Remembrance of the Life of Sister Jean (formerly Sister M. Francis Ann) Kelley SL
Jean would often say to me, Mary Margaret, people don’t really know me. I said I will tell them. So let me begin.
Dr. Kurstin arrived in the nick of time to assist Frances Ann Flaugherty Kelley to deliver her first daughter, Jean Ann Kelley, Jan. 21,1922, on a snowy day, in Fort Dodge, Iowa. Anxious to welcome her into their lives were her father William Thomas Kelley and her big brother Bob. A couple of years later, Tom joined the family. Shortly before her fifth birthday, Jean’s mother died suddenly of an aneurism. Her Grandmother Flaugherty and an aunt moved in to help Tom care for his young family. Jean developed a deep love for her grandmother and she and her father became very close. She fondly recalled how her father read and re-read “Winnie the Pooh” to her. Although she traveled lightly, her two “Winnie the Pooh” books remained with her throughout her life.
Tom married Jean’s godmother and her mother’s best friend, Mary Brady . Her sister Loy and third brother Jimmy were born and welcomed into the new and expanded Kelley family.
Perhaps some of you experienced Jean’s love for the etymology of words, and perhaps others wondered about the origin of her keen sense of humor. Jean and her two brothers knew their father would never tolerate any criticism of their stepmother, but humor was always welcome. Her step-mother would never say a simple word if a longer word could be used. Jean and her two brothers brought three dictionaries to the dinner table. When their stepmother used such a word they asked her to wait a minute while they paged through their dictionaries to find it. This became a relished family store.
Jean’s love of music was rooted in piano lessons, which began at an early age and continued through her college years. To quote her “I became one with music.”
In 1939 she graduated from Corpus Christi in Fort Dodge. She began her college studies at Loretto Heights College. Loretto Anne and Karen Madden were her classmates, and this was the beginning of their lifelong friendship. The Madden family lived in Denver and became Jean’s family away from home.
She described Sister Felicia as an amazing sociology professor who impacted her values and subsequent actions. She learned about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement; injustice and awareness of the poor were all sprinkled into her classes with Sister Felicia and then later ignited by Jean’s experiences and presence with people who were marginalized.
After graduating from Loretto Heights in 1943, with a major in sociology and minors in education and Latin, she taught for one year in Geno, Colo. Then Jean entered the novitiate. April 25, 2021, marked Jean’s 76 years as a Sister of Loretto.
Her first mission, in 1947, was Loretto Academy, in Kansas City, Mo. Can you imagine being a young teacher and your sister was one of your students? Her sister Loy enrolled in Loretto as a junior, Jean’s first year there. Her other illustrious students were Johanna Brian, Mary Ann Cunningham, Kristin McNamee, Therese Stawowy and Anthony Mary Sartorius.
Jean recalled, during her time in Kansas City, many parents withdrew their children because the school was integrated. Perhaps this is reason why for her master’s degree thesis she designed a comprehensive study to compare interracial attitudes pre-World War I and post-World War II. But Bishop Toolen in Mobile, Ala., where Jean was teaching, forbade her from proceeding with this study.
In 1956, Jean received her master’s in sociology and education from St. Louis University. Jean was assigned to Loretto-staffed schools in Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri and New Mexico until 1963.
Sister Mary Luke told Jean she was sorry. She surely must have misplaced her letter with her request to go to South America. Jean told her she had not applied. She was over 30 years of age, the stated age limit to be considered.
In 1963 Jean traveled on a cargo ship with others to Santiago, Chile. It is significant to note our sisters sent to Chile were the first among us to receive the mission of adult education. There Jean was on the Gran Mission team of sisters and priests. She was so happy because of the two messages the mission imparted to the peasants who lived in rural Santiago at this Vatican II time:
“God loves you.” “And, we, the People of God, are the Church.” These messages were so deeply embedded in Jean, that later, when the actions of Church officials were contrary to these messages, her eyes would fill with tears, as she talked with passion about what the team imparted to the people who were among the poorest of the poor in rural Santiago. She added “They believed us.”
In 1969 she knew it was time for her to move to Bolivia, when the leader of their team was replaced by someone more conservative. She joined a School Sister of Notre Dame, Marg Giblin, and they explored living among the Aymara-speaking people in the village of Colquencha, in the Altiplano of Bolivia. True to what Jean, Kristin and Maria learned from Paulo Freire while in Chile, she and Marg did not want to impose their presence or their ideas of service on the people. They wanted to live among the people, listen to them, learn from them and respond to the needs as the people identified them. With these clear goals, they met with the people at their weekly meeting in the park in the plaza of Colquencha. The people welcome them, offered them temporary living space and promised to build them a small house.
Shortly after arriving, a couple asked them to accompany them to bury their young child who had died of diarrhea. Jean and Marg were deeply saddened. They knew over-the-counter medicine could have prevented this child’s death and would have spared this couple from such grief. They went to a pharmacy in La Paz, initially purchased and continued to keep a variety of over-the-counter medicines. Word spread quickly about the availability of this medicine. A man came to see if they could even pull his teeth.
As promised, the people joined together to built them a small house with a large room. This became a library, a dispensary, a learning center, a gathering space and once a month a women’s health clinic.
Jean learned to play the guitar because the boys asked for guitar lessons. They secured sewing machines as requested by some of the girls. The women wanted to participate in the Caritas food distribution program. Aymara was only an oral language so Jean and Marg helped the women complete the forms in Spanish and also taught them to do the written applications.
Among many other things, Jean learned: 6-year-old boys can herd sheep; before breaking into the ground to plant always pray to Pacha Mama; never say “so and so died,” but rather “I heard that so and so died,” or you might be blamed for the death.
In 1977, Jean she knew it was time for her to leave Bolivia and return to her Loretto Community in the United States. Marian McAvoy encouraged her to join Eva Marie Salas, Elizabeth McMullen and me in our newly established Loretto Community in La Jara, Colo. And later Rene Weeks, Dominican of Peace, joined us. Here in the culturally rich and economically deprived San Luis Valley, her presence was keenly felt as she taught adults to read and write. Later she directed the North Conejos County Second Chance program for high school students and adults who struggled with formal classrooms learning but flourished in a program that provided an individualized learning environment. She also assisted many of the people who were undocumented with the tedious amnesty process to achieve their legal status in the United States. It was during this time that she wrote many of her poems, initiated a writing club and started playing her piano daily, a gift from her family.
In January of 2004 Jean and I joined Eva Marie Salas and Liz Deines in Sunland Park, N.M. Jean taught English as a Second Language to many of our first-generation neighbors from Mexico who lived at Tierra Madre, in a straw-bale Habitat for Humanity type of housing project.
In 2010, Eva moved to the Motherhouse. Jean, Liz and I moved into the Trowbridge house, in El Paso with Irma Avila. The El Paso Loretto Community enjoyed Jean’s homemade bread, piano playing, sense of humor and support of our activities and involvements.
Once again, Jean knew it was time. It was 2012. It was time for her to move to the Motherhouse. Many of you know the rest of the story. And are now invited to share it.