Sister Mary Jo was the longest-serving Catholic nun in Alaska. Born on April 27, 1932 in France, she died April 15, 2017 in Anchorage after spending most of her life in service.
Sr. Mary Jo arrived in the Territory of Alaska in 1959 just as it became a state. As a young nun who had just completed her novitiate training in Montreal, she was sent to Nome, where she was part of a small band of Catholic nuns who built themselves a cabin on Little Diomede Island over the course of three summers, hauled water, gathered berries, and practiced subsistence fishing, just as their Native neighbors did. They walked and prayed, healed, and served among the poor.
Sr. Mary Jo spent most of 60 years in Northwest Alaska in her ministry, learning subsistence skills from the women of King Island, Nome, and Little Diomede.
She was known as an expert skin sewer and helped sew walrus skins for skin boats. She learned to speak Inupiaq with the help of many Elders in the region.
The Little Sisters of Jesus was founded during World War II by Madeleine Hutin, who took the name Little Sister Magdeleine of Jesus. The original community of the religious sisters was in Touggourt, Algeria. Little Sister Magdeleine began by sharing the life of semi-nomads on the outskirts of a Saharan oasis.
Bt the 1950s the Little Sisters had a small group in North America and in the Arctic. Sr. Mary Jo’s dream was to live among Alaska Natives, as Little Sister Magdeleine had lived among the nomads of the Sahara, and share with them the love of Jesus. She brought her dream to fruition.
In 2014, the sisters had to leave Western Alaska and regroup nearer to medical facilities in Anchorage. Sr. Mary Jo needed nursing home care after experiencing cognitive problems. Her health rapidly deteriorated this month and she died surrounded by those who loved her on Easter weekend.
Three of the Little Sisters of Jesus are said to be living in the Anchorage Pioneers Home.
Read more from KNOM radio about the Little Sisters of Jesus and their adventures in faith in Western Alaska. More about this glimpse into “old Alaska” can be found in this story at The Catholic Anchor.