JONKER HONOURED — Sister Johanna Jonker wears the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice cross medal presented to her by Archbishop of Winnipeg James Weisgerber. (Buchok photo)
Sister Johanna Jonker honoured
By James Buchok
WINNIPEG — After 10 years of service to Micah House, the Archdiocese of Winnipeg's Catholic Centre for Social Justice, Sister Johanna Jonker, SNJM. has received the pope's Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice cross medal, the third person in the archdiocese to hold such an honour.
It was presented by Winnipeg Archbishop James Weisgerber Sept. 13 at a celebration of Jonker's retirement as co-ordinator at Micah House. The archbishop, who petitioned Pope Benedict XVI to bestow the honour on Jonker, told about 150 well-wishers who filled the centre, the medal “is one of the highest decorations the church bestows. It is for service to the church and to the pope.” Weisgerber said presenting the case to honour Jonker to Benedict XVI “was not hard to do.”
The archbishop said the founding of Micah House began in 2002 with a meeting of about 100 people all working for social justice “but nobody knew each other,” Weisgerber said. “They all thought they were working alone.” A vacant church in an impoverished Winnipeg North End neighbourhood was chosen to house the centre. “We needed someone to make it go and she is the person. She scrubbed the floors, she created the programs, she opened the door in the morning and locked it at night. And all with such graciousness, so many have been touched.”
Weisgerber said working for social justice can be frustrating and at times it seems “that not much has changed, but people's hearts have changed.”
Lucille Bart, executive director at Artbeat studio and gallery, a community-based support program for artists living with mental illness, said Jonker was integral to the founding and growth of Artbeat, with Micah House hosting Artbeat's inaugural exhibition in 2004. The Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary are among Artbeat's supporters and Jonker has been a board member and, Bart said, volunteered in many capacities.
“She is a woman of contemplation and social action,” Bart said. “You always said you received more than you gave. The Artbeat family has been blessed by what you have offered.”
Sister Cathy Laviolette, SNJM, described Jonker as “a woman after God's own heart, a woman who walks the talk. You have allowed God to work in your life and through you for so many others.”
Laviolette recounted Jonker's career as an educator at St. John Brebeuf school, St. Gerard's and St. Mary's Academy and her years of “sharing her gifts and talent.” Jonker also taught at Rising Sun, an offsite alternative high school program in Winnipeg's inner city.
Laviolette said at Micah House Jonker introduced initiatives such as JustFaith, for those wanting to learn more about the church's justice tradition; she created social justice conferences and numerous retreat programs.
“Many would just drop in here, especially those who were struggling. Many became your friends, you gave them respite. You are a model and a beacon to those who strive to be justice makers because of your ongoing passion for a better world.”
Jonker responded to the tributes by acknowledging “this wonderful community that has worked for justice.
“How do you begin a ministry of social justice?” she asked. “You build it on your faith. All of you were part of that and all of you did that part that I couldn't do.”
“I've been lucky to be among people struggling with mental illness,” Jonker said. “They travel a hard road, they are misunderstood, they are made fun of, but they still travel that road. They see things that I can't see.”
She recalled how someone would come to the door asking for food. “That was real, we all have the right to eat, but how do we share when we hear the words 'I am hungry'? We need to see what the people we are living around are struggling with. It's an invitation to see and hear before we make a judgment, and I make them myself. It's inside us all to open our hearts and eyes and ears and see people as they really are. We become aware of the people among us who we live with and treat them as people with whom we live.”
She thanked Weisgerber “and the whole archdiocese for this opportunity” and invited all, on behalf of her successor Patti Fitzmaurice, “to come to Micah House and spend time and volunteer as you can with your talent and your gifts.”