By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun
5:52 PM EST, November 6, 2013
Sister Mary Joannes Clifford, a mathematics teacher who spent 53 years at Mercy High School and founded a ministry to the widowed, separated and divorced, died of cardiovascular disease Oct. 30 at her order's retirement home in the Woodbrook. She was 87.
Born June Rose Clifford while her family was vacationing in Miami, she was the daughter of Baltimoreans James and Mary Ann Rochlitz Clifford. She was a graduate of the old Mount St. Agnes High School in Mount Washington and attended Trinity College in Washington, D.C., for two years before joining the Sisters of Mercy in 1945.
"In later life, she sometimes spoke of that day when she walked up the hill with only the clothes on her back and one extra pair of shoes," said Sister Augusta Reilly, a religious colleague. "Her mother was so strongly opposed to her decision to become a sister that June Rose could not leave her family home with even the few clothes and supplies that young women usually brought along in those days."
After three years of study, she took vows in 1948 and received the name Mary Joannes. She then taught in Maryland, Alabama and Virginia parochial schools.
"Like most of her peers in the Mercy community at the time, she made the rounds of what was then the community's Baltimore Province, and then spent her summers studying for degrees in mathematics," said Sister Augusta, who lives in Baltimore.
She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at Mount St. Agnes College and a master's degree at Reed College in Portland, Ore.
Sister Joannes joined the founding faculty of the just-opened Mercy High School on Northern Parkway in September 1960. Within a few years, 1,000 girls attended the school.
"She was one of the most competent people I have ever met," said Sister Carol Wheeler, who was the school's president from 1977 to 2013. "She has been called the best math teacher Mercy ever had. She could work brilliantly with the kids who were having trouble and equally well with the best math students in the school."
Friends recalled a saying around the school that Sister Joannes could teach math to a rock.
In 1972, Sister Joannes became the school's admissions director and was later its alumnae director.
"She tracked down our graduates relentlessly," said Sister Carol. "When a member of their families died, she would be at the funeral parlor."
Sister Carol recalled Sister Joannes' office: "She had her idiosyncrasies. Her organizational style was a skill only she could understand."
She used her knowledge of math and computers to create an early database to help keep track of the alumnae.
Sister Mary Anne Smith, Mercy's alumnae director, said that 6,500 of the school's 7,500 graduates are reachable today.
"She really got our alumnae to get into the habit of staying in touch with the school," Sister Mary Anne said. "She had an uncanny ability to know if someone had just moved back to Baltimore."
She retired in 1999 but continued to read the death notices daily until June, when her health failed.
A 1991 Sun article detailed how nearly 40 years ago "Sister Joannes began getting notes from alumnae, saying, 'Drop my last name, I'm divorced' or 'Remember me in your prayers; my husband left me with three children.'"
The article said that she reacted to these reports by beginning a ministry to separated and divorced people. "Because divorce was discouraged by the Catholic Church — and divorced Catholics could not remarry as full members of the church — there was little formal help for them before the 1970s," The Sun's article said.
"I wanted to come back and provide some service to separated and divorced people, especially Mercy graduates," she said in 1991.
She put together a lecture series that began in the Mercy High School library. It attracted so many that it overflowed that space.
"Several years ago the focus of the series grew to include widows and widowers, who now make up about one-third of those who attend," the article said. "The lectures also attract people who have never married, but whose relationships have gone awry."
Ann Kaiser Stearns, a Towson psychologist and author who was a speaker in the lecture series, said, "Sister Joannes was gracious and broad-minded. She was a wonderfully warm person. Her goal was simple, to help other people."
In 2011, the group, called the Friends of Mercy, had its final meeting.
"She was revered by all who knew her as a thoroughly dedicated religious woman. Sister Joannes was also a colorful character. She was a great cook and an indefatigable coupon collector who loved to do the grocery shopping for her sisters," said Sister Augusta.
"For an entire school year, she traveled to work daily on a motorcycle. When asked recently why she did that, she responded, 'Well, I just liked it.' She was also an ardent Ravens and Orioles fan who was reputed to sometimes be listening to Orioles games on her headset radio while teaching."
A Mass of Christian burial will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Saturday at Mercy High School, 1300 E. Northern Parkway.
Survivors include two nieces and two nephews.
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