Sister Joan Weisenbeck may be retiring from the Franciscan Spirituality Center after 12 years as spiritual director, but staffers there will sport unique reminders of her influence.
The staff will wear purple bracelets with the monogram “WWJD.” But in this case, the J stands for Joan.
That homage acknowledges that Weisenbeck’s “imprint will always be here,” said Rosalie Hooper Thomas, coordinator of the La Crosse center’s leadership programs.
“She always reminded us why we’re here, to be a presence for people seeking spiritual help and a reminder of their spirituality,” Hooper Thomas said. “Joan is leaving a legacy of beauty, of openness, of hospitality that will continue on.”
Weisenbeck, 75, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, is a bit nonplussed by all of the attention, including a party for her from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in the run-up to her Dec. 31 retirement.
“I’m a little humbled,” she said. “I’m a naturally quiet person.”
Co-workers and acquaintances say that subdued nature has been her special knack in touching thousands of lives not only at the spirituality center but also during a 50-year ministry career that included teaching in Wisconsin, Iowa and Guam, as well as parish ministry in Minnesota and Illinois, leadership positions in her order and being on Viterbo University’s board of directors for eight years.
“One of the things I really like is how she can create a climate of inquiry and learning, space to consider new ideas and apply them to your life,” said Silvana Richardson, dean of Viterbo’s School of Nursing who has attended retreats and presentations Weisenbeck has led.
“She is a kind, gentle and knowledgeable expert,” Richardson said.
Hooper Thomas credited Weisenbeck with establishing the center’s outreach to parishes and fostering outreach to the less fortunate.
“She always reminds us we are called to serve the poor and those on the margins,” Hooper Thomas said. “Joan is one of the most compassionate people I know.”
For her own part, Weisenbeck said, “One of my joys is to work with women who are marginalized. Retreats with women in recovery — they come in fearful, bent over, and walk out opened up and transformed.
“Some seek healing in spiritual direction, some seek peace, some just appreciate being listened to in a nonjudgmental way. That’s very healing, and it helps people find meaning in life,” she said.
Providing that healing touch is one of the rewards of being a spiritual director, she said.
“People can leave affirmed, even if there is messiness in their life,” Weisenbeck said.
As for her own life in retirement, Weisenbeck said she is looking forward to an unstructured schedule, some travel and painting icons, one of her passions. She also expects to do volunteer work, and she has agreed to help lead icon retreats at the center.
One of her seven siblings, Sister Marlene Weisenbeck, 70, also has a prominent track record, with previous positions as president of the FSPA order, chancellor of the La Crosse Diocese and president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
Asked whether people ever mix them up, Sister Joan smiled and said, “It used to be annoying, but we’ve learned to take it in stride and laugh. There’s no sibling rivalry. We call each other Sister Sister. We’re very good friends.”