Speaking of divorce A 10-year lecture series offers help and healing


IN TODAY'S COMMUNICATIONS lingo, Sister M. Joannes Clifford is a facilitator.She could also be called a catalyst, a middleman, a broker.

But there are many who say simply that she saw a need and met it -- and continues to meet it -- head-on.

Sister Joannes is the founder of The Joannes Series of lectures for people who are separated, divorced and widowed. Since a Sunday afternoon almost 10 years ago, she has been inviting relevant, interesting speakers to offer help and healing to people "going through some horrible moment in their lives."

That first lecture, in the fall of 1981, drew 36 people to the Mercy High School Library. Now, more than 200 men and women -- from several states and many religions -- usually attend the lectures, which long ago outgrew the library.

"She began to gather . . . at Mercy an informal support group for people who needed help to walk through their journey," says Tracey Manning, who was among the series' first speakers.

"She has just taken it from a modest beginning to more than 300" at a recent lecture, says Sister Kate Birch, who also works with "single-again" Catholics, as well as children from divorced families. "Probably many of them [those attending the lecture] were not in their churches that morning because they may feel embarrassed or out of touch," observes Sister Kate.

The need is obvious, she says, "but there aren't many people who do something about the need."

Although some speakers' messages are religious, many are not. "She has a strong ecumenical group of people who come to speak . . . to offer a bit of healing or inspiration," says Manning, a psychology professor at the College of Notre Dame. "The group is absolutely non-sectarian."

The Joannes Series offers eight lectures each year -- four in the fall and four in the spring. For them, Sister Joannes looks for speakers with suggestions for "personal growth and how to handle things a little better," she says. Among the lecture topics are stress management, healthy relationships, grief, depression and being alone without being lonely.

The topics have not changed dramatically over the decade. Whether a person is separated, widowed or divorced, he or she must "go through the same steps . . . of any grief process," Sister Joannes says. So, as people move in and out of the group, subjects bear repeating.

Although Sister Joannes, a member the Sisters of Mercy of the Baltimore Province, is responsible for scheduling speakers, producing brochures, keeping up with her 2,200-name mailing list, paying the bills and even setting up the cafeteria for the lectures, this is not her full-time job, she is quick to say.

She is alumnae director of Mercy, where she has been on staff and faculty since the school opened in 1960. The lecture series sprung from her work with graduates.

In the mid-1970s, 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," she recalls. "I could get a feel for what was happening."

Soon thereafter, Sister Joannes took a sabbatical from her full-time teaching and alumnae jobs to study at the Washington (D.C.) Theological Union. Among the courses she took was one on helping separated and divorced persons. Among the people she met was the late Rev. James Young, who had carved out this ministry at a time when the Catholic Church was still looking askance at those with marital problems.

"He put his life on the line in the beginning to make these people feel welcome . . . to give them a secure and rightful place in the church," Sister Joannes says of her mentor. 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.

Sister Joannes said she has had some Catholics tell her they feel twice divorced -- from their spouses and from their church.

Inspired by Father Young, "I wanted to come back and provide some service" to separated and divorced people, especially Mercy graduates, says the former math teacher. With some advice from Father Young and a few thousand dollars -- one grant came from the national community of Mercy Sisters -- Sister Joannes put together that first lecture series. "Besides being on fire for these people, she knows how to do things. She is a smart lady," adds Sister Kate, who "christened" the lecture series after its founder in 1986. "It seemed the right thing to do. She is the power."

"I just keep going," says the soft-spoken Sister Joannes. The series has grown largely by word of mouth, she adds. People are also referred by therapists, priests and even the United Way.

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, she says. The lectures also attract people who have never married, but whose relationships have gone awry.

Sister Joannes is picky about her speakers. "I try to get real good ones; I don't want to disappoint people," she says. So, she will schedule only speakers she has heard or who are highly recommended. Many of her lecturers are local; others come from around the country.

One of Sister Joannes' most popular speakers is Ann Kaiser Stearns, a Towson psychologist and author who lectures extensively on coping with crisis and loss.

The admiration is mutual. "She's an amazing woman," Stearns says of Sister Joannes. "She does an incredible service. It's clear to me that a lot of people are able to learn other than in therapy," says Stearns, who for 17 years was a crisis counselor, especially for the bereaved.

"It's gratifying to see how many people can get help and hope from a lecture."

Sister Joannes tries "to find these people who speak to the mind and the heart . . . and those who speak to people where they are," she adds.

Each program lasts about two hours with a short break between the formal presentation and a question-and-answer session. During this break, Sister Joannes provides refreshments. "I think the food says to people, 'You are important, you are worth caring about.'"

Through the years, Sister Joannes has baked countless brownies and is well-known for the fresh chopped vegetables on the refreshment table.

She is helped with these preparations by several "very faithful" volunteers. Among them is Kathy Fay, who met Sister Joannes through the lectures and through Friends of Mercy, a support group that has grown out of the lecture series in the last three years.

"We consider her our mentor," says Fay, a past president of the Friends of Mercy. "She's helped us so much; we support whatever she does." Fay says Sister Joannes is "a very giving person" with tremendous feeling for those she ministers to.

"I've seen her with young ladies at Mercy in great distress over marital situations," recalls Fay. "There's always a lot of tears -- and then some joy."

The Joannes Series of lectures

The 10th Anniversary Year of The Joannes Series of lectures for people who are separated, divorced and widowed continues through April:

* March 24: The Rev. John Delclos, a marriage counselor in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, "There Is Nothing In Our Lives That Cannot Be Life Giving."

* April 7: Counselor and author Ann Kaiser Stearns, "Our Problems with Anger."

* April 28: The Rev. Joseph Breighner, columnist the Catholic Review and a pastoral counselor, "Risking A New You." This official anniversary celebration will include a review of the lecture series and a 3:30 banjo performance by Dr. James Dasinger.

All lectures begin at 2 p.m. at Mercy High School, Northern Parkway and Loch Raven Boulevard. Preregistration is recommended but not required. The cost is $4 per lecture; child care is available but must be requested by Wednesday before the lecture. For more information, phone 433-8880.

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