Sister Jo was a tiny scrap of a woman, but she still had the strong, clear voice that must have served her well in the years she worked as a nurse in a large urban hospital. She had a great sense of humor and loved a good conversation, though by the time we met, she had passed her 90th birthday. Many of the sisters in her community’s retirement home were enjoying a well-earned rest while they waited for the Lord to call them home. Sr. Jo was eager and waiting, too, but it was how she waited that impressed us the most.
Sr. Jo still lived her life with an urgency that might have been rooted in the trauma she suffered at age 5 in Italy when she had been buried for three days in the rubble from an earthquake. A young lawyer from Rome had uncovered her with his shovel and gave her a second chance at life. The rest of her family had perished, so the man and his wife took her in and brought her with them to America after World War I. The more than 85 years between her “resurrection” and the small room in the retirement home gave us an amazing view of what God can do through us when we “wait in joyful hope.”
For several years after the quake, Sr. Jo had been unable to walk and doctors felt she would never stand on her own. Confined to the house, she spent her time learning languages, reading books and learning to play the piano. She wrote letters to authors she enjoyed and they often wrote back. Eventually she had a collection of letters from many well-known early 20th century writers. Never did she spend time feeling sorry for herself or allowing her condition to limit her world. She said that one day, at age 14, she had been home alone upstairs when she had a definite feeling she should get up and walk. She stood, and holding onto walls and railings she made her way downstairs, much to the shock of her mother when she returned.
As a young woman, Sr. Jo wanted to become a Daughter of Charity. The Sisters felt she was so frail she would not be able to manage the hard work required of her and so Sr. Jo waited. She already had a degree in social work and she proved her strength by scrubbing floors and earning a degree in nursing after entering religious life. When she felt called to start a mission in an underprivileged section of Chicago, her request was denied. She kept herself busy and waited until a way opened. In the years that followed, the woman who had once been told she would never walk had photos of herself teaching inner-city teens to dance.
In her last years, we never knew what we would find when we went to see her. Her father (the same man who rescued her) had devoted the last part of his life to a mission he started among the Otomi Indians in Mexico. Sr. Jo worked to raise support for his mission. Once we asked how she managed to raise money while confined to her room. She laughed, held up some correspondence and said, “Oh, but I have friends.”
Often we found her knitting hats and blankets for the homeless. Once we said, “Sr. Jo, you aren’t going to die until you run out of yarn.” She raised an eyebrow and said, “Look in the bathroom.” A closet and the tub next to a shower overflowed with stacks of yarn donated by people who intended to keep her going.
The most important thing we learned from Sr. Jo is that while all of us must wait, it is how we wait that makes the difference. When Christ came for Sr. Jo, He found her doing as much as she could as long as she was able. While we, too, wait for the coming of Christ, there are floors to be scrubbed, children to be fed and homeless to clothe. The yarn is always waiting.
Sr. Jo Tarquini, Daughter of Charity passed away at age 100 on July 16, 2010.
Deacon Jim and Ann Cavera live in Bowling Green. They write both separately and together and are the authors of “Grounded in God,” available through Liguori publishing or Amazon.com. “Grounded in God” is a collection of reflections on faith, hope, love and laughter in the second half of life.