Wee Asked Sister Joanne Gonter

WEEasked some simple questions — and your neighbors, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, even some strangers, answered. Get to know them a little bit better with our fun series, “WEEasked.” Look for it a couple of times a month, most likely on Mondays. Do you have someone you’d like to see featured? Send us an email to weelunk@weelunk.com, and please be sure to put WEEasked in the subject line.

Edtor’s note: Anne Hazlett Foreman was a student of Sister Joanne’s at Mount de Chantal, and has a great connection with the teacher, sister and soon-to-be Hall of Fame inductee.

Sister Joanne Gonter’s nomination to the 2019 class of the Wheeling Hall of Fame is a fitting tribute to her many years of service to God and to the countless lives she has touched as student, teacher, leader and mentor.

This amazing woman has seen change, challenges and progress in her years since joining the Visitation Order at Mount de Chantal at the age of 18.

After she graduated from The Mount in 1952, Sister Joanne went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Wheeling College (now Wheeling Jesuit University) in 1959, later earning a master’s degree at Marshall University in 1968. Her teaching career spanned 49 years — four of those, I was privileged to benefit from.

My high school years ran parallel to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Seismic changes took place in the church, filtering down into all areas of Catholicism. Things were suddenly different at the cloistered order, and those differences impacted everyone. The grillework barrier in the parlor disappeared, the nun’s habits changed from the bulky medieval robes to contemporary clothes, and some took their own names back.

I don’t think we, as students, realized or appreciated how much change was taking place all around us.

As a member of the Sisters of the Visitation at Mount de Chantal from 1952 to 2010, Sister Joanne noted that her life could be divided into pre- and post-Vatican Council II, held in the 1960s. Before Vatican II, the community was cloistered, the sisters did not leave the monastery and received visitors only in a parlor behind wooden grillework. They taught and carried out other school duties, for example, dormitory supervision, in the academy buildings.

Sister Joanne with Bill Jones, chair of The Mount board, looking at a blueprint of the gym built in 1982.

Sister taught many subjects, one of them, a logic class, which I loved. It has helped me win some important discussions (arguments) over my lifetime. I can’t say I had the same affection for the chemistry class she taught. Numbers and I do not get along, never have and never will, and it seemed the whole course involved way too many of them. Sister Gertrude (as was her name in 1963) was patient and tried her best to help me but, somehow, all I wanted to do was go to the art studio four floors above the chem lab to draw. The “arts wing” contained the labs and gym on the ground floor, classrooms on the second, practice rooms for music students on third and a huge art studio on the fourth. My heart was always on fourth.

Chemistry teacher Sister Joanne, right, with Shirley Wilson, biology teacher, in The Mount science lab.

Sister Joanne has always been a model of classic dignity and timeless grace. As a teacher, she was strict but fair. After having spent her entire life within the monastery walls serving her community and the students she loved, she bore the burden of having to see her beloved alma mater come to an end when it was deemed no longer possible to keep The Mount open.

Sister Joanne’s honors are numerous. She was made a West Virginia History Hero in 2006. She won three awards from Wheeling Jesuit University: Distinguished Alumna, the Rev. Clifford Lewis S.J. Award and the Ignatian Medal. She served as Superior of the Visitation Community at The Mount and Director of Alumnae Relations, which she continues to oversee today.

Sister Joanne with WJU President James Fleming, SJ, at the 2016 Gaudiosa when she received the Ignatian Award.

Sister Joanne and the other nuns then residing at The Mount moved to the Georgetown Visitation community in Washington, D.C., after the last alumnae gathering in 2010. She is still very active, serving as assistant to the superior of the community and directing alumnae relations for approximately 1,200 former Mount de Chantal students.

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Sister Joanne playing the organ in the chapel of Georgetown Visitation.

Here’s what Sister Joanne answered when WEEasked:

Tell us about your experiences at Mount de Chantal and Wheeling Jesuit University?

My own Catholic education was very valuable. At Saint Michael’s Grade School, all our teachers were Sisters of Divine Providence from Kentucky. At Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy, the majority of our teachers were Sisters of the Visitation. And at Wheeling College, from 1955 to 1959, the majority of faculty were Jesuits. Today, the faculty and staff of most Catholic schools at all levels are predominantly lay women and men, but the charism is unchanged: the love of God and love of neighbor.

Focusing on my education at Mount de Chantal, something I particularly value is the fact that from its founding in 1848, the student body included young women of three major faiths — Catholic, Jewish and Protestant. This was the intention of its founder, Bishop Richard Vincent Whelan. One remembrance from my teaching days at the Mount was that one day after class, two students who were close friends came up to me and asked, “Are you a Christian?” One was Jewish, the other an Evangelical Christian. I don’t remember how I answered, but I feel sure I affirmed that I am a Christian.

Mount de Chantal was founded as a school for girls, both boarders and day students. In the 19th and 20th centuries, it drew students from throughout the U.S. and beyond, including Latin America (e.g., Colombia, Mexico and Nicaragua) and Iran and Vietnam, which meant some students were Muslim and Buddhist. In 1970, like other U.S. Visitation schools, a co-ed Montessori pre-school was added and, in 1985, co-ed elementary classes.

When The Linsly School opened its doors to young women, a dramatic decrease in Mount enrollment began and continued. When the decision was made in 2008 to close their beloved alma mater, alumnae were saddened and some quite angry, but with a total of 154 students from pre-school through 12th grade, there was no alternative.

The Alumnae Association, however, has continued to thrive. Each year since 2010, we have had an alumnae reunion here at Georgetown Visitation, and for the past five years, we have also had a reunion in the Mount de Chantal Conservatory of Music at Wheeling Jesuit University.

This brings me to my beloved alma mater, Wheeling Jesuit University, where our “cofounder” class of 1959 is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. 1955 to 1959 was a special time when we kept adding “another Wheeling College first” as months rolled by. Our faculty, Jesuits and lay men and women, were very special persons. For me that included my chemistry professor, Joe Duke, SJ; our dean, Bill Troy, SJ; philosophy professor Ed Gannon, SJ; Dr. Alfonse DiPietro, mathematics professor; and college pioneer, Cliff Lewis, SJ. Recently, a 1970 graduate and I shared our sadness about the present situation of our alma mater and also spoke of our immense gratitude for the gift that was ours.

Sister Joanne with members of The Mount class of 1970, from left, Bev Griffith, Mary Theresa Mitsch Vogel, Mimi Wilson, Sister Joanne, Mollie O’Brien and Chris Hedges.

If you could cultivate a new skill, what would that be?

More ability to understand and use a computer. 

Tell us something that would surprise Weelunk readers about you?

Having entered a cloistered community at age 18, I have never driven a car.  I was eventually encouraged to learn, but didn’t take the time to do so.

What is your wish for Wheeling?

That its historic significance be recognized and foster tourism, and that its treasures, like Oglebay Park and the Wheeling Symphony, continue to be valued.

Photos provided by the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.

Anne Hazlett Foreman, an award-winning artist, has been a member of Artworks Around Town for 20 years, having been on the board for the first four years. She also has served as chairman of the Oglebay Institute Mansion Museum Committee; served two terms and was vice president of the West Virginia Independence Hall Foundation; served on the Oglebay Institute Board of Directors, the board of Fort Henry Days and the Wheeling Hall of Fame board; and is a member of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Foreman is a graduate of Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy and attended Wheeling College and Chatham College. She is married to Robert Noel Foreman, and they have six children and several grandchildren.