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Mesmerized By A Supremely Confident Woman

Not all sisters are the same

Photo by Ayo Ogunseinde on Unsplash

She knows her womanly power over others.

It’s a gift she owns, displays and celebrates.

She moves with grace and purpose, one of the most elegant women I know.

In the street (and here at work), people can’t keep their eyes off her.

She’s one of those women with flare and a genuine love of life.

Radiating warmth from across any crowded room. Boiling over with infectious energy and positivity for humankind, and a face fully engaged and listening, like you’re the only other person in the world.

Disconcerting.

She makes you pause in your busy day and question assumptions.

Her voice is deep and velvety, drawing you in to listen.

Surrounded by modesty, she dresses with splashes of color, layers of flair.

A supremely confident woman.

And though we’re work colleagues, I can’t resist being in love too.

It’s not what you think.

I’m speaking of a woman named Juanita, an African-American Catholic nun.

A month or two out of college, I took my first real-world job at an experimental commercial Catholic radio station in Cleveland, Ohio.

Yes, I was a virile 22-year-old, at the pinnacle of youth, in the closet, praying the Rosary daily with listeners.

We can unpack all that another time.

It takes a special kind of crazy to complain all the way through Catholic grade school, Catholic high school, then select a Catholic college, only to top it off by actively choosing a first job at a Catholic radio station.

I didn’t seek it out. I was so wrapped up doing theater that I’d forgotten to plan for my career after college. It was a recommendation and came as a lifeline. In truth, I would’ve been fine plucking chickens so long as it allowed me to act and be a part of the theater at night. Being a radio gig, at least it was “within my degree.” I’d settled to study Communications to appease my nervous parents who didn’t want me to major in Theater.

Pathetically it was minimum wage — radio never pays much — but hey, I was “working in my field” and indulging in my first love during the evenings. I assisted with the news segments at the top of the hour, helped organize the music playlist and screened calls for talk shows.

The highlight of the day though was manning the board for Sister Juanita Shealey’s radio show, as she took calls from listeners and provided inspiration.

I wasn’t exactly Robin Quivers to her Howard Stern, but it was fun.

The author and Sister Juanita Shealey in the radio studio, 1996 | Photo by Joe Guay

Already a known media personality by the mid-90s, she would whirl into the studio five minutes before air time, take her place, perform her magic, issue a profuse thank you and then zip out to continue saving the world elsewhere across town.

Gone were the days of the traditional habit, but Sister still wore a veil — sometimes black, often blue, and she’d adorn herself also with colorful scarves, stoles and even a full powder-blue habit ensemble.

She would proclaim my name with grandeur. Joseph, she’d cry out, do you know how much I love the name Joseph? I deliberately chose the Sisters of St. Joseph as my order, so you are well named, indeed.

If anything, Sister Juanita was disarming. It’s not everyday the general public comes into contact with an energetic and sweet African-American face peering out from below the Catholic veil.

She arrived one day:

“Joseph, on the way here a gentleman across the street called out to me and pointed. Do you know what he screamed? Hey, Sister Act! We just had to laugh and laugh. Aren’t people marvelous?”

The author out one night celebrating with Sister Juanita Shealey in Cleveland, OH | Photo by Joe Guay

If you re-read the way I described her at the beginning of this story, I’m sure those of you with a Catholic background might think I was joking — a nun who was deeply confident and the epitome of love? Happy and affectionate? Took the time to dress with flair? Who chose to be in the limelight and inspire others during life’s challenges?

I hear you.

As a long-lapsed Catholic with a deep suspicion of organized religion and indoctrination myself, I’m ready and available to provide an annotated list of all the reasons the Catholic Church has failed its people.

But then I’m reminded of souls like Sister Juanita, and I must pause. To ponder those who’ve always been in the trenches, doing the dirty work, helping people through their authentic real-world challenges.

The Church actively works to make you know your place as a wretched sinner born with Original Sin, who must bow down and grovel, begging forgiveness to avoid eternal damnation, but you can contrast that with this little spitfire and bundle of love who reminds you daily how fabulous and perfect you already are.

It couldn’t have been easy being one of the only African-American females in the church in early 1950s Cleveland. More than her skin color, it was her position as a woman that perhaps caused superiors and certain men to discriminate and wish she’d just learn her place.

I may be projecting all of that. But even at the radio station, where she was beloved, I sometimes got the sense certain men there just didn’t fully like that a woman, a nun — who they thought should be more modest in all things and act like a second-class citizen, always deferential— was instead fully confident in her gifts and all she could offer the world, was actively pursuing media opportunities and arriving into every room with gusto and personality. Hey world, I’m Black and beautiful, don’t you know?

Some people don’t like encountering a truly confident person, a woman, a nun, who knows deep in her soul that she is beautiful, radiant and special.

Again and again life reminds me that it is only with authenticity — and sometimes boldness and audacity — that you can make your mark and make the most difference.

A short time after, learning of the child molestations (deliberated covered up by many higher-ups in my home state of Pennsylvania and also Ohio — oh hell, globally) put the final nail in the coffin of my supposed faith in the Catholic Church. Though it had indeed been waning since age 15.

But even the most embittered cynic can’t help but be touched by the velvety voice of wisdom that is Sister Juanita. It’s not like there were many opportunities for a young black woman in the late 1940s, and she bravely took on her vocation and lived it fully her way. Would she have made the same choice as a young woman of today? Who knows?

Every crumbling hierarchical institution has its higher-ups that implement so much wrong and then simultaneously has the ardent foot soldiers who are there for the people, for doing good, for making a difference. And while I may sit from my perch all enlightened spiritually, wondering when they'll wake the hell up and leave, I can’t help but respect those who plow forward with good acts and genuine love for humanity.

After finally growing a pair and stepping away from the radio station in late 1997, my ambitions took me to California and we lost touch. But her presence persisted, and I’ve been Googling her name for about 15 years, expecting to discover the inevitable sad obituary. But it’s never been there.

Just last month I found her, YouTube bringing forth a diocese-produced TV clip where Sister Juanita is interviewed for celebrating seventy years as a nun. Goodness, she must be in her early 90s now, I realize.

And there she sits, no veil, no glasses, sharp as a tack, full of witticisms, still revering her beloved parents and reflecting on her path in Cleveland either over the airwaves, on TV, online or in person.

Google it — it’s a stodgy production, but jump a bit deeper into the 49-minute segment and she’s off to the races with her infectious personality, discussing early racism, her calling, her love of life.

A few quick quotes in case you don’t have the time to hear her unique voice:

I felt that I was beautiful, that I was wonderful, that I was talented, because my mother always told me so. And my father and the neighbors too. So when you went out into the world it was too late for somebody to try and hurt you, to really hurt you, because you were strong enough to know that you were beautiful… that you could accomplish anything.

When I’d complain about someone being mean to me, my mother would say, ‘Not everyone was raised the way your father and I are raising you — teach them, in how you react to them.’

I remember the day I received that beautiful long habit, I thought I was a queen! I loved that big black habit… and I just thought I was beautiful.

A lot of boys liked me because I was a dancer and so we could win all the dance contests… there were plenty of boys but the Lord has his hand on me already.

I’m of African-American ancestry, I am a woman who is proud to be a native Clevelander and an American, and I love being a woman.

And again I receive a lump in my throat.

I am fully done with the Catholic Church and am tending to my spiritual needs in other ways.

And yet…

I can’t help but get tears in my eyes as I witness this passionate woman, still out there, still believing in the good, still believing she can at least make a difference one-on-one. A gift to the world, and one of the best examples in my lifetime of someone who walks the walk.

Witness — a supremely confident woman.

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