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Sister Joanne Whalen, dead at 85, advocate for students and poor

Sr. Joanne Whalen of the Daughters of Charity order | Facebook

Sister Joanne Whalen was a fun nun.

Before she joined the order of the Daughters of Charity at 33, she had several lives: Pan Am flight attendant, Stouffer’s waitress, college student in Switzerland, teacher in Japan.

In the 1960s, she and another nun from the Marillac House Social Center helped shut down Jackson Boulevard during a protest seeking jobs for African-Americans.

“Mayor [Richard J.] Daley was furious at them,” said her sister, Mary V. Whalen.

“When she took the vows, obedience was not necessarily one she followed,” her sister said. “She was just curious and loved people.”

Her dad was a car salesman. “I think she had a little bit of that in her blood,” said a niece, Kathy Whalen. “She was just very humorous, funny, vivacious.”

Sister Joanne Whalen of the Daughters of Charity order. | Family photo
Sister Joanne Whalen of the Daughters of Charity order. | Family photo

Mary Whalen said her sister’s wanderlust — and rebellious nature — was evident at age 11, when Joanne announced to 7-year-old Mary that she was running away from their Chicago home. “She packed up this little suitcase” before marching toward Oak Park.

“She would do things like that,” Mary Whalen said. “We had to go looking for her.”

They found her at the old Marshall Field’s in Oak Park, where she stopped to shop.

“She was a little kind of rascal,” her sister said, “but she was great fun.”

Sister Joanne, 85, died on April 30 in Bridgeton, Missouri. She had been a member of the Daughters of Charity for 53 years. And she was still a little rebellious.

At the Sarah Community, the Missouri retirement facility run by her order, she wasn’t supposed to walk unassisted because of problems with balance and falling. Still, “She would sneak down, without permission, to get ice cream — every day,” Mary Whalen said. “They would reprimand her, but that was useless.”

When she conjures up an image of her sister, it’s one of joy, and freedom, and delight in helping others. It’s a memory of Joanne Whalen, 72 years old and in a swimsuit, at a family cottage in Lakeside, Michigan. “Joanne would be on the beach teaching tai chi to all the nieces and nephews,” she said. “She had an abundance of energy.”

Joanne Whalen as a young postulant with her order, the Daughters of Charity. | Family photo
Joanne Whalen as a young postulant with her order, the Daughters of Charity. | Family photo

She grew up in a West Side Irish-Catholic family of six kids. They lived in a house in Austin until the wartime economy created a downturn for her car-salesman dad. They moved to an apartment near Lake and Laramie. Young Joanne graduated from Josephinum High School.

She enrolled at Rosary College. Determined to attend its junior year abroad program in Fribourg, Switzerland, she worked — while also going to school —as a waitress at Stouffer’s on Wabash and as an elevator operator at Carson’s.

“She earned the money to go, which was $3200 for a full year. She was really motivated if she wanted something,” Mary Whalen said.

After a year in Switzerland — where she lived in a student chalet amid Alpine peaks and edelweiss — she returned to Chicago, earned a bachelor’s degree at Rosary and took education courses at Loyola University.

She became a Chicago Public Schools teacher. That experience strengthened her interest in working with children with special needs, something she had been drawn to as a high school volunteer at Marillac House — run by the order she eventually joined — and at St. Vincent’s orphanage, now the La Salle Street headquarters for Catholic Charities.

She helped students with speech and hearing difficulties and learning differences. She also coached them for job interviews with enthusiasm and energy, saying: “We can make this happen for you.”

After a few years of teaching, she told her college chum, Dorothy Gibson, “Let’s go see some more of the world.” They visited airline offices near Midway Airport to apply for flight attendant jobs, only to be met with rejection. Repeatedly, male staffers told the two women — who were about 22 — they were “too old.”

“They said, ‘I don’t like your hair.’ Or things like, ‘I don’t like your legs.’ They were vicious,” Dorothy Gibson said. But Pan Am Airlines was seeking French speakers, and Joanne and Dorothy had mastered French in Fribourg. Pan Am hired them.

“So Dorothy and Joanne moved to New York, so she had a whole life in New York,” Mary Whalen said. “They all had wonderful times, and had boyfriends and everything.”

“She was funny. She did crazy things. She was the most delightful person I’ve ever known,” Dorothy Gibson said.

Joanne Whalen in Japan, where she taught English on an Air Force base. | Family photo
Joanne Whalen in Japan, where she taught English on an Air Force base. | Family photo

After their New York adventure, Joanne Whalen taught English at an Air Force base in Japan. In 1961, she joined the Daughters of Charity. She had no hesitation about leaving lay life behind, her sister said: “She loved the Daughters of Charity and what they’re about, how they try to meet the needs of people.” Sister Joanne taught English in St. Louis, El Paso, Mexico and New Orleans. While working in San Antonio, she participated in marches for social justice, Mary Whalen said.

Sister Joanne, who donated her body to science, also is survived by a brother, Robert, and 18 nieces and nephews. A memorial Mass is scheduled on Friday at the Sarah Community in Bridgeton, a suburb of St. Louis. Another memorial Mass is planned in Chicago on July 16.

When Joanne Whalen joined the Daughters of Charity order, members wore wimples that looked as if they might fly away. Sister Joanne let her niece, Kathy Whalen, try hers on when Kathy was about 9. | Photo from the Sisters of Charity
When Joanne Whalen joined the Daughters of Charity order, members wore wimples that looked as if they might fly away. Sister Joanne let her niece, Kathy Whalen, try hers on when Kathy was about 9. | Photo from the Sisters of Charity