Story of Justice: Sister JoAnn Geary

'Sister-Doctor' JoAnn Geary's Missionary Work a Lifetime Love

 

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For Sister JoAnn Geary, her five-month stay at Carondelet has not exactly been a summer vacation. First, the missionary to Gulu, Uganda has found the air conditioning downright chilling. She is more acclimated to the humming of two fans when temperatures reach 100 degrees or higher during the Gulu dry season. Second, her natural “get-up and go” has been grounded by the “sit up and stay” required in her healing process.

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S. JoAnn returned to St. Louis at the end of March to heal from a venomous spider bite on the toe of her right foot. That required 

It’s been eight years since the Sisters of St. Joseph arrived in Gulu, to help rebuild the northern Ugandan city after 20 years of terrorism by the Lord’s Resistance Army and the chaos of internally displaced persons camps (concentration camps). Sister Marion Weinzapfel had traveled to Gulu with friends from Denver, natives of Uganda who had fled under the reign of Idi Amin. Feeling that something needed to be done, S. Marion invited S. JoAnn, a reception classmate, to join her in creating a CSJ missionary delegation there.months in a wheelchair, then weeks with a walker. Now with minimal soreness and swelling, S. JoAnn, a nurse practitioner headed back to the East Africa nation on Sept. 1. She is looking forward to resuming her work with pre and postnatal care, and with the water filters effort. But before she left, she shared something of her life-long work as a missionary.

S. JoAnn, who had spent most of her ministerial life in the Southeast U.S., setting up primary care clinics in Georgia, working in Appalachia, following the migrant stream with the East Coast Migrant Health Project, serving the health care needs of the poor in Harlem, N.Y., and spending a week with Dorothy Day in the Bowery of New York City, was open to accepting the invitation. Along the way, S. JoAnn had earned a master’s as a family nurse practitioner, making her “Sister Doctor” to the people she served.

“I’ve always thought of myself as a missionary, in terms of what I’ve done,” S. JoAnn says. “I’ve spent years in low-income areas starting programs and clinics. I didn’t feel I had to be off in Africa to be a missionary.”  But when the invitation came, the time seemed right to begin another chapter outside the U.S.

Since arriving in Gulu in 2008, “Sister-Doctor” JoAnn primarily has served expectant and recently-delivered mothers, and has seen the dramatic change in health care that the CSJs have advanced in Gulu. “When I arrived, we would see emaciated women deliver scrawny newborns. There were incredibly high infant and maternal mortality rates. So we brought pre-natal vitamins. We educated the women about what kind of foods would be good for them during pregnancy and following birth. We brought water filters that brings clean water to the people. We built a maternity clinic two years ago. Today, the babies are heavier and look healthier. These are NOT the women I was seeing eight years ago!”

But it has not been a story of American missionaries arriving with all the answers for an impoverished people. S. JoAnn insists, “It’s not just what we’ve done, it’s how we’ve done it. When we first arrived, we sat at the table with the bishops and the people and learned so much from them. We asked them, ‘What do you need?’ before we did anything.’”

And the CSJ Way has made a difference. “We are very different from the [native] religious and clergy there.” S. JoAnn says. “People want to be associated with us. They say, ‘You are always there, always open. You show compassion to the people. Just by coming here showed us how much you cared. And you show compassion and love for each other.”

With the introduction of the Water with Blessings water filter project, S. JoAnn says, “the women run to meet the sisters when we arrive in their villages. They aren’t seeing typhoid epidemics anymore. Their children do not have constant diarrhea, so they could go to school.”

“We’ve tried to immerse ourselves into their community and not bring our ideas and culture, but listen to the people and learn from them.”

S. JoAnn spoke of her community’s spirituality of relationship in Gulu. “We talk about relationships; they live that. That’s why it takes so long to get things done. The people there wear no watches. They rise with the sun. They’ve taught me a lot about real relationship,” she says. “They tell me, ‘Sister, we don’t keep time. We make time – for each other.’”

A high-energy person by nature, S. JoAnn says she has been re-energized by the rest required in healing her venomous bite. “I didn’t realize how tired I was,” she says. And she is grateful for her time back home at the Carondelet motherhouse. “Everyone is so welcoming and gracious. It’s a nice place to come to if you have to be someplace else.”

During her stay at Carondelet, she began free online Spanish lessons using the Duolingo program. The 74-year-old is already thinking about what might follow when she returns from Gulu in 2018, after 10 years there. “I would like to go to El Paso and work at the border,” she says.

But this week, her thoughts were only on the people whom she loves in Gulu. “I’m looking forward to getting back to the maternity hospital, doing the pre- and post-natal work, and picking up on the water project with S. Patty Clune,” she says.

“I think our legacy is already there,” she says of the CSJs’ impact in northern Uganda. “Before we leave, we need to figure out how to continue to send pre-natal vitamins, how to keep sending water filters, how to educate women to carry the water project out to many more villages. I don’t know the answer yet, but there has to be another way.”

In true Sister of St. Joseph fashion, it will likely involve relationships.

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