GENEVA—On March 20, just before St. Peter School student Abageal Phelan sang out “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” it was introduced as the most popular song in 1913 – which was the year Sister Johanna Murphy was born.
The school honored Sister Johanna with an afternoon birthday party, one of at least three celebrations planned in different towns before and after the Servants of the Holy Heart of Mary (SSCM) sister’s actual birthday of March 21.
At St. Peter’s, a handful of students and Principal Roseann Feldmann presented a decade-by-decade timeline of notable events from the last 100 years, including popes, presidents, the price of a gallon of milk and of gas, and where Sister Johanna was during each decade. Sister Johanna sat near the younger students and, with a big smile, accepted a rose from each of the student presenters.
Father Martins Emeh, pastor, shared with those gathered that a few years ago Sister Johanna had given him a pair of French cufflinks that had belonged to her father. “She told me her secret to reach 100 (years) is three things: ‘Love God, love people, love nature.’ Sister, you’ve done all three, and that’s a life well lived,” he said as students applauded.
“She’s warmly remembered here,” Father Emeh said later, adding that for someone “to be 100 years old and walking is a testament to God’s grace. … She’s definitely inspirational.”
Sister Johanna was both teacher and principal at St. Peter School from 1967-1975. During those years she hired Carol Jacklin to be her secretary. “She was very influential,” Jacklin says. “I never saw her angry; she was so loving. The children were always first in her mind.”
Jane and John Martin named their daughter for Sister Johanna “because she was such an inspiration,” says Jane. “Sister Johanna was my first principal.”
As a fledgling teacher, she says she was worried about doing well with her first class of sixth-graders. “Sister Johanna told me, ‘Oh, Jane, you’ll love it — they’re a wonderful group of kids.’ And they were.
“She just gets better (as she ages). She’s a wonderfully loving, kind, compassionate and interesting woman, and fun. She loves a good time … she asks about our children and the friends she remembers” from Geneva.
Sister Myra Dionne of the Servants of the Holy Heart of Mary Community in Batavia has known Sister Johanna for about 60 years, and describes her as having “an extreme amount of energy.” At a March 17 birthday celebration in Kankakee, where the SSCM provincial administration is located, Sister Johanna “said she was energized,” Sister Myra says. “She’s a very outgoing, giving person. She loves people.”
Sister Johanna continues to be active in her interests that include reading, music, gardening and travel. A Chicago native, she entered the SSCM community in 1933 and devoted her life from 1936-1982 to education. She moved to Brooklyn Center, Minn., that year, then to Kankakee in 1984 to serve as superior of her religious community and assist at an area parish. She “retired” in 1993, serving as a parish visitor. She moved to the Batavia SSCM community in 2004, beautifying the grounds with her gardening expertise. In 2010, she moved to the SSCM convent in Hopkins Park, an impoverished area.
“She refers to herself as a presence at Sacred Heart (community),” said Principal Feldmann in her outline of Sister Johanna’s years of service. “She says she’s there not only to give love but to receive love, and says that ‘God has given me an abundance of both.’”