Sister Helen James John, professor at Trinity Washington, dies at 82

December 7, 2012

Sister Helen James John, who taught philosophy for four decades at Trinity Washington University, hiked the Appalachian Trail on vacation and marched in street demonstrations for civil rights in the 1960s, died Nov. 27 at St. Joseph Medical Center in Baltimore after a heart attack. She was 82.

Her death was confirmed by a friend and colleague, Sister Suzanne Hall.

Sister Helen James, who was known as “Janie” by her friends, specialized in metaphysics, which she defined as the study of “what is.” She was a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, having joined the Catholic order following her graduation from Trinity in 1951.

As a young woman, she had been drawn to the Trappistines, an order known for prayerful silence and a monastic lifestyle outside of the mainstream. “I soon decided I had no vocation to be quiet,” she was quoted as saying years later in an oral biography compiled by colleagues.

Janice Marie John was born Jan. 12, 1930, in Brooklyn and raised in Washington.

Sister Helen James graduated in 1947 from the Academy of the Holy Cross in Kensington and studied English literature at Trinity. In 1954, she made her first profession of vows in her religious order and began teaching at Trinity.

She received a master’s degree in philosophy from Catholic University in 1958 and a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Louvain in Belgium in 1963. For her doctoral thesis she “explored 10 different philosophers re: their understanding of what ‘is’ means,” she told her oral biographer, Sister Mary Reilly.

Looking back on this research years later, she joked, “I am reminded of President Clinton,” noting his contortions over the definition of “is” during the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal.

During her years at Trinity, Sister Helen James had done sabbatical research at Indiana University and the University of Notre Dame and been a visiting scholar at Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges. In addition to her doctoral work at the University of Louvain, she had studied at at the University of Munich on a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. She was widely published in scholarly journals.

At Trinity, Sister Helen James was known as an independent thinker. She resigned from the university’s curriculum committee when the committee required a student to take a theology course. The student had argued that, because she was not Catholic, she should not be required to take theology.

“I was trying to make a statement about freedom of religion and freedom of conscience,” Sister Helen James said. “I don’t think anyone should be coerced about religion.”

Early in her career, she was moderator of the League of Sophomore Aetheists, a small group of students with whom she met on Saturday mornings. She wrote an article about these sessions, “Seeing, Believing and the Wide-Eyed Young,” that was published in America magazine in 1963.

In the mid-1960s, Sister Helen James was a charter member of the Trinity chapter of the activist Students for a Democratic Society.

“We were active in sundry protests, with a certain amount of picketing at the White House,” Sister Helen James said. “I often think I should have put up a better fight to go to the first Martin Luther King March on Washington. Archbishop [Patrick] O’Boyle said we shouldn’t go, although he was one of our great leaders in civil rights. I think he was afraid someone would attack a nun.”

When she was not teaching, protesting or writing, Sister Helen James was an enthusiastic outdoors woman. She walked for miles along the Appalachian Trail during her summer vacations, camping out along the way.

“I thought it was nuts! Ten days in the wilderness surrounded by rain and bugs,” said Sister Mary Hayes, a Trinity colleague and professor of history. “But she did it with great gusto.”

In the early 1990s, Sister Helen James suffered a stroke, which was followed by several hospitalizations. She retired as a full-time faculty member in 1994 and moved to Baltimore in 2001. At her death she was living at the Villa, a facility administered by the Sisters of Mercy.

Survivors include three siblings, Roberta Gosier of Silver Spring, George V. John of Salisbury, Md., and Stephen F. John of Decatur, Ill.