Young Joan Kobe had visions of serving in Africa and other foreign locales when she graduated from high school 50 years ago and entered the Daughters of Wisdom.
After all, the Catholic order of religious women had been — and still is today — ministering in education, health care and humanitarian efforts in a number of foreign countries.
“I entered the Daughters of Wisdom because they were a missionary community,” said the sister. At 69, she is celebrating her 50-year jubilee.
“They had sisters in Africa at the time and that was my plan,” Sister Joan said.
God, however, had something else in mind for the then 18-year-old.
Sister Joan, who has served God in the Diocese of Charleston for the past 15 years, said she spent most of her childhood summers running through neighborhood fire hydrants, roller skating or playing stickball in the streets of Brooklyn, N.Y.
“If you broke someone’s window, you were in deep trouble,” she said.
She was the oldest child and had two younger brothers. After graduating from Our Lady of Wisdom Academy in Queens, she enrolled at the Daughters of Wisdom in Litchfield, Conn., on her 18th birthday on August 1, 1957. The order trained her for what she thought would be mission work in Malawi, a small country near the southeast coast of Africa.
Instead, after taking final vows in 1964, she was sent to Madawaska, Maine.
Sister Joan didn’t know it at the time, but that mission would set the tone for her future.
“I was learning that God works in different ways in our lives,” she said.
While in Madawaska, which means Land of the Porcupine, the sister taught fifth-graders in the public school how to read and write English.
“They were special ed students who could only speak French,” she said.
The Daughters of Wisdom came to Madawaska from Canada during the 1930s to help teach in the public school system. The order, whose history dates back to 18th century France, was under contract with the district to provide instruction, she said.
For Sister Joan, however, her first assignment was more of a challenge than she had expected.
“For the first six months, I kept trying to get out,” she said. “It was a different culture.”
It was suddenly gut-check time. “I said to myself, ‘Girl, you want to go to a foreign country and you can’t adjust to a different culture in your own country? Shape up.’ ”
And she did, by learning the French language and the region’s history.
“I knew more about the area than the people who were born there,” Sister Joan said.
While teaching, she earned a master’s degree in math at Boston College in 1972 and a master’s in divinity at Andover Newton Theological School in Boston. Traveling to Chicago, she served in hospitals as intern chaplain supervisor and chaplain supervisor in the mid-70s.
Also in the ’70s, her brother, Robert, was ordained as a priest in the Diocese of El Paso, where he still serves. The siblings recently met in Seneca for a joint celebration marking his 30th and her 50th anniversary.
Over the years, Sister Joan has served in a variety of locales. She worked in a parish that included five Native American reservations where she handled all hospital visitations. Then moved to San Diego to help with evangelization and adult faith formation.
In 1992, she became pastoral administrator at a small church in Holly Springs, Miss., where she was in charge of the parish. She said the priest only came for Mass.
Sister Joan said God placed her in an area with only one Catholic church over three counties to prepare her for her next move — the heavily Southern Baptist South.
Through all of her mission work in the United States, Sister Joan said she learned an important lesson on how God wants her to operate.
“You don’t go to these places to bring God there, you go to discover the God who is already there and help people discover that,” she said. “It’s called listening to God.”
Eventually, a full-time priest was assigned to Holly Springs and Sister Joan moved to the Diocese of Charleston as a pastoral administrator at Sacred Heart in Abbeville and Good Shepherd in McCormick in 1994.
Eight years later she was asked to head the Hispanic ministry for St. Andrew Church in Clemson, and St. Paul the Apostle Mission in Seneca and St. Francis Mission in Walhalla, even though she knew very little Spanish. But, as was the case some four decades earlier in Maine, Sister Joan took it upon herself to learn Spanish.
As she moves into her second half-century with the Daughters of Wisdom, Sister Joan still awaits God’s call to work overseas. She obtained her first passport two summers ago while helping a U.S.-born Hispanic child with his paperwork so he could visit his parents in Mexico.
Sister Joan said she used her passport for the first time two years ago when she traveled to Mexico for a three-week language-emersion class in Spanish.
“That was the first formal Spanish class I would take,” she said.
Sister Joan still has hopes of working in foreign missions someday. She serves on the leadership team for her province in New York and whenever she attends meetings of the Daughters of Wisdom, she reminds them that “we’re bigger than just Long Island.”
In fact, her congregation currently has missions in more than 20 countries.
Sister Joan said the past 50 years have been an adventure for her, filled with times of great joy and some sadness.
She said she nearly died at birth, and on at least two other occasions she flirted with death. One was a serious accident in San Diego and the other happened the day she graduated from Andover Newton. Her life was also nearly taken by a cancerous tumor.
“God has given my life to me,” Sister Joan said.
Still, she said there were moments when she would ask: “ ‘Oh God, why am I in this place?’ And God would say to me, ‘It’s because I want you here, dear heart. Are there any other questions?’ ”