SISTER JOSETTA MARIE SPENCER, SSND
“Ad Sum: Here I am.” (Psalm 40:8)
After several years of declining health, our beloved Sister Josetta Marie Spencer, 81, died peacefully at 9:30 p.m. on November 6, 2020, in Notre Dame Health Care, Our Lady of Good Counsel, Mankato, Minnesota. She had entered Hospice the previous week, and sisters were keeping vigil with her.
The Funeral Liturgy for Sister Josetta Marie, with Father Gene Stenzel as presider, had been scheduled for November, but needed to be postponed because of a COVID upsurge in the area. She was buried on November 12 with a small private service. Her Memorial Mass is now scheduled for Tuesday, April 13. A Prayer of Remembrance will be held Monday afternoon, April 12. We extend our sympathy to Sister Josetta’s sister, Barbara Sheeran, and her brother, Robert, and their families; her good friend and community member Sister Lynette Friesen and the Friesen family; her colleagues and former students; and her sisters in community, the School Sisters of Notre Dame and SSND Associates. She was preceded in death by her parents, Robert and Ruth (Burch) Spencer.
Sister Josetta was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on the feast of the Nativity of Mary, September 8, 1939, and named Mary Anne. She was baptized three weeks later at St. Edward’s Church in north St. Louis. Her sister Barbara was born thirteen months later, and her brother Robert, nine years later. In 1944, Mary Anne began kindergarten at St. Barbara School, where she was taught by School Sisters of Notre Dame. During her first two years of school, she experienced long periods of absence because of rheumatic fever. She later wrote, “Because I had been so ‘tied down,’ as I termed it, nothing could restrain my limitless energy to which I gave vent in studies, music, and sports during the remaining years of grade school.” These years were spent at St. Philip Neri School, a transfer necessitated by a family move. Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet were her teachers at St. Philip, and she commented, “I loved the sisters so much, and when I was in the upper grades, I used to help one of my favorite teachers after school hours. She knew I wanted to go to a Catholic high school, and she knew that my parents could not afford to send me.” An arrangement was worked out so that Mary Anne could help care for children before and after school at St. Joseph’s Institute for the Deaf in University City while she attended St. Joseph Academy. During her years at both St. Philip Neri and at St. Joseph Academy, her ambition was to become a Sister of St. Joseph and work with mentally handicapped or deaf children.
However, at some point following her sophomore year, Mary Anne decided that her call was to the School Sisters of Notre Dame and, in 1955 she entered the St. Louis Province SSND aspiranture in south St. Louis as a junior. She completed her high school course work in January 1957 and, along with four others, immediately entered the SSND postulate. She was received into the novitiate in July 1958 and given the name Sister Josetta Marie. Following profession of first vows in 1959, she remained at the St. Louis motherhouse, working toward a BA degree in education from Notre Dame College. Her first mission experience was at San José Parish in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she spent the 1960-61 school year teaching fourth grade and directing parish and school music programs. In 1961, she fulfilled one of her early goals, when she began teaching at St. Mary’s Special School in St. Louis. She taught academic subjects and music and was a group mother for children with developmental disabilities. She summed up her time there by saying, “I spent ten wonderful years there from 1961 to 1971.” In 1968 she earned an MA in special education from St. Louis University.
Sister Josetta spent the 1971-72 school year at St. John’s School in Burlington, Iowa, as principal and teacher of 8th grade and music. From 1972 through 1975, she ministered at Tierra del Sol in Sunland, California, as a teacher and administrator for TES, a program for adults with developmental disabilities. In 1975, she moved to All Souls Parish in Overland, Missouri, where she served as principal until 1985. In the summer of 1985, she began to study for an MA in theology at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul. She lived with sisters at St. Andrew Convent in St. Paul, and became acquainted with sisters of the Mankato SSND Province. While completing her coursework during summer sessions, during the school year she served as Director of Religious Education for Our Lady of Loretto Parish in Spanish Lake, Missouri, and the neighboring St. Aloysius Parish until 1989. At that time, she completed her MA degree and earned a graduate certificate in pastoral ministry. From 1989 through 1993, she was a member of the ongoing formation team for the St. Louis Province.
In 1993, Sister Josetta moved to St. Paul, and ministered as the coordinator of catechesis for the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis Catholic Education and Formation Department until 1999. She formed community in West St. Paul with Sister Lynette Friesen, whom she had met some years previously during her Rome Renewal Jubilee experience. Sister Josetta earned a Doctor of Ministry degree from the University of St. Thomas in 1998. In 1999, she became a pastoral associate at St. Luke’s Parish (now St. Thomas More) in St. Paul, and an adjunct faculty member at the St. Paul Seminary, School of Divinity. Additionally, she directed the Pastoral Ministry and Catechetical Ministry Certificate Program at the College of St. Catherine and taught a weekend college course in theology. In 2001 she was given the Mary Mulheron Pastoral Ministry Award through the Association of Pastoral Ministers of the Archdiocese and the College of St. Catherine for bringing “competence, compassion, creativity and credibility” to the pastoral ministry profession. She was nominated for the 2004 National Association of Lay Ministry Tribute. Several colleagues endorsed the nomination and one wrote, “I have worked with Sister Josetta for about three years and have been in awe of her knowledge of ‘ministry,’ theology, sense of what is happening nationally and locally in pastoral ministry, and so much more. She speaks clearly and with a great focus on the matters at hand.”
Having ministered within Mankato Province boundaries for ten years, Sister Josetta made the decision to request a transfer to the Mankato Province in 2004. She used the word “transcribed” and explained, “While the word transcribed is not part of our current SSND vocabulary, for me it embraces my deep roots, which will always recognize the St. Louis Province as ‘home.’ ” She expressed the hope that the term “transcribed” could also recognize the ongoing conversations about reconfiguration and relationship-building among the SSND provinces. (In 2011, those conversations culminated in the formation of the Central Pacific Province, which included the St. Louis and Mankato provinces, as well as the Milwaukee and Dallas provinces.)
During a time of cutbacks at the parish and college levels, in 2009 Sister Josetta left her positions at St. Thomas More and St. Catherine. For two years she tutored as part of the Eastside Learning Center staff. In 2011, her sight began to deteriorate, and she could no longer read. She was eventually diagnosed with Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus, which caused damage to her brain. As the NPH progressed, she experienced a gradual, but steady decline in her overall physical condition. In 2014, she became a resident of Notre Dame Health Care in Mankato, where she shared her days with sisters and caregivers.
From early on, Sister Josetta was attuned to God’s will in her life. May she now be living an eternal “Ad sum – Here I am” to the God she served so faithfully during her life.