ASTON, Pa. — Over the course of her ministry in education, Sister Jean Clare Rohe spent 27 years in the Diocese of Wilmington. What makes that extraordinary is that her first assignment in the diocese began in 1938, and her final one concluded in 2004.
Sister Jean’s three assignments in Wilmington are just a part of what she has accomplished in her first century. She turned 100 on March 12, “a simple farm girl that made good,” she said a few days before the big one. Her congregation, the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, celebrated at Assisi House in Aston, Pa., with a day that included Mass in her honor and a party that brought together some 65 family members and friends.
The oldest of nine children, Sister Jean attended St. Joseph’s School in Fullerton, Md., for elementary school and Seton High School. She said there were good public schools near her home, but she rode several buses each day to get to Seton.
“Even though there was a public school that we could have walked to, our parents paid bus fare for us to get to Catholic school,” she said in an interview at Assisi House, where she has lived since 2014. The facility is home to 103 Franciscans, 94 of whom are in assisted living. The other nine are in an independent unit.
She joined the Franciscans at 17, before she had finished high school. She had a cousin entering at the same time — Sister Alice Catherine, now deceased — “and I said, ‘I’m going with you.’
“Nothing was going to stand in the way. My parents were very agreeable,” she said. “I would have been very disappointed, I guess, if I hadn’t gotten what I wanted. My parents could have said ‘I have eight small children. Who’s going to help to raise them? But if that’s what you want to do, go ahead.’”
Science of teaching
Her first assignment, according to the congregation’s records, was at St. Paul School in Wilmington, from 1938-41. She left for the Archdiocese of Baltimore and would not return to Delaware for more than 30 years. In 1974, she arrived at Padua Academy, where she would spend the next nine years.
After a second stint at the Catholic High School of Baltimore, Sister Jean was back in the First State, this time at St. John the Beloved, where she ministered from 1989-2004. She was a science teacher.
“They used to say, she could teach science to a stone. She was a very good teacher,” said Sister Peggy Egan, administrator of Assisi House.
Sister Peggy told Sister Jean she got her love of biology from working on the family farm.
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Sister Jean replied.
She did insist, however, that everyone learn about biology.
“My niece said to me one time, ‘Aunt Jean, you think everyone has to learn biology.’ And I said, ‘Cassie, if I teach it, they have to learn it.’ And they did.”
One of her students during her two years at Our Lady of Mount Carmel High School in Baltimore was Mitchell Rozanski, who became an auxiliary bishop of Baltimore and is now the bishop of Springfield, Mass.
Missing the bus
Sister Jean and her cousin were not the only vocations in the family. Sister Jean’s sister, Eleanor, also became a Franciscan, as did three other cousins. She is the only one of the six who is still living. Her sister worked at St. Francis Hospital in Wilmington but died after contracting a disease while on a trip to Europe many years ago.
Sister Jean said she always knew she wanted to enter religious life, following the example of the many women who taught her in elementary and high school. The nuns had a big influence on her.
“We had a bus, and if you missed the bus, then you had to hang around school,” she recalled. “If we weren’t on the first bus, I would have to wait until the Perry Hall bus came back to take me to Putty Hill. So you were hanging around school all that time.”
After her teaching career ended, Sister Jean spent nine years working in the rectory at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Baltimore, retiring in 2014. Although she remains healthy, she jokes that she’s “a liability” to the staff at Assisi House, an assertion quickly rebutted by Sister Peggy.
“How could you ever be a liability? She’s the sweetest, most even-dispositioned person you ever want to see. You were doing God’s work,” Sister Peggy said.
Her vitality catches some visitors to Aston by surprise. Sister Peggy recalled Sister Jean using her walker one time while peeling an orange, much to the amazement of some men who were working on the ceiling at Assisi House.
“So one of them, he’s looking at her and he’s looking at me, and he says to me, ‘How does she do that?’ And she looks up and says to him, ‘Practice, son, practice.’ He almost fell off the ladder, he laughed so hard,” Sister Peggy said.
Sister Jean spends her days exercising, playing cards and maintaining her spiritual life. She said “there’s always something” to do. “I’m not going to sit around surrounded by four walls when there’s something going on.”
Her secret to reaching 100? “That’s a good question, isn’t it? Just take each day as it comes.”