Sister Joanna Burkhart, SFP


To the very end of her life on earth, Sr. Joanna Burkhart sought to keep Jesus intimately before her as she ministered to others. She was an amazing woman with a life punctuated with generosity, compassion, simplicity and faith. About three months before her death, Sr. Joanna recognized that caring for herself was becoming more and more difficult; Sister asked to be missioned to the Community at Mercy Franciscan Terrace. As Sister Bodily death prepared to carry Sr. Joanna’s precious spirit to the heavenly kingdom, several Sisters kept a prayerful vigil at her bedside. Sr. Joanna entered into new life about 6:40 a.m. on October 30, 2009 at the age 88.

Cecilia Schwallie and Aloysius Burkhart made their home on a farm near Louisville, OH. Having a farm in those days just before the Great Depression made it possible for the young parents to care for their growing family. Genevieve Cecilia was born on March 8, 1921. She was the fifth of seven children. When the family doctor introduced the new baby to her siblings, he told them that he had found her in the woods. As a youngster, Genevieve knew no fear. Her older sister was mother’s helper so Genevieve usually played with her older brothers. One day when she was only five years old, she followed the boys to the hayloft where her brothers were teasing one of the hens. When they tired of that activity, they left Genevieve to find her own way down. Having no ladder, she slid down between a log and the hay wagon that was balanced against the wall resulting in a long gash to her upper leg.

Genevieve’s elementary education took place in the parish two-room schoolhouse. She was a bright student and would complete her work quickly. In fact she completed her fifth and sixth grade studies in one year. After finishing the eighth grade, she helped on the family farm. At the age of nineteen Genevieve was asked to care for her Aunt Mary. After her Aunt’s death, her Uncle asked if she would stay on to care for the children and manage the household. At the time, a religious vocation was germinating in Genevieve’s heart. When she was twenty-three, she said to herself that if she were to marry, she would already have met some one to spend her life with. Since that had not happened, she decided to pursue her calling as a Franciscan. The parish priest introduced her to the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor and she chose August 31, 1944 as her entrance date. Her timing was motivated by the fact that the crops would be harvested by then and the canning would have been completed and stored for the winter meals.

When she was invested with the habit of the Congregation, Genevieve received the name Sr. Joanna. After completing her novitiate, Sr. Joanna professed her first vows on May 3, 1947. During the five years that she was a temporary professed Sister, Sr. Joanna was missioned to serve the poor in Steubenville, Hamilton and Cincinnati in the social service houses located in those cities. Sr. Joanna made her perpetual profession on May 3, 1952. Sr. Joanna was a very good cook and was given the opportunity to study dietetics at Fontbonne College in St. Louis, MO. Sister enjoyed providing healthy meals at St. Margaret Hospital for the patients and staff.

In 1960, Sr. Joanna volunteered to serve the poor in Brazil as a missionary. When she received an airmail letter from the Superior General of the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor, she opened it with great excitement. Instead of being asked to go to Brazil, she was requested to serve in the dietary department of Convento Cuore Immaculata di Maria in Frascati, Italy. During that time Sister was able to learn to speak some Italian and work closely with the young Italian Sisters. Sr. Joanna was in Rome during the time of the Second Vatican Council, the death of Pope John XXIII, and the election and coronation of Pope Paul VI. Sister also had the opportunity to visit many of the significant Christian sites in and around Rome. In 1968, when the Generalate offices were moved to the United States, Sr. Joanna returned to Cincinnati to continue direct service to the poor.

Although she had excelled in her studies in elementary school, Sr. Joanna did not have the opportunity to receive a high school diploma until 1969 when she earned a GED (high school diploma) from the State of Ohio. She was 50 years old at the time. In 1971, Sr. Joanna studied Catechetics and went to St. Henry, Ohio. There she taught three hundred children a week who were excused from the public school to attend religion classes.

As one reviews the life of Sr. Joanna, you cannot help but see God preparing her for her final active ministry. After completing a program in Clinical Pastoral Education, Sr. Joanna joined the pastoral care staff at Providence Hospital (now Mercy Franciscan Mt. Airy). In 1975, she was the first woman to be certified by the National Association of Catholic Chaplains. Later she would serve at Mercy Franciscan Western Hills. For twenty seven years, Sr. Joanna was a welcome sight in the halls of both hospitals, comforting patients, soothing their fears as they were prepared for surgery, consoling dying patients and their families and greeting former patients and/or family members.

Sr. Joanna was a woman of profound strength. She met her most serious challenge when she awoke from her sleep one night and realized that she was experiencing a stroke. Her ministry with others prepared her to quickly receive the care she herself needed. This event left Sister with a residual speech impediment but her spirit never wavered. Sr. Joanna enjoyed going out to restaurants with her friends, Sisters Norma Meyer and Bonnie Steinlage. Although communication was difficult, the Sisters encouraged Sr. Joanna to place her own order. Sr. Joanna was an active participant in conversations and discussions at all times.

Sr. Joanna retired from active ministry in 2000 and became a member of St. Clare Community until her physical status required moving to assisted living, a change she herself recognized as needed and freely chose. Although her accomplishments in ministry are many, those of us who shared community with her will remember Sr. Joanna for her spirit of hospitality and her commitment to the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor. Like Jesus, she poured herself out as a libation for others. “No” was a word that seldom passed her lips.

Although it is common to pray for those who have gone before us, it is difficult to pray for Sr. Joanna. Rather, we can trust that she is already in Heaven interceding for all the members of the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor and Associates as well as the family and friends she came to know while on her journey to God. Sr. Joanna, we miss you. Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

-Sister Arleen Bourquin, SFP

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