Sister Joan Fitzgerald arrived in Phoenix in 1962, ready for the assignment from her order, the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or BVMs. She was to be a Spanish teacher at what was then Xavier High School. She never left.
Fifty years later, now principal of Xavier College Preparatory, Sr. Joan talks about change, opportunity and the satisfaction of a life well lived.
What’s an early childhood memory that still resonates today?
Remember the white smoke over the Vatican? I was 4 years old. We were sitting in our living room, listening to the radio, waiting for the announcement of the new pope. My mother was crocheting a tablecloth, which I think my niece still uses. That was something very significant in our family and really made an impression on me.
Contrast your own high school experience with that of the girls currently attending Xavier. What has changed?
All of the advantages that the students have now—culturally and globally. Technology has completely changed their lives. We’ll never go back to being the simple little educational system we were.
Your first teaching assignment as a new sister was in Santa Barbara, but you traveled through Phoenix for the very first time on the way there. First impression of the Valley?
We graduated on a Friday afternoon. On Saturday, four of us were put on a train from Chicago. One of the sisters lived here in Phoenix. I got off the train at midnight with her, to spend the weekend. It was 110 degrees. At midnight. In the middle of the night the air conditioning had gone off. And I had this pink wool blanket over me. I woke up and said, “Please, dear God, please don’t ever send me here.” That prayer was never answered. That was in 1959.
But just three years later, the BVMs re-assigned you to Phoenix, and you began teaching Spanish. When you arrived at Xavier, did you aspire to move up the ladder?
Absolutely not. You wouldn’t even think of it. As people came and left, there were openings and you got assigned to that opening. When I became treasurer, that was my extracurricular activity. Somebody else was coaching volleyball and somebody else was putting on the drama club. And I was the treasurer. It just happens. In religious life, a lot just happens.
What are some of the advantages of a girls-only school?
Leadership opportunities. There aren’t any boys to compete with. The editors of the papers, the captains of the sports teams, the officers of the clubs. All women.
What do you hear from alumnae about how their experience at Xavier has changed them as women?
You know, they don’t think there is something out there that they can’t do. When they get on the college campus, they realize the opportunities they have. Other girls are still taking those secondary positions until they really make their space. Our girls leave and the world is open to them.
Do you ever wonder about the decision you might make if you were graduating from high school today? Would you choose a different path?
I don’t think so. I have been given a lot more opportunities than many of the women my age received, because we were given the education. As you look back, in the ’60s and the ’70s the women who were college presidents were nuns. The women who were running hospitals were nuns. The women who were running schools were nuns. [Those] happened to be the opportunities that we were given. And it was just wonderful.
Vocations among women are declining. Will nuns be around in 50 years?
Who knows? If God wants them here, we’ll be here. Society changes. There was a need for us in education and in the health fields. But we’ve also educated our people. And if we’ve educated them right, then they can take over. So if we’re not here, it shouldn’t make any difference.
What are you most proud of?
Just being able to work with the people I’ve worked with. I’ve been able to use my talents, but I’ve also been able to watch everyone around me use their talents. It’s been very fulfilling.
Multimedia journalist Vicki Louk Balint writes about health topics and produces audio and video stories for Raising Arizona Kids magazine.
On the podcast:
Sr. Joan shares more thoughts on same-gender education, talks about riding in Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s jeep and describes her lasting respect and admiration for her teachers at Sacred Heart School in Boone, Iowa.