Those of us who spent our formative years in Catholic elementary schools in the ’50s and ’60s likely have enduring memories of the nuns who commanded their classrooms, using those long wooden pointers half the time to direct our attention to the spelling words on the blackboard and the other half for … well, you know.
My Aunt Jo – Sister Josephine Marie to those outside the family – started her religious life as one of those teaching nuns (though I never heard her discuss how she might have used her pointer) but she became so much more. She died Friday night, two days after suffering a massive stroke, a sudden conclusion to a remarkable 97 years.
The sixth of seven children of Polish immigrants, Josephine Kaczanowski grew up on Long Island, in West Islip, and attended Babylon High School, where, she told an interviewer in 2009, she cracked the starting lineup on the field hockey team as a freshman. After high school, while still a teenager, she went to work in Washington, D.C., for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There she watched FDR’s second inaugural parade in 1937. In 1939, she joined the Religious Sisters of Mercy. She taught in Catholic schools on Long Island and near Scranton, Pa., for about 15 years.
While teaching, she continued her own education. In 1948 she became one of the first women, and quite possibly the only one wearing a habit, to earn a Master of Arts in Business degree from Columbia University. Her diploma was signed by Dwight D. Eisenhower, previously a general and later president of the United States. She remains the only member of my family to have graduated from an Ivy League school.
In the 1950s, thanks in part to that degree from Columbia, she moved from teaching into hospital administration, serving as business manager, controller, assistant administrator and finally as administrator of Mercy Hospital in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
Her education and career path were hardly typical for women of her era, but Aunt Jo had a talent, a vision and a love for life that those who were close to her considered not out of the ordinary, but as just the way she was. In the mid-’60s, a turbulent time for the nation and for the Catholic church, nuns began to shed their habits … and my sisters and I recall this dedicated outlet shopper sitting at the kitchen table, going through copies of Vogue and McCall’s, looking for outfits suitable for nuns to wear while out in the business world. Quite often, she’d be reading those magazines with a tall glass of beer by her side. (What else could you expect from a diehard Yankees fan?)
From 1966 to 1979, Aunt Jo also served as treasurer for the Scranton Province of the Sisters of Mercy, where she had the foresight to invest the sisters into the Social Security system. She also sat on the board of trustees of Misericordia University, where she had earned her bachelor’s degree.
In 1979, she moved to Scranton, where she worked in the Finance Department of Mercy Hospital until about three years ago. In her mid-90s, 25 or so years later than the rest of us, it was finally time to retire.
In retirement, Aunt Jo had more time to sit in front of her computer, open her Excel spreadsheets and keep the books for the convent of retired nuns with whom she lived in Queens. To relax, she’d get behind the wheel of her 1994 Buick Regal, hop on the Cross Island Parkway and Southern State Parkway and drive 40 miles to West Islip — usually at close to the speed limit — to visit her younger sister Stel, who still lives in the home where they grew up.
It’s easy to take nuns for granted, and the same goes for our relatives. We may not have recognized it at the time, but there was nothing ordinary in the life of Josephine Kaczanowski.
Bless you, Aunt Jo.