In Penny McMullen’s personnel records is a small announcement card: “Presenting the real life drama A BUNDLE FROM HEAVEN, featuring the new baby star, Sylvia Penelope … a twentieth century production sponsored by Mr. and Mrs. B.V. McMullen.” Born in Minneapolis and called Penny, she was the first of the five children of Beirne Vincent McMullen of Spokane, Wash., and Sylvia Pauline Brisbin of Chaska, Minn. Constant change was a hallmark of little Penny’s life. Her father’s work took him to Iowa and Illinois as well as Minnesota, so the McMullens moved several times as the family expanded to include Terry, Kathleen, Tim and Ginny. Penny attended a half-dozen different grade schools, once three in one year. By the time Penny completed eighth grade, the family was settled in Rock Falls, Ill. Penny enrolled in Newman High School with the Sisters of Loretto.
Penny was an active and accomplished student, described by her principal, Sister Francis Therese, as “An ‘all round’ student, with artistic ability and a good organizer … She handles situations very intelligently.” Penny was editor of the school newspaper, a sodality member and class officer; she ranked first in a class of 76 when she graduated June 1, 1960. She had already asked Mother Mary Luke Tobin if she could join the Sisters of Loretto in the fall. On her application, Penny wrote that she had thought about becoming a Sister “for as long as I can remember. … I feel it is the best way for me to reach heaven and to help others to do so. …I have often discussed my intentions with [my teacher], Sister Patricia Jean Manion.”
September of 1960 found Penny at Loretto Motherhouse, joining one of the largest novitiate classes ever. On May 31, 1961, she received the habit of the Sisters of Loretto, taking the name Sister John Elizabeth. Two years later she made her first vows, then traveled with her classmates to the House of Studies in St. Louis. She graduated from Webster College in Webster Groves, Mo., in 1965 with a major in mathematics, having studied with the originators of the Madison Project, a “new math” curriculum program. Penny’s work life always included mathematics instruction from 1965, when she went to Nerinx Hall in St. Louis, to 2012, when a stroke forced her retirement. Among other Loretto schools, Penny taught for a year at Colegio Loreto in La Paz, Bolivia, where she also coached teachers from Loreto and other schools in the techniques of the new math. By the mid-1970s she was engaged primarily in tutoring individuals in math wherever she lived and, later she focused on organizing tutoring services in Santa Fe, N.M.
In St. Louis in 1974, using her Spanish language and organizing skills, Penny joined the National Farm Worker Ministry; soon she also was working with Chilean refugees. She moved to La Jara, Colo., teaching in a community college adult education program. She acquired paralegal training about 1980 and went to work for the Pueblo County Legal Services in Colorado. At the time of her silver jubilee, Penny took a year’s sabbatical in a remote area of the mountains to “step out of busy-ness for a time, take lots of time for prayer, … and solitude; …become immersed in the present and be present to whatever is around me.” From then on, Penny lived and worked in and around Santa Fe. As she said at the time of her golden jubilee, “My working career has been in Santa Fe, as a teacher, social-justice advocate and paralegal. I have been active in civil rights, justice for farm workers, peace movements, … Today I am working for a nuclear-free world; continuing with a weekly centering prayer group which I started in my neighborhood; lobbying for nuclear weapons disarmament and renewable energy; advising my family who have medical issues … The Loretto Tutor Team, which I founded in Santa Fe, won an award. By the time I resigned after 14 years, we were 20 tutors serving 200 students annually.”
At about age 50, Penny’s lifelong uneasiness in her own skin and her frustration in social interactions led her to explore whether her difficulties might be symptomatic of autism. She said in an Interchange article in 1998 “I experience not only many ‘problems’ functioning on a daily basis, but also people’s ignorant judgments.” She set about a careful study of adulthood autism through a master’s degree program at Skidmore College and insisted on receiving thorough diagnostic services for herself in Santa Fe. Penny’s master’s thesis combines her studies and her personal experience. In it, she writes poignantly and clearly about her lifelong discomfort in her own skin and about the accommodations she learned to make. Her thesis has been published online by Skidmore College with Penny’s enthusiastic approval. Penny incorporated her personal experience into her passionate work for justice, lobbying in New Mexico for legislation to support awareness of and services for people with autism and herself reaching out to assist many families dealing with autism-related issues.
Not only was Penny’s autism a focus of her activism, it was also a wellspring from which she developed spiritually. In the conclusion of her thesis, Penny wrote, “Learning how autism has affected my life, and subsequently writing this paper on high-functioning autism, has helped me to put my experiences in perspective. I am more understanding of both myself and others, and I have begun to compensate for some of the sensory, communication and social difficulties that accompany autism. I also have learned to find the diamonds among the coals.
“I believe that my experience of autism has deepened my spirituality and has made me more aware of God’s loving guidance. It has been when I have felt most abandoned by people or frustrated with myself that I have also felt most supported by God because something seemingly magical always happens to help me through any crisis. I understand the Scripture saying, “It is when I am weak that I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:10), because it is in my weakness that God takes over. Who would ever have thought, for instance, that an autistic person could raise funds to tutor 300 low-income students annually? I do not believe I could have done this without supernatural help.
“After many years of confusion and frustration, I have changed from being ashamed of my autistic struggles to being proud of what God has done in me. I now live my life with a quiet joy, knowing that I am profoundly loved by the greatest Lover of all, and all I have to do is accept that Love.”