TERRE HAUTE —
Sister Jeanne Knoerle’s legacy may be difficult to summarize, but a close friend believes it will be “her love for people, her love of service to the community and her desire to make the world a better place.”
Sister Jeanne, the 12th president of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, died early Monday morning at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, where she resided. She was 85.
She served as the college’s president from 1968 to 1983 and remained active in many community groups and activities in Terre Haute.
“Sister Jeanne’s passing is a profound loss, not only for the entire college community, but also in the Wabash Valley community, where she was highly respected,” said Dottie King, the current president of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. “Her work was always groundbreaking. I, as others, found her to be energetic, visionary and positive — always positive. To me she was a treasured friend, a trusted confidante and a mentor. I will miss her greatly.”
When King served as interim SMWC president after the departure of former president David Behrs, it was Sister Jeanne who encouraged her to apply for the permanent position. Until then, King had no aspirations of becoming the next president.
“She was a genuine friend and kind of like a cheerleader; she was always so willing to listen to my ideas,” King said. Sister Jeanne had a generosity of spirit and “really lifted other people up.”
King and Sister Jeanne had continued to meet monthly.
Sister Jeanne was honored in 2012 as part of the first group of Wabash Valley Women of Influence, a new recognition program for women who have blazed new trails and left a mark in the community.
One highly successful program instituted during her tenure was the Women’s External Degree program (now known as Woods Online). It was the second distance degree program in the country and was on the cutting edge of providing opportunities for women to attain educational goals.
“There were so many women who couldn’t finish college for whatever reason, and it made such a difference,” Sister Jeanne said in a 2012 interview.
Now, Woods Online is open to both men and women.
Sister Jeanne also served as a consultant to the religion division of the Lilly Endowment and worked to establish Our Green Valley Alliance for Sustainability in Terre Haute. “One of my most important interests is to encourage persons to become aware of how we can better our environment for future generations everywhere,” Sister Jeanne stated in 2012.
Lorrie Heber got to know Sister Jeanne well through Heber’s involvement with Our Green Valley Alliance; Sister Jeanne asked her to serve as the organization’s president.
“I miss her already,” Heber said Monday. “She was a good friend and a great mentor. I’m just sick.”
Sister Jeanne had worked in various capacities in the community and saw many improvements over the years, Heber said. But one thing that continued to frustrate her was the lack of awareness related to sustainability and environmental issues, Heber said.
Sister Jeanne had a vision and brought together community leadership. Ultimately, Our Green Valley Alliance was formed. The group is devoted to enhancing sustainable practices in the community now and for future generations. Currently, it is working on Vigo County’s first sustainability plan that will recommend various actions.
“She’s such a visionary, and her work through the Church and her congregation really had her focus on things that matter in life,” Heber said.
Sister Jeanne wasn’t afraid to tackle difficult tasks, and she “wasn’t afraid to use the power of her position or former position to tap into the players that could make things happen,” Heber said. “She was fearless that way. She had a vision, a mission through God and she went after it.”
Heber described it as “a sad day.”
Fred Nation, who worked for Sister Jeanne six years at The Woods — as director of public relations and then as vice president for development — stated that the former college president “showed exceptional skill, leadership and wisdom in leading the college through one of its most challenging periods. She made the difficult decision to start the WED program that saved the college,” he stated. “She was the right leader for a period of dramatic change in education and the congregation.”
Nation saw Sister Jeanne on Friday, talked with her, saw her smile and hugged her for the last time. “I will carry her memory with me and hope to represent some of the many good things she stood for,” he wrote in a Sister of Providence blog post honoring her.
Dave Bailey, who has served on the college’s board of trustees, said Sister Jeanne “epitomized what St. Mother Theodore Guerin stood for and what the Sisters of Providence currently stand for.”
A close friend of Sister Jeanne’s, Sister Jean Fuqua, described the former college president as “a great lady. She enjoyed life and lived it to the fullest right to the very end.”
There was no indication Sister Jeanne was not feeling well; she suffered a heart attack and “went very quickly,” Fuqua said.
Fuqua was a vice president for student affairs and vice president for development during Sister Jeanne’s tenure as college president.
Fuqua said she and Sister Jeanne did many things together, including traveling and birding. They both volunteered as drivers to transport other Sisters of Providence who needed to go to the doctor. “She enjoyed serving others,” Fuqua said. “I will miss her greatly.”
Sister Denise Wilkinson, general superior of the Sisters of Providence, said Sister Jeanne “was always committed heart and soul to whatever ministry she was assigned.”
The accomplished former president also “was a woman of very deep prayer. She was always exploring deeper ways to pray and to know God more deeply and intimately,” Wilkinson said.
Sister Jeanne remained active until the end, serving as a reader at Mass on Sunday and later that day participating in the Sisters of Providence Family Day.
She worked the popcorn booth and a sustainability obstacle course for children. “She kind of ended up wherever she was needed,” Wilkinson said.
On Saturday, Sister Jeanne had worked with Fuqua at St. Joseph Lake [on Sisters of Providence property] to get it ready for the Sisters of Providence to use this summer.
One thing Sister Jeanne always stressed was the importance of adapting to change. “I’ve often heard her say we could count on times changing,” so it was up to the college — and the congregation — to find the best ways to change to meet the needs of the times, Wilkinson said.
“She had great confidence we would do it,” Wilkinson said. “She trusted in Providence this was the path marked out for us — and we were given the gift to walk that path.”
Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or firstname.lastname@example.org.