The first time Maryknoll Sr. Joan Marie Peltier left the country was in 1943 for Riberalta, Bolivia, to start the Maryknoll Teachers College. It was also the first time she experienced a revolution.
“We always felt that they wouldn’t hurt us,” she said of the revolutionaries. “You stay off the streets, especially if they’re running around with rifles…. And just wait them out.”
However, the memory of that town is still with her.
“Horses and cows grazed in the streets,” she said. “The people were very, very welcoming and warm.”
Sr. Joan Marie and six other sisters went to teach the local residents.
“The first thing that we did then was teach religion in the schools,” she said and added they also taught adults. “They hadn’t had that opportunity in their lives.”
Of the sisters, Sr. Joan Marie said she knew the most Spanish and would help translate when they visited the sick.
During her time in Bolivia, Sr. Joan Marie said she was never afraid and never felt in danger, nor did her faith in what she was doing ever waver.
“I thought God wanted me to be there,” she said. “I had no doubts about doing it.”
This isn’t an unfamiliar feeling for Sr. Joan Marie, who’s known since she was a sixth grade student at Immaculate Conception School on Milwaukee’s south side that she wanted to be a sister.
“The sisters asked us to write a theme on what we would like to be when we grow up,” she said. “It came to me at that time that I would like to be a missionary.”
At the time, Sr. Joan Marie said she didn’t know what a missionary was, but she knew she wanted to go around the world spreading the word of God.
When the sisters heard this, they told her about the Maryknoll Sisters.
“I just decided when I finished school I would go to Maryknoll,” she said.
She later enrolled in Our Lady of Mercy High School, Milwaukee, and moved on to Maryknoll Teachers College on a “working scholarship.”
Her first desired destination was China but for reasons out of her control she couldn’t go.
“By the time I got ready to go to mission, World War II was on and China was closed,” she said. “Most of our missioners from China were either interred, under house arrest or they had been repatriated to the states.”
With China out of the question, she headed to Bolivia and ministered there from 1943 to 1955, when she was assigned to a mission in Peru. In the 1970s, the country was in the midst of a military coup.
“There were times when you wouldn’t go out and places you wouldn’t go, but that’s common sense,” she said.
Sr. Joan Marie said they were never near the fighting, but it had an impact on them as it was difficult for the sisters to get food and other things for themselves and the locals. The American dollar was one of the best ways to pay for food, but the currency wasn’t allowed during the coup.
“We turned in some and kept some,” she said. “If any sister got sick or anything like that (we) had to pay for (our) airline ticket in dollars. I kept a supply of dollars handy.”
Sr. Joan Marie saw how the fighting affected the people they served.
“You grieved with them over any loss,” she said. “That’s all you could do. Support them in their grief and help them carry on.”
While in Peru, she spent most of her time in Lima and Arequipa building schools and serving the less fortunate.
After more than 30 years of serving in South America, she returned to the United States in 1975 to work in the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas.
She said she was surprised at the level of religious education in that area at that time.
“The people were poorly instructed,” Sr. Joan Marie said. “Even though they were baptized, they didn’t know a whole lot about their faith.”
She taught religious education in the surrounding rural area of Fort Worth for 10 years before leaving the country — again to Peru.
In the 1990s, she returned to the motherhouse in New York to serve her fellow sisters. After nearly 76 years of service she reflected about the experiences she’s absorbed during that time.
“I learned a lot about people, you know, and life goes on,” she said. “Nothing is that serious. It’s not the end of the world and you can always manage life.”
In an interview with your Catholic Herald, she remembered the “worry free” summer days in Milwaukee, spending time on the South Shore Beach with her nine siblings.
Her advice for young people considering religious life is simple.
“If you feel called, follow it, don’t give up easily,” she said. “There will be sacrifice involved in anything you do … just be faithful to anything you do and feel.”