Sister Joan LaCoursiere: A faithful Sister of Mount Saint Benedict
By Sister Denise Schonhardt, OSB
Sister Joan LaCoursiere grew up in a family steeped in French-Canadian culture and the Catholic faith. She followed her sister, Sister Cuthbert, into the monastic community at Mount Saint Benedict.
Sister Mary Fay, in her short biography of Sister Joan, wrote, “After her religious profession in 1940, Sister Joan spent over 37 years as a teacher and school administrator, a ministry in which she was effective, well-liked and successful . . .”
In 1978, Sister Joan accepted an appointment by Bishop Victor Balke as the pastoral coordinator of the parishes of Mentor and Fertile. She promoted lay leadership in these parishes along with an ecumenical spirit. Sister Joan left this ministry reluctantly when the community called to her to be prioress.
Once again one of the challenges that faced the new prioress centered on the healthcare ministry. Due to low census, problems with physicians, the depressed economy of the area and the possibility of alternate uses for the Saint John’s Hospital, the city of Red Lake Falls and Northwestern Hospital accepted the sisters’ proposal to terminate sponsorship of the hospital to the dismay of many citizens of Red Lake Falls.
In 1986, Sister Joan began to receive reports about complaints at Saint Mary’s Hospital in Detroit Lakes regarding patient care, in-service programs, and staff relationships. When the Council conferred with the management firm for Saint Mary’s with these concerns, they promised to work on a plan of action to resolve them. Meanwhile, Sister Rebecca Wright contacted the community indicating that Benedictine Health System (BHS) from Duluth might be interested in sponsorship of Saint Mary’s. BHS promised to emphasize quality care of the sick. The monastic council voted to sell the hospitals in Detroit Lakes and Browerville to BHS. When the sole physician in Browerville decided to move there was no other option except to close St. John’s Hospital.
Funds from the sale of Saint Mary’s were invested to help begin a fund to be used for the retirement of the sisters. Despite this, the general financial condition of the community was not good. One of the reasons for this was that fewer sisters were earning each year while healthcare and plant maintenance costs were increasing.
When sisters and other lay people were allowed to serve as pastoral associates, administrators, coordinators and parish visitors in the diocese, several sisters responded to the opportunity of pastoral and parish ministry.
The ministry of education also faced diminishment primarily because of the retirement of sisters. Sisters withdrew from Saint Philip’s School in Bemidji and Saint Francis de Sales School in Moorhead.
Within the monastic community, one of the issues Sister Joan dealt with was a clarification of the essence of monastic life. Sisters came to the realization that ministry flowed out of their monastic commitment. The sisters studied monastic economics, the meaning of monastic poverty, simple living and stewardship.
Sister Joan appointed Sister Mary Beth Banken as Development Director to explore options for Marian Hall. The entire first floor was used by Mount Saint Benedict Center and parts of third and fourth floors were used for overnight accommodations for Center guests. Space was also needed for sisters who came home in the summer. The sisters decided that Marian Hall would continue to be used for those purposes at that time.
Another issue challenging the sisters was the care of elderly sisters. In light of their monastic value of caring for their sick, the sisters decided to establish a healthcare unit where the sisters could live a monastic life until they died.
During Lent, 1989, the sisters began a discernment process to elect a prioress. Sister Joan had announced that she would not accept nomination for another term. On June 23, the sisters elected Sister Eleanor Mueller as their prioress for a four-year term to begin in August 1989.
After the close of her term was completed Sister Joan fulfilled her dream of working with the poor at Care and Share Center in Crookston where she taught English as a second language to persons from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. After three years at Care and Share, Sister Joan was asked to tend to the spiritual needs of the sisters in the healthcare unit.
Sister Mary Fay aptly wrote, “Sister Joan, as prioress, teacher, and pastoral minister, remained true to her own vision, that of a being a professional Benedictine woman, a leaven in the community, in the Church and in the world.”