Retirement for Sister Joan Sherry means working four days a week rather than seven. There are also no more late night meetings, and "a lot less pressure."
"I feel very fortunate, now that we can chose what we're doing," she said after looking back at her 64 years as a Sister of Mercy. "We know what our talents are and we're trying to work with them in the people we see around us." In the early days of her ministry, the superior of the order would assign a ministry for the sisters, usually in education. "But, it was the superiors in our community that saw talents in us. That's how they assigned us. Now, I never thought that I'd be a principal. However, I can remember my mother saying, 'You're bossy.'"
Sister Joan did take on a rather long-term career in education, teaching every grade from second through high school, before moving into education administration. She served as principal in elementary schools and Mount Mercy Academy for 25 years, before getting back into teaching for a brief period.
"Some people thought I was crazy to go back to teaching," she said. "I had all the head knowledge, but it was difficult for me because the students had changed. What I had expected of students I was just not getting."
Being a strict English teacher, she wanted the most from her students. Once the students passed, they were grateful for stern lessons.
"I love to see the students grow," she said. "When they first came into the class they loved to fool around, things like that, and me being strict, they learned a lot and they did well, so as a result they got to be very good students. Many of them earned scholarships. That was a wonderful thing to see. I never had any discipline problems. Sometimes I run into them. It's really nice to reminisce and hear them say how well they are doing."
After being a teacher she took some time off to be taught. She traveled to South Bend, Indiana for a sabbatical at Notre Dame University, where she studied theology.
"That's a very broadening experience because there is everything there. There's sports, there's theater, there's music, and there are classes," she said. "Before I signed up for my classes, I signed up for my football tickets."
While away, she read through the community newsletters to keep up with the local happenings. By this time, sisters could pick their own ministries, so when she found an opening in the outreach department of Catholic Charities, she thought, "Oh, I could do that."
Sister Joan wrote to Msgr. John J. Conniff, then director of Catholic Charities, who hired her for an outreach position in the Old First Ward at the Commodore Perry Housing Development, not far from where she grew up. The job had been vacant for two years, so Sister Mary Anne Weldon, RSM, the supervisor, told Sister Joan to make a program however she sees fit.
"I just walked around the streets, talked to a few people, tried to figure out what the needs were, then I worked there," she said.
She designed a program that included home visits, teaching, and guest speakers to lead cooking and sewing classes. She started reading classes with the Ladies of Charity. She even got some of the other sisters to volunteer.
"My purpose in all this is not to do for, but to enable people to know what they can do themselves," she said. If someone told her, "You can do it better then me," Sister Joan would suggest they do it together, so the other person could learn from her.
During home visits, she pointed out Social Security benefits the senior citizens were not aware of. She helped one resident understand why her cable bill was so high. (She never canceled the free channels once the promotion was over.)
When she saw there was a need for food, they opened St. Brigid's Pantry.
"The parishes in this diocese were so wonderful calling and saying, 'Can we help? Can we adopt a family for Christmas? Can we come and give a party for the children at Christmastime? At Halloweentime?'"
Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Harris Hill would give over 1,000 presents at Christmas and gave parties to kids.
"They were just wonderful," Sister Joan said.
When she learned many people could not come to the pantry, Sister Joan and volunteers would deliver food right to them.
Her work was much appreciated. Once a resident of the projects, half the size of Sister Joan's 5'8" frame, told her, "You shouldn't be walking around here. It's too dangerous. I'll walk with you and I'll protect you."
After her retirement in 2006, Sister Joan did another needs assessment of Buffalo. She found many grandparents taking care of their grandchildren. So she started three support groups spread out over Buffalo. Now, she just manages the South Buffalo group at Mercy Center.
"It's just working with them to try and help them have a better quality of life, because they didn't expect to be raising their grandchildren," she said, adding she acts as a facilitator. "Because I've been around the diocese and knew a lot of resources, I was able to connect them up with a lot of resources."
Still busy despite what the religious community considers retirement, she maintains that "do what you can attitude."
She coordinatates the music and Liturgy for the Sisters of Mercy in Buffalo, and sings in the choir at Mercy Center. She participates at St. Bernadette's parish life as much as she can.
"I really enjoy what I'm doing very much," she said. "If the community sees a need and asks me, then I'll do it."