Grace Dolores, the younger of the two daughters of Frank and Victoria Victor Merendino, was born at home in Baltimore on Oct. 17, 1922. Her mother was a native of Baltimore and her father had emigrated from Carini, “a little town in Sicily” to New York and then Baltimore. Jo was Grace’s older sister. Grace’s family has always been a source of joy and support for her.
Grace was baptized at St. John the Baptist Church but lived in the parish of Blessed Sacrament. She attended Blessed Sacrament School, and it was there that she received her first Holy Communion and was later confirmed by Archbishop Michael J. Curley. She attended the Institute of Notre Dame, graduating in June 1939.
Grace said in her autobiography that she first thought about her vocation in the second grade. She said, “I didn’t think of it in the light of a vocation but rather as a desire.” She attributed her vocation to the example set by the religious who taught her. Grace spent two years in the candidature, studying at the Normal School and taking violin lessons.
Grace entered the novitiate on July 26, 1941, receiving the name, Sister Mary Joannene.Sister Joannene professed her first vows on July 30, 1942. For almost 20 years, Sister taught in elementary school classes in New York and New Jersey from grades one to eight. Some of her favorite stories were about teaching 8th grade boys; several of them remained in contact with her until her death. She loved teaching and asked a great deal of her students She asked them to pray with the deep faith she had. And none of her boys ever forgot it.
Sister Joannene also holds a special place in the hearts of hundreds of girls who benefitted from her unforgettable teaching. She was sent to St. Hubert’s High School in 1958, then Institute of Notre Dame, her Alma Mater; St. Mary, Annapolis and Notre Dame Prep School, teaching History and Social Studies. One student recalls that “teaching History was Sister's dedication to her ministry and how she spread the Word.”
Another student and friend remembers, “She touched so many hearts and gave us such strong foundations, and she had to know it. Her classes were delightful tales from the past, so cleverly woven like Scheherazade that we could hardly wait for the next day. Her eyes came to light, her hands waved, and she walked the classroom with purpose and grace teaching our history and the history of so many others. When she was not teaching, she was a counselor, a sage giver of advice, one who neither suffered nor tolerated fools gladly.”
Outside the classroom, Sister Joannene made friends everywhere she went. She was a wonderful friend: loyal, caring and compassionate. She was also honest (to a fault) and shared her opinions freely. When her dear friend Benny Rubin died, she joined the circle of his friends every year for Yahrzeit, a devotedness that touched the hearts of his Jewish associates. All of her friends tell similar stories of her, emphasizing her unwavering acceptance and faithfulness.
Sister Joannene had a special devotion to the Blessed Mother. She was never without her rosary and often retrieved it from her pocket or purse between happenings. She called Jesus her Beloved. More than once she explained her fondness for the Jewish community, saying, “I married a Jew! Jesus was always Jewish, you know.”
Sister Joannene retired to community service in 1988. By 2000, she lived in prayer and presence at Villa Assumpta, eventually moving to Maria Health Care Center, where she died peacefully in the early morning hours of November 2, 2020.
“Her mind was brilliant, her faith was steadfast and her love for all around her never-ending. No one ever forgets Sister Joannene. She is more than a person; she's an experience!”
- By Sister Jeanne Hildenbrand, with input from Sister Grace Sciamanna, Sister Sharon Kanis, Sister Kate Whalen, Valerie Macys and Roann Tsakalis