Dominican Sister of Hope Jo-Ann Iannotti is a published author, photographer, teacher, and, now, the Art and Spirituality Coordinator at Wisdom House Retreat and Conference Center in Litchfield, CT. After teaching for seventeen years, Sister worked as the Associate Director of Vocations for the Archdiocese of Hartford and a reporter and photographer for the Catholic Transcript. She scripted programs for the Office of Radio and Television for the Archdiocese of Hartford, and she served as the Director of Religious Education at St. Ann Parish in Avon, CT. In 2013, Sister JoAnn published her first book, Remember, Return, Rejoice: Journeying from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. She currently has a photography/poetry exhibition on display at the Clare Gallery in Hartford, CT. Below, Sister Jo-Ann talks about her beginnings in religious life and her path toward discovering herself as an artist.
It has felt right. It has felt right that this is what I should do with my life. When I entered, I wanted to see if what this was really what was meant to be. Dominican life in general felt like it fitted me in terms of community, in terms of preaching. I’ll be very honest with you, I never wanted to teach. I didn’t enter to teach. I entered to be a part of this community. And yet I grew up with a (blood) sister who always wanted to teach. She loved being a teacher! I figured I could do it, but I didn’t begin to love teaching until I began to teach what I loved. It was when I began teaching seventh and eighth grade religion; I just loved it.
I taught religion in junior high school, and then I taught religion in high school for seven years, and I loved it. Great, great years. And then photography came along.
How did you tell your parents that you wanted to join the sisters?
I told them that I was interested in being a sister. I wouldn’t say they were happy. My parents also knew that I liked writing, so I did a little bargaining with my mother. I applied to NYU School of Journalism, and I told my mother that if I got accepted to NYU, I would go there and then see if that’s what I was supposed to do. If I didn’t get accepted, then I’d enter the convent. The problem was, I got accepted! So, then I wondered, “Now, what do I do?” I wanted to go to NYU, but I wanted to enter the convent more. So I told my mother, “I can always find out whether or not I can write, but I think I need to find out
whether or not I’m meant to be a sister.” And, she accepted it.
I knew some Dominicans were writers. Writing was part of being a preacher. I thought I could fit in.
Do you ever wish you went to NYU?
No. I think I am where I’m supposed to be.
When you entered the convent, did you know that it was the right fit right away?
All along the way you’re discerning if it’s right. That’s why you have a number of years before you make final profession. Living it out, being with others, being in ministry, your prayer life: all of these aspects feed into confirming this is where you
really belong. It’s been real; not that there weren’t difficulties at different times. But, you’re always renewing your commitment. And so, early on, when some members of our group left, I remember our postulant mistress saying to me, “Are you going to leave, too?” And I said, “No, I’m not going to leave.” I don’t think I’ve led a life out of touch with reality. In the end, I really do believe that this is the best way for me to love.
What do you mean by that?
It’s the best way for me to give myself to other people. I really do believe that. Marriage is wonderful. It’s not that I haven’t “fallen in love.” You’re in a convent but you’re not behind bars! When married people get married, don’t they sometimes find other people interesting too? It’s not an unusual thing to happen. And so you have to reexamine your life and take a fresh look at the person to whom you committed yourself. Recommitment is always going on, always; it doesn’t end with a ring and final vows.
What was your most challenging moment as a sister?
I taught Theology of Death to high-school seniors. I was new on the religion faculty –I had been told I was to teach some other topic– but, a week or two before school started, the head of the department said they were going to need me to teach the Theology of Death course. I didn’t know anything about that! I asked if there was a text I would use. There was a priest who used to come once a week to teach that program. And do you know what he passed on to the next teacher (me)? A small cassette, which was garbled! I was the “new kid on the block”, so I got the course. And yet, by the time I left, after teaching that course for seven years, I had so many resources to leave behind, it was unbelievable! It was that time historically when Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s research was coming out. I was able to use her research in the program. That’s something I can say about being assigned to different missions: I didn’t always know all that I was going to be teaching, but, talk about putting together obedience and faith! You obeyed. You went where you were sent, and things happened that you would have never experienced unless you were sent there.
There were lots of surprises. Always surprises!
You were teaching for a while. How did you transition to writing and photography?
I started doing photography in the late seventies. It started off with a trip to Europe with my sister and I was in charge of the camera. She was in charge of finances and I was in charge of the camera. I just started taking pictures and they turned out pretty good, so I continued. It was as simple as that. I never wanted to be a photographer. It was not on my radar screen growing up. But, being a writer was [an ambition of mine]. I wrote my first poem when I was sixteen years old, but, during my grammar school and high school years, I received lots of encouragement about my writing from the sisters I had in school.
Whether it’s through writing or whether it’s through photography, I have discovered myself as an artist. It’s who I am, no matter what I do. I was writing poetry while I was doing all of my other ministries. I am a poet. It affects my perspective on life, it affects what I write—prose or poetry. It’s right. It fits me.
I’ve had poetry published and solo exhibits of my photography, and right now I have a combined exhibit of my writing and my photography at a gallery in Hartford. I’m grateful for the opportunity to share my two loves in this way.
Sister Jo-Ann will present Julian of Norwich: The Woman, Her World, and Her Book at The Center at Mariandale on October 26 from 9:30 am – 3 pm. Come meet an extraordinary 14th century mystic who produced the first book written in English by a woman, The Revelations of Divine Love. A woman of her time, Julian of Norwich’s timeless experience of a series of revelations (showings) would revolutionize future generations’ experience of God, Jesus Christ, the meaning of suffering, and the standard by which we judge our relationships with each other. The program costs $60 and includes lunch. Register here.