Sisters of St. Joseph of CarondeletMay 27, 2020

Ministry Stories

Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ

Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet Joan Lescinski is president of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. The following piece was first printed in The President’s Newsletter from the university. We reprint the article with the permission of Jodi O’Donnell, senior director of communications and marketing at St. Ambrose University and author of the article.

Hospitality. It’s a word of straightforward yet profound meaning: a friendly welcome ... Kind, generous treatment that is offered to guests and strangers alike. Hospitality could also be said to be a key thread woven through the fabric of Sister Joan Lescinski’s personal, professional and religious life. Because she became attuned early on to hospitality in its most altruistic, most inspiring expression, Sister Joan, as she’s known, is continually drawn toward the hospitable in people, community and culture. It is a characteristic that will serve her well this summer when she succeeds Ed Rogalski as president of St. Ambrose University.
“Both of my parents were warm and demonstrative and created a real family unit that was warm and loving,” Sister Joan recently related by phone from upstate New York, where she was born and raised, the youngest of three children of Joseph and Lucy, known affectionately as Pearl. “Our friends would tell us how hospitable our home was.” Sister Joan has a forthright way of speaking, completely engaged and engaging, that underscores this point. “There was always something cooking on the stove. I once said something to my mother about how clever she and my father were. Because our friends would gather at our house, my parents always knew where we were and what we were doing. My mother said she and my father always wanted their home to be one to which people would want to come and feel comfortable.”
Joe and Pearl passed on to Sister Joan and her siblings a genuine delight in people. “All felt welcome in my parents’ presence, and we kids have always felt very comfortable around people and in engaging in lively conversations on a wide range of topics.” It was this collegial exchange of new ideas and ways of thought, especially within the Catholic intellectual tradition of exploring the compatibility between faith and reason, that compelled Sister Joan to become first a high school teacher then college professor at Catholic institutions, and now to embark upon the second college presidency of her career at St. Ambrose.
“I knew from childhood that I’d become a teacher,” she says, and again credits her parents with instilling a love of learning and the importance of education in her and in her older brother and sister, who would become the first generation in their family to go to college. It’s perhaps an old saying but a true one, she says, that “Learning is the door to opportunity.” The love of learning, particularly that of literature and writing, planted in her by her parents took root and flourished in grade and high school due to the “brilliant” teachers, most of them Sisters of St. Joseph or Sisters of Mercy.
“One never knows the full effect a good teacher has on a student,” Sister Joan says. For example, “I’ve been approached by former students who tell me that something I said in class changed their life. And I can barely remember the context.” She wisely tells them, “It wasn’t what I said so much as that you were clearly ready to hear it.”
In much the same way, throughout most of her teenage years Sister Joan had no idea that she would be called to a religious vocation. Like most girls her age, she dated and went to proms and assumed she would marry and raise a family when the right man came along. Yet, in her senior year of high school, she went on a retreat and had a “powerful insight” to consider religious life.
Sister Joan spent the next months talking about it to her parents and the family priest. At one point, the priest, an intellectually keen man, said “You know, Joan, that God is calling you to religious life, but do you know in what community?” Although she had given that aspect little thought, she answered automatically, “Well, of course, the Sisters of St. Joseph.” Deep down, however, she knew why. The hospitality that had filled her childhood home resounded in the Sisters= mission of “love of neighbor without distinction and unity of neighbor with neighbor and neighbor with God.”
So, at age 18, Sister Joan became a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and, after earning her bachelor’s degree in 1970 from The College of Saint Rose in Albany, she taught English at St. Francis de Sales High School in Utica, N.Y. She says she could have happily done so the rest of her career, but one of her mentors in the congregation, Sister Katherine Hanley, suggested to Sister Joan that she sometime consider teaching at the college level. “I couldn’t imagine I’d love it more than I loved teaching high school,” she says. Yet, when she walked into a classroom at Saint Rose the first time as an instructor, “I felt as though I’d died and gone to heaven.”
Once again believing she’d found her ultimate job, she would continue to teach at Saint Rose even after earning her doctorate in English literature at Brown University in Providence, R.I, in 1981. It wouldn’t be long, however, before another mentor at the college, Dr. Patricia Hayes, who would eventually become the first woman to be president of St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, urged Sister Joan to consider going into administration in higher education, including, one day, perhaps, a presidency. Sister Joan did so after a number of years, becoming an associate academic dean at Avila University in Kansas City, MO, and then the vice president for academic affairs and dean at Fontbonne University in St. Louis. In each case, she notes, she was able to continue to teach.
However, Sister Joan resisted the idea of a presidency until, while at Fontbonne, Dennis Golden, the new president there, asked her, “Why weren’t you a candidate for this position?” “Dennis brought the seed planted by Pat Hayes to fruit,” Sister Joan says, by helping her develop a frame of reference for determining the kind of institution she wanted to lead. “I knew I wanted it to be small, so that I felt I could handle the job, and Catholic.”
Sister Joan would find that opportunity at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in Indiana. Under her leadership, the college would experience unprecedented growth in several areas over the next eight years. Then last year, thoughts of a second presidency followed. Once again, Sister Joan identified the type of institution she wished to lead, this time a mid-sized Catholic college or university. She wanted to stay in Catholic higher education for two reasons: because she knows it well, and because of her own values about the compatibility between faith and reason that is the foundation of Catholic higher education.
It’s not surprising, then, that St. Ambrose appealed to Sister Joan. Asked what drew her to the university, she says it was ultimately the people. “I came away from the first meeting with the search committee, knowing that this was a group of people I wanted to be associated with.” But would Sister Joan appeal to St. Ambrose? “When I learned from Bishop Amos that there was very strong support from both the board of directors and campus community, that sealed it,” Sister Joan says. “The presidency is a challenging job, and you have to know that you’re supported in the mission to lead the institution.”
Such is the spirit of hospitality at St. Ambrose, though. “My heart sings at the thought of being among hundreds of people who believe, like me, in the value of Catholic higher education,” she says. “I am honored and feel privileged to follow Dr. Ed Rogalski as the next president of St. Ambrose University.”