Sister Joan Bland, 90; Professor Started Effort To Train Lay Pastors

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 3, 2008

Joan Bland, a Catholic nun who was known worldwide for increasing the role of laypersons in the Catholic Church, died of a massive stroke June 29 at St. Vincent Care Center in Emmitsburg, a day before her 91st birthday.

A member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, Sister Joan founded the Education for Parish Service in 1978, a program credited with training thousands of men and women in theological, scriptural and pastoral education.

Inspired by Vatican II, Sister Joan started EPS to provide motivated rank-and-file church members with a grounding in the study of scripture, theology, church history, spirituality and pastoral ministry. Those who pass the college-level course of study receive a certificate.

" 'Lay minister' was a term that was never used in the church before the Second Vatican Council," said Margaret Wilson McCarty, the first lay EPS president. "Now, a growing number of lay people are professionals in the church, and these lay ecclesiastical ministers, who number more than 30,000, owe their career to the likes of Sister Joan Bland."

Sister Joan, a former history professor, department chairwoman and vice president for development of what is now Trinity Washington University, "had a presence and enthusiasm for life that was contagious," McCarty said, and she inspired at least 15 of her female students in the late 1950s and early 1960s to earn doctoral degrees in history and related disciplines.

She was "a true Trinity legend," Patricia McGuire, the university president, said in a message to the school. In addition to founding the parish service program, Sister Joan's "formidable intellectual acumen" led her to edit books and contribute numerous articles to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, the Catholic Historical Review, Commonweal and other Catholic publications.

"I will miss Sr. Joan's delightful presence around campus," McGuire wrote. "As I came to know her in her later years, she was always generous with her words of wisdom and insight, while unfailing in her ability to see the best in all situations."

Sister Joan was born in Boulder, Colo., graduated from what was then Trinity College in 1938 and immediately entered the Congregation of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in Ilchester. She taught for seven years in Philadelphia's Catholic schools and then joined the Trinity faculty.

She received a master's degree in European history from Villanova University in 1945 and a doctorate in U.S. history from Catholic University in 1951.

As chairwoman of the Trinity history department from 1951 to 1963, Sister Joan expanded and modernized the curriculum, introducing a global perspective to the courses.

She lived most of her adult life at Trinity, except for six years when she was in Rome establishing an association for religious sisters in scripture and theology and three years when she worked on a project to finance the education of nuns. She also served on multiple international commissions.

Among her awards were the papal medal Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice in 1991, Catholic University's Alumni Achievement Award in 1989 and the Empowerment Award from the Associated Catholic Charities of the Washington Archdiocese in 1988.

She loved classical music, reading mysteries and swimming at least three times a week, usually at the Trinity Center for Women and Girls, where she thoroughly enjoyed the company of her Brookland neighbors.

Sister Joan's survivors include a half sister.

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