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Remembering Sister Johnette Sawyer, OSB

Updated: May 14, 2020

Our dear Sister Johnette Sawyer, OSB died on Easter Monday, May 2, after 63 years as a vowed Benedictine Sister, at St. Francis Hospital (Evanston, IL), from coronavirus (COVID-19). She passed into the loving arms of God and the Sisters who have gone before her are there to welcome her. Born in Pueblo, CO., and taught by the Benedictine Sisters of Chicago at St. Leander, she felt called to enter the Benedictines during college. She entered the monastery in September of 1955. Her first profession of vows was during the Easter season and her final vows were also during the Eastertide of 1957. Sister Johnette held a long career in education, and liturgical and parish ministry in both Colorado and Illinois. Sister Johnette exemplified a spirit of hospitality and a genuine interest in people always ready to welcome and engage in lively conversations. Hers was a warm and welcoming spirit that made people feel at home. We invite you to learn more about Sister Johnette in the following biography written by Sister Benita Coffey, OSB.

Sister Johnette Sawyer, OSB behind a desk doing ministry work.

Joanne Jean Sawyer was born June 25, 1935 in Pueblo, Colorado, the first daughter of John Albert and Melvina Marcella Penn Sawyer. Her Sister Marilyn was born next. Their mother died when they were in elementary school and later their father remarried and their brother John was born. The family was not Catholic, but Mr. Sawyer had Joanne take piano lessons from the Benedictine Sisters of Chicago at St. Leander and later enrolled the girls in that school. While there Joanne asked her father if she could become Catholic, and she was baptized.

After finishing high school at St. Patrick’s in Pueblo, she enrolled at St. Mary’s College in Leavenworth, Kansas, for two years. On September 11, 1955, Joanne entered the Benedictine Sisters of Chicago at Saint Scholastica Monastery. On April 7th, during Eastertide of 1956, she and the other postulants became novices and were given new religious names. Joanne would be known as Sister Johnette. Saint John the Baptist became her patron. Since his destiny was to “prepare the way of the Lord”, she always tried in her work to invite all people to be ready to accept God into their hearts. The novitiate year provided for study of the vows they would take to be members of the Benedictine Sisters. On April 27, 1957, Sister Johnette and the other novices pronounced triennial vows.

Her first assignment was to Queen of All Saints parochial school in Chicago, where she taught sixth grade. As was customary at the time, the new Sisters were carefully trained and supervised as new teachers; while they also continued studying the college courses needed to complete their under-graduate degrees.

Sister Johnette Sawyer, OSB (second from left) pictured with Catholic Composer, David Haas, at the 2018 GIA conference in Chicago, IL.

Sister Johnette, who was a life-long learner, earned a B.A. as well as a Masters in Education, and a Masters in Ministry. She also benefited from years of participation in annual conferences related to liturgy and music.

Between 1959 and 1964, Sister Johnette taught in middle school grades at both St. Hilary and St. Symphorosa Schools in Chicago. She often also served as a sacristan in the parish.

When the Prioress made the annual assignments in late summer of 1964, Sister Johnette was named as fifth and sixth grade teacher for Saint Michael Parish in Delta, Colorado, where she would also serve as parish organist. Thus began what would become 51 years of ministry in her beloved Colorado, the greater part of her religious life.

"Pueblo Sisters" pictured in the Pueblo Chieftain, 2019: Sister Mary Susan Remsgar, OSB (left), and Sister Johnette Sawyer, OSB (right).

Sister Johnette was next assigned to St. Leander, her home parish in Pueblo, where she served for the next eight years. Initially, she taught upper grade math, while also teaching music and working in parish liturgy. After three years she was named principal in which position she served until the school was closed in late 1971. For the next two years she did pastoral work, including development of a religious education program for the youth who now were attending the public schools.

In 1973 a whole new and challenging venture arose. She and Sister Joan Hentges assumed pastoral work which encompassed ministry to six missions. To do this work, they moved to Capulin, in the San Luis Valley. There they served the people in the area for five years.

Sister Johnette Sawyer, OSB (right) all smiles with Sisters Marilyn, Judith, & Amy (left to right).

Returning to St. Leander’s in 1978, Sr. Johnette ministered there for the next six years, until she became the Director of Music and Liturgy at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Pueblo. She also served there as the parish Director of Religious Education. For four months in 1990 while the rector was on sabbatical, she served as parish coordinator. During this time she was named in the Chronicle of Catholic Life – “Sister Johnette, the Rectorette.”

After a six-month sabbatical in 1994, Sister Johnette returned to ministry in the San Luis Valley where for four years she resided in Monte Vista and served in three parishes as well as in their three missions.

Sister Johnette’s next assignment was to St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Pueblo West. Six years of pastoral ministry there were followed by her return again to the San Luis Valley, this time to Alamosa, where her responsibilities included music, liturgy, and many facets and services involved in pastoral service there. In 2012, she went to live again in Pueblo, where at the Shrine of St. Therese she provided liturgical music and did part time pastoral ministry.

Sister Johnette Sawyer, OSB (left) with Sister Joan Hentges, OSB in 2015 when they returned from Colorado to St. Scholastica Monastery.

In 2015 she returned to St. Scholastica Monastery in Chicago and became Assistant to the Director of the St. Joseph Court Infirmary. Among her responsibilities was planning for liturgy in the St. Joseph Chapel. In doing this, she was careful to always engage the Sisters, and finding creative ways to mark all feasts. She also was responsible for the aviary.

Sister Johnette was fond of cats, which in her many years of living alone provided company for her; this interest extended for her when she returned to the monastery. She enjoyed giving some free time to interacting with and caring for several community cats.

Sister Johnette exemplified even more of a spirit of hospitality for her fellow humans. Her genuine interest in people and her readiness to welcome and engage in lively conversation made people feel at home. Hers was a warm and welcoming spirit. Sister Johnette used her creative gifts to enhance worship spaces and she designed rituals to highlight particular feasts that were active and inspirational for all. Whether in the parish or in her monastic community, she lived fully and with joy.

Sister Johnette Sawyer, OSB (right) singing at liturgy with some of her community members.

On Easter Monday Sister Johnette was hospitalized after she contracted the coronavirus (COVID-19). Three weeks of treatment and care could not save her life, although she gave her all to not succumb. On May 1 she was anointed by the chaplain at St. Francis Hospital (Evanston, IL) and she died May 2, after 63 years as a vowed Benedictine Sister.

Sister Johnette’s investiture, and both her triennial and her final vows all took place during the Easter season. How appropriate that this, the final event of her time on earth, came during this holy season.

She is mourned by her Benedictine community, her sister Marilyn Graybill, her brother John and extended family. Her loss is also felt by the many people among whom she ministered for so many years.

She will be buried in the Lakeside Cemetery in Cañon City, Colorado, with a number of other Benedictine Sisters who ministered in southern Colorado.

To read the reflection given at her memorial (TBD) by Sister Judith Murphy, Prioress, click here.

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