging my plans for a master’s for a “Mister.” My goal was to be a wife to Clarence and help him make a home for his two teenaged children, making it clear that I was not attempting to replace their mother. It worked, with mutual love and respect.
“[Clarence’s health was challenged at first, but] improved and we were able to travel and enjoy life [for about 10 years] while I continued nursing full time at Jewish Hospital. In 1988 Clarence’s health began to decline again. We knew that surgery was a great risk, but he made the gamble, stating, “I don’t want to go home and be an invalid. I’m going for surgery.” He went to surgery on April 6, 1988, and did not regain consciousness. Clarence was a very loving, kind and considerate person. A man of quiet faith who lived what he believed. He showed his concern often for the person “down on his/her luck.”
“I was single again and living alone. All Clarence’s nine living children had married and had homes of their own. I immersed myself in work.
“When Jewish Hospital offered early retirement in [at the end of that year], I accepted it. I took employment at a nursing home closer to New Haven and found it most rewarding for five years. When I reached 65 years of age and took Social Security and Medicare, I began working “as needed” at Flaget Hospital and at Jewish. I fully retired from nursing when I reached my 70th birthday (1997).
“To back track in time just a bit. I had not given up the idea to return to school, but by [the early 1990s] I decided I would pursue studies other than nursing. In 1995 I found information on ministry courses at Spalding University and enrolled in a weekend class on “Ministry and the Human Person.” It was the best of any classes I had taken. I learned more about myself and how I and others function than in any other class I had taken. Also, it was through a “chance” meeting with a member of the class that I learned about Centering Prayer and [the organization called] Contemplative Outreach. I felt that I had found the spiritual path that I had been searching for all of my life.
“I began a daily practice of Centering Prayer, attended the weekly prayer group in Louisville and studied the teaching of Father Thomas Keating on the Spiritual Journey. In 1998 I became co-coordinator of Contemplative Outreach of Kentucky. It became my retirement ministry [to teach the introductory workshop and organize retreats throughout the Midwest.]
“As I practiced Centering Prayer and my relationship with God deepened, I began having a deepening desire to return to the vowed state of life as a Sister of Loretto. I hesitated for some time; I felt my age was against me and did not want to be rejected. The promptings of the Spirit became stronger, and my courage — or humility — increased, and I approached the President, Sister Mary Catherine, in April 2005. Her personal response was enthusiastic. I received approval of the whole Executive Committee the last week of May.”
Jean’s autobiography ends here, but what she titled “My life in the hand of God” continued. She sold her home in New Haven and moved to Louisville. In July 2005, the Community at Loretto blessed Jean’s time of preparation for vows: “We promise to you today our friendship, our prayers and our support as your life’s journey brings you back to the life of vowed membership.” That December, having prepared herself and received enthusiastic affirmation from many Sisters, Jean pronounced her vows again as a Sister of Loretto.
At first Jean lived in Louisville, continuing her ministry with Contemplative Outreach. [She was at Loretto often], serving on the Pastoral-Community Care Team and filling in as a Registered Nurse in the Infirmary. She was also on call for an elderly couple in Louisville, tending to their daily living situation as their only support person for three years. In August 2008, having arranged for her elderly friends, Jean moved to Loretto Motherhouse and immersed herself in the daily life of the Community. She wrote to the Executive Committee, “I feel very happy and at home. I look forward to my final profession as a Sister of Loretto.”
A novitiate friend, Sister Ann Francis Gleason, summed up Jean’s life and loving contribution in her affirmation of Jean final vows. It applies all the more to the final decades of her life: “Jean has been a delightful presence. …It is pleasant and consoling to be a part of the work she does. … She seems to feel great joy in living with and doing for others. No doubt her nurse’s training contributes to this, just as I am sure being a wife and mother makes its contribution, too. All of these past experiences have helped to make Jean the beautiful person she is.”