‘Would you have a cup of tea with me?’

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Last modified: 1/25/2016 6:02:06 PM
At age 17, Joan “Joni” O’Donnell joined the Sisters of Mercy convent in Manchester, but something wasn’t quite right. It was a feeling she’d continue to experience even after leaving for a short time and returning to her vows for another 13 years. Today, the Jaffrey resident continues her journey with the order as an associate, having long since found her niche working with youth in the ConVal School District.

“I’m passionate about young people. I think they are God’s greatest gift,” said O’Donnell, 73, who is now retired from teaching. “I have always been on the receiving end with kids.”

O’Donnell was born in 1942 in Jamaica, New York, but grew up for the most part in Manchester, where she attended school with the Sisters of Mercy. “They taught me grammar school, they taught me high school — incredible teachers,” said O’Donnell.

Just out of high school, she decided to enter the convent. She did her postulancy in Swamscott, Massachusetts. She was with the Sisters of Mercy for 18 months.

“I was only 17,” she recalled. “I just knew I wasn’t ready.”

After leaving, O’Donnell finished college and then taught for two years in Manchester. She was also engaged briefly. “But something was still gnawing at me,” she said. “So I re-entered [this time with] the Sisters of Holy Cross in Manchester. ... I stayed there 13 years and left.”

O’Donnell said both her experiences of taking vows were wonderful, but she left again because there was something calling her elsewhere. “I reached a point where my spirituality and religion were the most important thing in my life,” she said.

O’Donnell was 37 when she left Holy Cross. She applied for a teaching position in the Social Studies Department at ConVal High School, a job she would hold until retirement in 2003. “ConVal has been the best blessing in my life,” she said. “That’s when the struggle stopped.”

Known as “Miss O,” O’Donnell had found her niche in a public school. But it isn’t what she gave her students that made the difference, she said, it what was what they gave her. “If you dared to listen to kids and see their strength,” she said, not finishing the sentence.

There were two students in particular who changed O’Donnell’s life, both of whom died young. One of them was Kim Costa, a 1999 ConVal graduate who passed away in 2000 following a lengthy battle with Hodgkin’s Disease. “She helped us,” O’Donnell recalled. “She made us be true to ourselves.”

Becoming an associate

Though she was finding fulfillment as a teacher at ConVal, O’Donnell’s love of the Sisters of Mercy was never extinguished. She had always identified with their mission of mercy and their hospitality, something her Irish mother had instilled in her.

The Sisters of Mercy was founded in Dublin, Ireland, in 1831. Their signature motto is, “Would you have a cup of tea with me?” O’Donnell said.

Since the mid-1970s, the Sisters of Mercy have invited lay people to join as associates. O’Donnell was among the first in New Hampshire to make the commitment, serving as the original co-director of the associate program for the region.

The process of becoming an associate involves learning alongside a nun and eventually making a formal committment to the Sisters of Mercy and their mission, which includes service to the poor, sick and uneducated.

“It is a formal ceremony,” O’Donnell said. “And it’s always a party afterward. Mercies love to party.”

There are currently 30 Sister of Mercy associates in New Hampshire, and 92 sisters.

Being an associate has given O’Donnell the balance she’s needed to pursue her spirituality. There are opporunities to get involved with Sister of Mercy projects, such as the annual breakfast fundraiser O’Donnell helps coordinate in Jaffrey for the women of Plaisance, Jamaica, as well as retreats.

But O’Donnell also gets her solitude and time to pray. “That’s not talking, that’s listening for God’s will in my life — I need that silence,” she said. “It takes an awful lot of silence. ... Until you experience that total emptiness, you’re not there.”


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