MILWAUKEE — Longtime journalist, Mary Jo Flanagan, 87, a contributor to the Catholic Herald for about two decades, died Dec. 29.

Mary Jo Flanagan, far right, is pictured with her husband, Gerald and sister, Maryknoll Sr. Jane Buellesbach, in an undated family photo. (Submitted photo courtesy the Flanagan family)

Born May 30, 1929, Mary Jo was the second child of Joseph and Sylvia Buellesbach and baptized at St. Sebastian Parish, Milwaukee. She attended St. Sebastian School, Holy Angels Academy and Marquette University where she graduated with honors from the College of Journalism.

Mary Jo and Gerald were married Sept. 5, 1953 at St. Sebastian Parish, and became parents of four — Maureen, Peter, Michael and Therese. They all attended St. Sebastian School and Catholic high schools.

“Our father was very active on parish council during a difficult transitional period in the parish’s life, and Mom’s ability to forge a strong network of friends helped sustain them at the time,” explained Maureen. “My parents were also involved in the civil rights movement in Milwaukee during the 1960s, seeing it as a natural outgrowth of their faith, and they often took us to Sunday Mass at inner city parishes.”

In 1974, Mary Jo and Gerald joined St. Jude the Apostle Parish, and with only Peter in elementary school, she began volunteering in the parish. She founded and supported The Thrift Shop, organized by the Women of St. Jude.

“She worked at the shop regularly and donated and bought more than most,” Maureen said.

“She was a long-time eucharistic minister, a member and participant in the bereavement committee, helped research and write the parish’s history, organized and supported the spaghetti dinner program and provided active support for African priests residing at the parish while studying at Marquette University, and also for retired priests.”

According to Fr. Charles Conley, pastor of St. Jude Parish, Mary Jo was active with the home and school association, served as a teacher’s aide and volunteered in the parish office.

“In 2011, I was pleased, together with our principal, Catherine LaDien, to present Mary Jo and Jerry with the Spirit of St. Jude Parent Alumni Award, representative of many individuals who have been pillars of our parish, making us a strong school and family,” he said. “The day she and Jerry were married, she carried a bouquet of white gladiolas. On her birthday, Jerry would bring her more white glads. It was a privilege to be her pastor and friend.”

Although Mary Jo had a journalism degree, her professional efforts were almost exclusively in service of her faith and local community, Maureen explained. She wrote about a dozen articles a year for the Catholic Herald from 1981 through 1996.

Mary Jo Flanagan, right, is pictured with her sister, Maryknoll Sr. Jane Buellesbach, in an undated family photo. (Submitted photo courtesy the Flanagan family)

“She reentered the field in the late 1970s, when Peter was going into high school,” she said, adding, “She did several articles for the Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Sentinel when they were separate papers. She also wrote for the Wauwatosa Post and the Wauwatosa News Times. One of her favorite assignments for the Catholic Herald was interviewing Cesar Chavez (in 1989).”

Mary Jo also edited a newsletter for Marquette University’s College of Engineering and wrote profile pieces on many residents of Hawthorne Terrace Apartments and Harwood Place, both in Wauwatosa, when she lived there.

She and her sister, Sr. Jane Buellesbach, shared a close relationship despite the miles that separated them.

“Jane entered the Maryknoll Sisters out of high school and was trained as a doctor and surgeon,” said Maureen. “In those days of strict convent life, she wasn’t even allowed to travel home for her sister’s wedding. Mom solved that problem by going to New York City for her honeymoon as Maryknoll is located in Ossining, New York, just up the Hudson from the city.”

Mary Jo became an ardent Maryknoll supporter, shared news of the community’s work through articles about Jane and her Maryknoll Sisters and through participating in fundraising events.

“She and my dad traveled to Guatemala to visit Jane, who was then working in a tiny hospital in the mountains, and rode horseback up the mountainside to see her. Once back in the States, Mom worked with funding and medical resource providers to facilitate shipments of clothing and medical supplies to Guatemala,” explained Maureen. “My parents often organized their vacations so that my aunt could meet them for a few days or a week in a place she could easily get to. They shared a strong faith and each had her own mission in life.”

As an adult, Michael said he is more appreciative of the example his mother set and the many ways she teamed with his dad.

“She was a true friend to so many, lived her faith and never stopped looking forward, learning and engaging life,” he said. “And that continued, even after our dad died, as she bravely and gracefully dealt with not only the loss of her husband, but also so many health challenges. As the saying goes, ‘Falling down is part of life. Getting up is living.’ That was my mom and particularly how she lived her last few years will always be an inspiration to me.”

Perhaps it was due to her background in communications, but her children say Mary Jo had a special charism that drew others to her and helped her build and nurture a network of close friends, making each of them feel special. In addition to her writing, Mary Jo was a member of several book clubs, enjoyed seeing movies and attended Divine Savior Holy Angels alumnae events.

“In her profile stories, Mom had a special knack for capturing the essence of a person, because she had a special way of connecting with people with feeling and demonstrated true empathy for the needs of others,” said Peter. “Her Catholic faith was strong and the church was always an important part of her life and our life as a family. Mom was an engaged Catholic – a faithful reader of the National Catholic Reporter and an informed observer and sometimes critic of the church’s leadership. Mom was so pleased to witness and embrace all that Pope Francis has brought to the church.”

The lessons Mary Jo passed to her children are ongoing and Maureen said she continues to learn from her mother, despite her absence.

“In her last months, she showed a strength and spirit in dealing with her medical setbacks that humbled those around her,” she said. “She continued to engage with others rather than withdraw from the world. Even in her last days, she took care to remember the names of her caregivers so that she could thank each personally.”

In addition to her children, Mary Jo is survived by 13 grandchildren, one great-grandchild and her sister, Sr. Jane Buellesbach.