Story of Justice: Sister Joan Filla

by Sister Mary Flick, justice coordinator

How does a sister retire from a lifetime in education? Ask Sister Joan Filla and she will tell you: by volunteering in education. But for this Sister of St. Joseph, not all education is the same. Every week, Sister Joan tutors math to at-risk youth who are acquainted with the juvenile court system and have been given a second chance at Innovative Concept Academy (ICA) in North St. Louis. For Sister Joan, education is a work of justice.

“I decided early in my teaching years that I didn’t want to teach in a parish if the parish could pay for lay teachers. I wanted to work with the poor,” Sister Joan recalls. So the past 45 years have found her working in lower economic parish schools and in literacy programs, and now with at-risk youth at the ICA.

In 2009 shortly after she retired from 12 years with the Carondelet Family Literacy Program, S. Joan received an invitation to lunch from ICA’s founder, Judge Jimmie Edwards. Edwards, who served as administrative judge of the St. Louis Family Court and currently serves as director of public safety in the City of St. Louis. He was frustrated by the rising number of high school dropouts with no job skills. His way out of frustration was to create an innovative type of school that could educate and supervise the courts’ juvenile offenders. He asked the public school system for an unused school building and teachers, resolved he could put the rest of the Academy together. A native St. Louisan, Edwards knew the rich history of women religious in St. Louis, in part through the help his family received from the Sisters of St. Mary when he was growing up. So he reached out to the sisters as he put together this academy.

“I took him up on it,” S. Joan laughs, “because there was a free lunch!” She says she also liked Edwards’ philosophy: he was looking for sisters to be in the school, but not as administrators. “I knew I did not want to be in charge!” Currently, there are a half dozen women religious tutoring at ICA. S. Joan is the only Sister of St. Joseph.

ICA links the St. Louis Public Schools, MERS Goodwill and the Family Court’s Juvenile Division in reaching at-risk youth between the ages of 13 and 19. The middle school component (grades 6 to 12) enables students to serve their suspension by attending class at ICA. Most of the 16- to 19-year-olds have been kicked out of the public schools and come to ICA in order to earn their high school diplomas.

“Most of my experience in education is primarily in literacy,” she says, citing her ministry in education that dates back to her first assignment at St. Patrick in St. Joseph, Missouri in 1962. Her classroom experience in a host of parochial schools led her in 1997 to become the founder, director and, with Sister Marianne Dwyer, teacher of the Carondelet Community Betterment Federation’s Literacy Program until 2009.

In 1972, she chose to go to Holy Name School in North St. Louis where she taught economically disadvantaged students. “Holy Name was changing from being a school of predominantly white children to predominantly black children,” S. Joan says. “I never before had to face my racism so I enrolled in Martin Center (now Martin University) and its six-week African American Cultural immersion program,” S. Joan recalls. “Sister Jane Edward Schilling, CSJ, with Father Boniface Hardin, OSB created a program that changed me to my core.”

Despite her long history with those on the margins, S. Joan admits that her first day at ICA was “scary.” “I had to walk through a metal detector,” she tells. “All the students have court experiences. The setting was unfamiliar. I was going into a public agency and I didn’t know what they would think about a Catholic nun.” She found that initial unsettledness lasted no more than a day. Since day one, she has loved the students and those connected with ICA.

“I’ve always had a heart for education,” she says. “We change people by being with them, one-on-one. I believe education is systemic change.”

S. Joan initially volunteered two days a week. Today, she is there every Monday. It’s important that she is there every Monday, she says. “In my being there, the students see commitment. These kids have had adults that have walked out of their lives. It’s important that we who work with them at ICA are committed to them.”

Her interaction with the students has been good. “The atmosphere is so wonderful,” she says. Students wear uniforms, and are well disciplined. Their day starts, she says, when Judge Edwards meets the students as they get off the bus. “He makes sure their pants up, their hats are off, there are no hoodies,” S. Joan says. “He respects the students and expects much from them.”

For S. Joan, much of her ministry in education is about building relationship – always helped by a little humor. She tells of an encounter with one student, who, when learning she was a sister, asked her, “Were you in Whoopie Goldberg’s movie [Sister Act.]?” “I told him, ‘I wanted to be, but I can’t sing!’”

What she can do is teach. That is not just her ministry, it’s her heritage as a Sister of St. Joseph.

For one, there is a connection in proximity. The academy is housed in the old Blewett School, at 18th and Cass avenues – next to the old Cass Avenue convent where the Sisters of St. Joseph lived from 1885 to 1949.

It’s more than the location that feels like home for S. Joan. “I’m here because our sisters from the past have brought me to this day. As CSJs, we embrace the mission of Jesus to the outcast. When we came to St. Louis, we came to educate. These students need care. I build relationship with these students and the staff. By my presence, I stand with the marginalized.

“It’s a justice issue,” she says. “If sharing my gifts in math can help someone earn their GED, it will make a difference.”