Sister Mary Joseph Maher always dreamed of living among and working with people who were poor and marginalized. And that dream came true.
“I realize that I actually lived and worked in every place I ever desired to live and work: Recife, Brazil, and the inner cities of Detroit, Chicago and Gary, Indiana,” she said.
A lifetime of missionary work allowed Maher to touch the lives of many people. But in addition to helping the poor, she inspired others to help, too.
“I believe that she is one of the most important influences in the congregation over the past 40 years,” said Sister Joan Mumaw, IHM. “She has helped to shape congregational response to global issues of justice and peace, both through education of sisters in critical thinking and social analysis, and through her life as a missionary.”
After graduating from Marygrove in 1953, Maher taught school in the Archdiocese of Detroit. She pursued her graduate studies at St. Louis University where she earned an M.A. and a Ph.D., majoring in political science and minoring in history. From 1966-69 she served as dean of studies at Marygrove College, Monroe Campus. There, in collaboration with a vibrant faculty, she directed a post-Vatican II curriculum which educated hundreds of IHM Sisters to become competent and creative educators.
However, it is her commitment to global justice and the development of a humane world that is the hallmark of her professional career and ministry as an IHM. From 1969-72 and again from 1976-77,Maher served as a missionary in Recife, Brazil, where her immersion into the life of the poor changed her forever.
While serving as director of the IHM Apostolate from 1972-76 and IHM overseas missions from 1982-88, Maher facilitated a revisioning of IHM ministries in Latin America, in which the focus moved from formal education to that of sharing life with and working among the materially poor. She opened new missions in Ghana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, and was instrumental in getting IHM Sisters into ministries on four Native American reservations.
According to Sister Judith Coyle, Maher left a lasting impression on those she worked with. “I remember a poor old African woman from our local parish in Howick, South Africa, who met Mary Jo only once. Every time I was to see her for years after that, she would inquire, ‘When is that Sister Mary Jo going to come back to us?’ She remembered her until her death.”
Maher’s work with the poor took her to Chicago in 1989, where she helped rehabilitate an abandoned school building to become a women’s shelter. In 1990 she was instrumental in creating a senior citizen drop-in center. The next year she went to Gary, Indiana, where she was pastoral associate and religious education director at SS Monica and Luke Parish. Back in Chicago a year later, she worked in a Mexican parish coordinating 17 base Christian communities and publishing a directory of information on 85 service organizations in the Pilsen neighborhood. She currently serves as historian at the IHM Motherhouse in Monroe.
“Throughout her life she has sought out ministries to the poor and abandoned and has invited and encouraged others to do the same,” says Ellen C. Rinke, IHM. “What motivates and sustains Mary Jo is her deep faith and love of Jesus Christ.”
Maher recalls her time at Marygrove fondly. “At that time in my life I discovered how much I enjoyed getting to know people and hearing their stories. I began to learn how to draw people out, how to listen to them with genuine interest and, I hope, how to affirm and encourage them.
“I am most grateful that I had the privilege of helping many IHM Sisters live and work with people who are poor and marginalized. We did not build institutions, but worked with already existing institutions to help people believe in themselves, help them discover their own dignity, and help them develop their own personal gifts for service to their communities. Then we moved on.”