We never know where or when

Where have you seen the Face of Christ? We are taught to look for God in everyone. The lowly and the mighty are each bestowed with a God given dignity that compels us to act with charity to all and mercy to those who suffer. The essence of what it means to be a Christian is to act like Jesus would and follow His example of radical love of neighbor. 

I recently met a parishioner of Holy Trinity Parish in West Harwich who practices her faith in such a manner. Her life story is remarkable, her impact on lives is tangible and profound, and just recently, the consequences of her goodness and witness has resulted in a tangible gift to the children of our Catholic schools that will permanently endow a scholarship with more than $1 million to the Foundation to Advance Catholic Education.

Her name is Joan Ryan. Her story stretches from Ireland to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Greece, London and now Cape Cod. That might sound like the premise of a spy novel. A tale of international intrigue it is not. Rather her life has been cloaked in the simple virtues of faith, family, and service. 

Along the way, countless individuals have been touched by her ministry of listening and sharing. “I love to visit people, and I know that sometimes something as insignificant as a smile can lift a person’s spirit,” she said. “It’s not me, it’s Jesus working through me. My brother Jim was a priest in New Zealand for many years and he often told me, if he thought I was getting a little big-headed: ‘Joan, we are nothing without Jesus. We are His instruments.’ That has stayed with me.”

Joan was born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland. On holiday she met Peter Ryan, a young engineer, back from his work on a tea plantation in East Pakistan, in what is now Bangladesh. The first day they met he asked her to sew a button on his coat. The second day he asked her to marry him. Before she gave him her answer, she remembered a pilgrimage she had taken to Lough Derg in County Mead with her father. There she asked simply for God to guide her on the right path. After inviting Peter to meet her family — “Bring that fella for tea” was the telegram from home — she followed him back to Pakistan and set about building and raising a family in a jungle bungalow. They were there for two-and-one-half years before moving back to Dublin for 10 years. 

Next came 24 years in Saudi Arabia, some in Riyadh and some Jeddah, as Peter’s career prospered. In time a small vacation home on a Greek Island was acquired and the family, which now included three children — Christina, Brendan and Yvonne — was spread across the globe.

This is where our story returns to Cape Cod. Yvonne and her husband had settled on the Cape and Peter and Joan decided to retire in 1990 and be near them. Christina settled in Berkshire, England and Brendan was in Texas.

As a new parishioner at Holy Trinity in 1993, Joan approached Father Gerry Shovelton, the pastor, about how she could get involved. He spoke about a new ministry of the parish, a pastoral outreach to the elderly. Joan was very interested and got to work immediately, visiting homebound parishioners, saying the Rosary at local nursing homes, and eventually becoming a Eucharistic minister. Her team is now bringing the Sacrament of the Eucharist throughout the parish. 

Joan herself has nine people every week that she visits. “We try to bring the gift of comfort to families struggling to care for their elderly loved ones. And for those without family we provide the loving presence and assurance of God’s love,” Joan says.

I call this column, “It’s what we do,” because the spotlight is meant to tell the stories of either heroic or simple examples of kindness, charity, or outreach that occur on a daily basis throughout our diocese. What makes Joan’s story different from the thousands of other encounters where our faithful live out their Catholic creed is the serendipitous impact her actions will now have in perpetuity for the children of our schools.

When Joan met Roger and Helen Verville, they were among those she was assigned to visit and deliver the Eucharist. Joan’s natural ebullience and Irish wit insured that, over time, they would become friends. When Helen’s health failed, Joan was there to help Roger cope. Roger and Helen had never had children and over time had decided to set up a trust to thoughtfully distribute their assets. They both valued education and admired the success of those attending the Catholic schools in their area. Roger made a provision in his trust to endow a scholarship that would benefit students whose families need financial assistance to be able to afford the tuition at any of the schools of the diocese.

We can never know the full impact of our Christian witness. A gesture, a smile, the patience to sit and spend time with a lonely soul, or play with a child can have ripples we never anticipate. 

Sometime in the future, a young boy or girl will enroll in a school their parents could not otherwise afford. They will absorb lessons about numbers, dates, and grammar. They will also learn about love of neighbor, selflessness, and responsibility for the poor. 

They won’t know to thank Joan Ryan or Roger and Helen Verville for their scholarship. So I will. 

God is good. 

Anchor columnist James Campbell is director of the diocesan Development Office/Catholic Charities Appeal/Foundation to Advance Catholic Education.

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