In 1943, just after graduating from St. Mary Academy on the campus of the IHM Motherhouse in Monroe, Michigan, Janice Soleau took a step of only a few blocks to enter the IHM community, to the dismay of her family. Looking back, Sister Jan remarks that at the time she had no idea of the opportunities she would have as an IHM Sister but she felt called. Not only has she gone from the distinctive blue woolen IHM habit that covered everything but hands and face to smart pastel attire – “It’s cheerful”—but she also has been a teacher, writer, vocation director, campus minister, counselor, fund raiser and, especially, a warm friend during her rich career.
After her initial formation, Sister Jan (then known as Sister Nivard) went off to teach school, working on her bachelor’s degree at Marygrove during summers for 17 years. Later she earned a Master’s in Education from Wayne State University and also studied at Marymount College and the University of Chicago.
Recognizing the need, Sister Jan wrote a Mass Book for Children that made the Latin words understandable to them. The book was widely used in Catholic schools. Sister taught at Detroit schools—Gesu, St. Cecelia and St. Francis de Sales—and was a founding sister at St. Regis, Birmingham. She is especially remembered as principal of St. Gerard’s Elementary in Kirkwood, Missouri. Former students, who still refer to her as Mother Nivard, sent her airline tickets to attend their 50th anniversary celebration, and again this year to attend the dedication of a new wing on the school.
During the late 1960s, Sister Jan was asked to take on the role of IHM Vocation Director and then of Interim Candidate Director, working with young women in the initial stages of religious life during a time of real challenge.
Her next stop was a more secular venue when she joined the campus ministry team at Wayne State University. For 13 years she conducted retreats and numerous workshops for young adults helping them mature in their faith. To this day, Sister Jan considers some of these students from that turbulent time among her wide circle of friends.
Sister Jan returned to Marygrove in 1983 to become Alumni Director, a post she held for another 13 years. Renee Ahee ’72 recalls that no one had reached out to her to rekindle her involvement with the College until Sister Jan called to ask her to help with the annual alumni “phonathon.” Renee saw firsthand how well organized this and other programs were under Sister Jan, “She loved Marygrove and her enthusiasm and hope for the place were contagious.” She was both a “fund raiser” and a “friend raiser.” Sister Jan allegedly retired but she moved down the hall in Madame Cadillac to work half-time in the Development Department making those one-on-one calls to individuals and companies who could be enlisted to contribute to Marygrove. And then another so-called retirement.
Dr. Glenda D. Price came to Detroit from Atlanta in 1998 to become President of Marygrove. According to Dr. Price, Sister Jan, who no longer worked at Marygrove, took it upon herself to organize luncheons, accompany her to visit elderly alumni, fill her in on people she was likely to meet and share engaging stories about the College. Dr. Price says, “She went out of her way to be helpful. She wanted me to succeed as well as the College to prosper…No institution has a better ambassador than Sister Jan Soleau, IHM.”
Now at age 86, Sister Jan is more than busy. She is a volunteer for elementary school children at “Epiphany Center” in Detroit and visits clients of “Compassionate Companions,” an organization established by IHM sisters who act as legal guardians for those who can no longer manage their affairs because of physical or mental infirmity. She even spends a few hours two days a week as the receptionist at an acupuncture office. Sister Jan is also an active member of two IHM committees, Undoing Racism and HIV/AIDS and is an “armchair activist” for peace and justice causes.
Sister Jan had to hang up her tennis racquet due to a troublesome leg but she is an avid follower of tennis on television. She appreciates poetry and writes some as well. According to many friends, Sister Jan never met a stranger and can make a friend in the elevator of a two-story building.