Speaking of divorce A 10-year lecture series offers help and healing

March 19, 1991|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Evening Sun Staff

IN TODAY'S COMMUNICATIONS lingo, Sister M. Joannes Clifford is a facilitator.She could also be called a catalyst, a middleman, a broker.

But there are many who say simply that she saw a need and met it -- and continues to meet it -- head-on.

Sister Joannes is the founder of The Joannes Series of lectures for people who are separated, divorced and widowed. Since a Sunday afternoon almost 10 years ago, she has been inviting relevant, interesting speakers to offer help and healing to people "going through some horrible moment in their lives."

That first lecture, in the fall of 1981, drew 36 people to the Mercy High School Library. Now, more than 200 men and women -- from several states and many religions -- usually attend the lectures, which long ago outgrew the library.

"She began to gather . . . at Mercy an informal support group for people who needed help to walk through their journey," says Tracey Manning, who was among the series' first speakers.

"She has just taken it from a modest beginning to more than 300" at a recent lecture, says Sister Kate Birch, who also works with "single-again" Catholics, as well as children from divorced families. "Probably many of them [those attending the lecture] were not in their churches that morning because they may feel embarrassed or out of touch," observes Sister Kate.

The need is obvious, she says, "but there aren't many people who do something about the need."

Although some speakers' messages are religious, many are not. "She has a strong ecumenical group of people who come to speak . . . to offer a bit of healing or inspiration," says Manning, a psychology professor at the College of Notre Dame. "The group is absolutely non-sectarian."

The Joannes Series offers eight lectures each year -- four in the fall and four in the spring. For them, Sister Joannes looks for speakers with suggestions for "personal growth and how to handle things a little better," she says. Among the lecture topics are stress management, healthy relationships, grief, depression and being alone without being lonely.

The topics have not changed dramatically over the decade. Whether a person is separated, widowed or divorced, he or she must "go through the same steps . . . of any grief process," Sister Joannes says. So, as people move in and out of the group, subjects bear repeating.

Although Sister Joannes, a member the Sisters of Mercy of the Baltimore Province, is responsible for scheduling speakers, producing brochures, keeping up with her 2,200-name mailing list, paying the bills and even setting up the cafeteria for the lectures, this is not her full-time job, she is quick to say.

She is alumnae director of Mercy, where she has been on staff and faculty since the school opened in 1960. The lecture series sprung from her work with graduates.

In the mid-1970s, Sister Joannes began getting notes from alumnae, saying "Drop my last name, I'm divorced" or "Remember me in your prayers; my husband left me with three children," she recalls. "I could get a feel for what was happening."

Soon thereafter, Sister Joannes took a sabbatical from her full-time teaching and alumnae jobs to study at the Washington (D.C.) Theological Union. Among the courses she took was one on helping separated and divorced persons. Among the people she met was the late Rev. James Young, who had carved out this ministry at a time when the Catholic Church was still looking askance at those with marital problems.

"He put his life on the line in the beginning to make these people feel welcome . . . to give them a secure and rightful place in the church," Sister Joannes says of her mentor. Because divorce was discouraged by the Catholic Church -- and divorced Catholics could not remarry as full members of the church -- there was little formal help for them before the 1970s.

Sister Joannes said she has had some Catholics tell her they feel twice divorced -- from their spouses and from their church.

Inspired by Father Young, "I wanted to come back and provide some service" to separated and divorced people, especially Mercy graduates, says the former math teacher. With some advice from Father Young and a few thousand dollars -- one grant came from the national community of Mercy Sisters -- Sister Joannes put together that first lecture series. "Besides being on fire for these people, she knows how to do things. She is a smart lady," adds Sister Kate, who "christened" the lecture series after its founder in 1986. "It seemed the right thing to do. She is the power."

"I just keep going," says the soft-spoken Sister Joannes. The series has grown largely by word of mouth, she adds. People are also referred by therapists, priests and even the United Way.

Several years ago the focus of the series grew to include widows and widowers, who now make up about one-third of those who attend, she says. The lectures also attract people who have never married, but whose relationships have gone awry.

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