Sr. Joanna Marie (1938-2023)

One of the saddest things about being this old is out-living so many extraordinary people who have played a part in my life.

As I said in my last post, I lost two such people recently – and now I would like to tell you about the second one, Joanna.

It was high in the hills of Los Angeles, at the House of Studies, that we first met. We both aspired to become nuns – specifically, Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. That was the name of the Catholic Order. It was primarily for teachers and nurses, but I was told they were planning to add a missionary division as well and that was my goal.

The House of Studies,Carondelet Center With St.Mary’s College and Chapel at top of hill

We were there to complete our college education from Mount St. Mary’s College, which was above our complex at the very top of the hill, in order to fully enter our chosen denominations. But we were also there to learn and prepare for a religious life.

As beginners, we were called Postulants and donned a uniform consisting of a black pleated skirt, a black cape with a prim white collar, black stockings and old-lady black shoes. There were 57 of us in our reception from all over the country. We each paid $600 as our dowry and were told it was to be used for our burial fee! Talk about a wake-up call! I was 19, Joanna was only 18.

We were both overwhelmed with the enormity of our decision to take this path in our young lives. For Joanna, it was even more traumatic as she had left her twin sister behind.

She later wrote this about it:

After graduating from high school, I was planning to go to Seattle University. But I am arguing with God! I think He wants me to enter the convent, which I do not want to do! But then I am in church on Holy Thursday and maybe it’s the candles and incense – somehow I stop resisting and say ‘YES!’ That night I tell my twin sister Jeanne. She said, ‘You’re not!’  I said, ‘Yes I am!’ When my six-year old brother Donald heard about it, he said, ‘Well I guess that’s the end of Joanna!’”

That was written by Joanna many years later on a light, humorous note, but I am sure her decision caused a great deal of strong reaction from her family, especially from her twin sister with whom she had been almost inseparable from birth.

Joanna and Jeanne

It was a huge step for me too. I graduated High School at 16 and had been modeling for almost 5 years. My success in San Francisco led to some glamorous photo shoots in LA, Boston, and New York. But more and more I found myself disillusioned with the narcissism of the job – the emphasis on looking good, not doing good.  I had a strong urge to dig deeper. I felt there was more to life!

I first applied to the Maryknolls – a renowned missionary order serving in far off regions all over the world. They accepted me, but also made it clear that after training I would not be able to return home and it did not include a college education. So I switched to the St. Joseph Order that had taught me at Star of the Sea Academy. As mentioned before, I was told by their representative they had plans to create a new missionary division.

So there Joanna and I were on a pretty rigorous schedule: Getting up at 5 am every morning, attending Mass, followed by group breakfast, then cleaning the formidable stainless-steel kitchen to a shining state – all in silence. After which we took lengthy college courses.

However, midway in the morning, we were given a short break called “collation” to enjoy some snacks, like fresh-baked cinnamon breakfast bread (to this day just the smell of it in the oven gets me salivating). I had entered the convent a size two, but that didn’t last long!  And it was during these brief respites, that my friendship with Joanna grew along with my waistline.

I soon realized Joanna was extremely bright, had a great sense of herself, a terrific sense of humor, was fun loving and anything but sanctimonious! One of my treasured memories was when we were enjoying such rare “free time”. This was after we had both received our habits – so we pinned our skirts up, threw our veils back, and climbed up the mountain to find a spot to sit and talk. It was then she acquainted me with “Winnie the Pooh” and the hidden philosophy behind the stories of Piglet, Eyore, Tigger, and Christopher Robin. I was captivated by the charm and simplicity of its message of kindness. It became a life-long favorite! We also talked about our life there and how we were going to make a difference in the world. At that time she was set on being a teacher and I was still hoping for a missionary assignment in a foreign place.

That was just one memory I have of Joanna who was by now Sr. Joanna Marie and I was Sr. Gregory Ann.

There were many special moments over those early years…

Another spectacular one was when Joanna surprised me with a 21st birthday celebration. It took careful planning on her part and came about because she had been assisgned to care for the visiting priests’ private quarters.  She set about first making sure it was not to be occupied on July 7th. Then on that day we covertly accessed the suite and I saw she had put out crystal goblets and silverware on the table. It turned out she had “requisitioned” some ICE CREAM! OMG, this was an unheard of treat for us. We made sundaes and relished every bite of it much to our delight. It was never missed and we never got caught, which shows just how clever she was.

A known truism of convent life, we soon discovered, was that if you exhibited any talent at all it was quickly put to use. Joanna’s was her leadership and organizational skills, mine was my artwork. Before I knew it, I was put in charge of all art projects. Most importantly, I painted miniature ceramic Holy Water fonts that the Mother Superior liked to give as gifts to the convent’s contributors. Pretty soon, my sister nuns talented in construction had built me a studio platform on the side of the mountain in order for me to paint as many and as fast as I could turn them out! This excused me from daily chores, and there I was in the beautiful outdoor peaceful surroundings, with birds chirping, doing what I loved. It was heaven.

Unfortunately, it also pointed to a problem. It seems one of the reasons Mother Superior needed the fonts was to raise money that was sorely needed as they were making severe budget cuts. They no longer were going to expand and add a missionary division. In fact, there were all kinds of changes coming, including the elimination of our religious habits. There was soon to be secular dress!

As our final vows loomed, all this had me thinking. Not only was I facing the realization it meant I would be a local teacher and not out in the world helping people in need, but there were other issues I was wrestling with – like the church’s archaic stands against contraception and divorce. My own sister, Geri, had just left a cheating husband while pregnant, and was told she could not re-marry. If she did, she would be excommunicated.

Although I certainly respect teachers, I had never liked the idea of telling people what to do – especially as a nun. I had a real aversion to doing that. So I made known my plan to leave. What ensued was several months and meetings with my superiors who pointed out why I should stay. They didn’t change my mind. But they did convince me not to tell anyone of my plan to leave. They stressed that it would be harmful and hurtful to my friends resolve and selfish of me. I bought into their reasons and have regretted it ever since!

As Joanna recounted to me years later, I was simply missing at breakfast the day I left. And as the time went by that morning and it became obvious I was gone, she was devastated and felt I had completely betrayed our friendship by not telling her.

Thinking of that even now makes me feel terrible…

But thankfully, she did persist with her vocation.

In fact, she excelled and actually fulfilled all the aspirations that we had set as our goals. I am so proud of her accomplishments and would like to tell you about the meaningful life she led.

At first they had Sr. Joanna Marie teaching elementary school but after two years they assigned her to a high school teaching English and History. By 1973, she had taught at St. Bernard, Star of the Sea (my Alma mater) and Carondelet High School.

By that time we had re-connected and Joanna had forgiven me for my sudden departure. Whenever I was able to fly into the Bay Area, she always made the effort to meet with me! I loved getting together with her. Here is a picture of us at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco at one of our get-togethers.

As you can see, by that time she no longer was wearing a habit!

That summer of 1973, she attended classes about Community Organizing being taught by Jesuits who had trained with Saul Alinsky, the famous activist. It changed her life!

In 1974, Joanna went from teaching poetry and Shakespeare to rich, white, suburban high school girls in a very upscale neighborhood with trees, grass and beautiful homes, to becoming a community organizer in West Oakland, with a 98% African-American population and the highest unemployment and poverty rates in California.

I learned later that this “neighborhood” was actually situated approximately under the Bay Bridge! For anyone who knows the Bay Area, that is truly the poorest of the poor.

Joanna would describe her early days there in her journal…

I sit in people’s homes and drink tea out of cracked cups, or keep standing because there is no place to sit. I ask them what their concerns are for our neighborhood, and invite them to join our ‘Neighborhood Improvement’ group.”

Among her successful battles on the peoples’ behalf was getting Oakland to install curbs and gutters and force garbage trucks to pick up from the area. She led a protest against slumlords and a lawsuit against Pacific Railroad that helped residents buy their own homes:

“Our neighborhood group wins a huge victory over Southern Pacific Railroad, the largest property owner in California.  It gives me hope that I can make things better for people, empowering them to revitalize the neighborhood while keeping it affordable to those who live here. I learn that gentrification is coming, and if we don’t fix these 100 year old houses they will fall apart; but ominously if we do fix them, we will out-price the people who live here!”

By 1980, Joanna knew there was much more to do. So she took a class in real estate, and along with another nun, Sr. Arthur Joseph, founded a non-profit organization, Jubilee West. They asked for money from everyone they knew and put a down payment on a property. It had six units, all vacant for more than ten years and in complete disrepair.  They got volunteers to start fixing them, and as their part they offered a variety of social services and a youth program. That was just the start! They continued on buying “unlivable” houses, renovating them and giving people a place to live for the next decade!

In 1991, she wrote of the project:

”After 11 years of complex problems, joy, tears, hope and celebration, we have 85 units of renovated housing, all affordable to poverty-level people!

We think it will be permanently affordable.

But I worry that almost everything, including government programs, favors the rich at the expense of the poor!”

As sad as her last comment is, to me nothing can obliterate the good she did and the people she helped – many just by her example!

And the good news is that, after a year’s sabbatical mostly spent in Switzerland, she soon found several other ways to be of service.   Besides writing Grants and raising money for various causes, she added ecology to her focus. She led retreats and gave seminars about the connection of the cry of the poor to the cry of the earth.

She was also the Development Director for St. Mary’s Center, which provides housing and health care for homeless seniors and pre-school children.

I can say that without a doubt she had exceeded all the goals we had set on that mountainside so many years ago. The whole bunch at Pooh Corner would be proud! I certainly am!

In her golden years, because she was then based in Los Angeles,  Joanna was able to be with her twin sister Jeanne and Jeanne’s family on a frequent basis. Much to her delight. She actually returned to  what was now called Carondelet Center where it had all begun so many years ago! But it was now a retirement facility!

In 2017, we met one last time when she invited me back there to Los Angeles to celebrate her 60th year anniversary as a nun! Besides seeing Joanna, I met with others who had been in our Reception and marveled at all their many accomplishments and charitable works. They all greeted me very warmly. There were only 21 still in the community by that point.

But for me, the highlight was the time Joanna and I spent afterwards strolling along the beach in Santa Monica, two old friends deep in conversation, just as we were so very long ago.

Joanna talked about her sister’s battle with Alzheimer’s. Both her parents had died of the disease. And now Joanna had been diagnosed with it as well. She was very philosophical about it and very much at peace. I think she knew that she had fulfilled her goals in life and had been true to her ideals…

She made a difference – to many lives!

God bless her.

       SR. JOANNA MARIE BRAMBLE     9/2/23


  1. Pamela Ohare says:

    What a wonderful life loved! It makes me want to do more. What a wonderful friend you had.

    1. Kari says:

      Hi Pam! Thank you so much for taking the time to read about Joanna! You are so right, she lived a very impactful life. We should all be so generous.
      I follow you on Facebook and can readily see what a caring person you are! I love the pictures of your adorable granddaughter, Olivia. What a blessing! And another one on the way!

  2. Janet says:

    Oh Kari what a beautiful story about your friend and also love to hear more about that time in your life. You are remarkable. ❤️❤️👏

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