RIP, Sister Joan Bellew SSND

By Sr. Marie Clare Powell SSND and Sr. Carol Marie Wildt SSND
Sister Joan (formerly Vernon Marie) Bellew of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, 79, died on Jan. 1.
She had served as a volunteer at Our Lady of the Lake parish in Lake Ozark from 2012 to 2016.
The Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated on Jan. 27 in the chapel of Theresa Center at Sancta Maria in Ripa in St. Louis.
Monsignor Marion Makarewicz, pastor at Our Lady of the Lake parish, presided.
Relatives and classmates and Our Lady of the Lake parishioners came together to celebrate her life.
Sr. Joan loved teaching high school youth “who were so energetic and so willing to explore with her the truths and the mysteries of mathematics, religion and science.”
She was a fun-loving, mischievous and prayerful person.
She was born on June 26, 1937, in Fort Madison, Iowa, the first of five children born to Vernon and Cecelia (Krumpelman) Bellew, and given the name Shirley Joan.
Admiration for her simple, honest, deeply religious grandmother played a major role in the family, and she became a role model for Shirley.
She and her siblings attended Sacred Heart School and the Catholic high school in Fort Madison, where she was taught and influenced by School Sisters of Notre Dame.
She felt drawn to religious life when after visiting the SSND motherhouse in St. Louis with a group of eighth-graders.
But her request to attend high school as an aspirant in St. Louis met with a firm “no” from her parents.
Again, when her best friend became a candidate after their junior year of high school, her parents refused to grant permission for Shirley to follow.
Only after she graduated from high school did her parents concede, though they still did not approve.
Shirley entered the candidature on June 18, 1955.
The stronger opposition of her father remained as he refused to visit or even to send a message on the occasion of her reception into the congregation in 1956 and her religious profession the following year.
Upon her profession on Aug. 3, 1957, she was given the name Sister Vernon Marie.
For two years, she pursued a bachelor’s degree in education from Notre Dame College in St. Louis.
She was then assigned to teach science and math at Redemptorist High School in New Orleans.
Similar assignments followed at St. Anthony High School in Effingham, Illinois; and St. Gerard High School in San Antonio, Texas.
Sr. Joan’s life took a new turn when she was assigned to another Texas community in 1969.
She was to teach high school students as usual. But the late August illness of the principal and superior of the Tyler Catholic community precipitated her reassignment.
Since it was a school of just 200 students, she was to fill the position of both administrator and teacher.
She completed a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Notre Dame College in 1960 and a master’s degree in education in 1973 from Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas.
Her last school assignment in the former Dallas Province was to Sacred Heart High School in Morrilton, Arkansas. There, she again served as both a principal and teacher.
It was a rural community in a state that was less than 5 percent Catholic.
Though she had earlier volunteered for the SSND mission in Ghana, West Africa, she now resolved to let Arkansas be her “foreign mission.”
She remained there for 10 years, until 1984.
Then, two anniversaries brought life-assessing times — her silver jubilee as a religious woman was celebrated and a quarter century of teaching was completed.
Added to that was the SSNDs’ imminent termination of ministry at the Morrilton mission.
Discernment time for the whole community brought her to request time for renewal and service at St. Mary of the Pines retirement and retreat center in Chatawa, Mississippi.
She found that she was very comfortable and satisfied with the retired community of sisters in Chatawa, and the experience seemed mutual.
When the opening for local leader of the SSND community in Chatawa was announced, she volunteered.
“These years at Chatawa with my sisters have touched me deeply,” she later stated. “They have taught me so much about living and dying.
“I know that within a year or two, I will be moving on from Chatawa,” she continued. “I feel that I need to look at Ghana again and see if this is where God is leading me.”
Sr. Joan did look at Ghana again.
In June 1990, she was missioned to Notre Dame Clinic in Nsawam, Ghana.
The following year, she became headmistress at Notre Dame Secondary School in Sunyani, Ghana.
Returning to the United States in 1997, she served as a substitute teacher at Aquinas High School in Fort Madison, Iowa, for a year.
She followed that with 11 years at Notre Dame High School in Burlington, Iowa.
In 2009, she became a caregiver for her mother.
Following her mother’s death, Sr. Joan came to the Jefferson City diocese to serve as a volunteer at Our Lady of the Lake parish in Lake Ozark.
As her health deteriorated, she moved to The Sarah Community near St. Louis in 2016.
During her short time there, she initiated a centering prayer group, even though she was experiencing great pain in her back and could no longer walk.
She died peacefully at DePaul Hospital in Bridgeton the evening of New Year’s Day.
A prayer service was held for her at The Sarah Community on Jan. 12.
Due to an impending ice storm, the Funeral Mass was rescheduled for Jan. 27.
Surviving are her brother, Mike (Joy) Bellew of Fort Madison, Iowa; her sisters: Patty (Bob) Shores of New London, Iowa; Jan (Rudy) Waddle of Milo, Iowa; and Ann (Eric) Burghdorf of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

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