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VOL. 127 | NO. 53 | Friday, March 16, 2012

Sister Joan Byrne Finds Calling in Memphis

By Aisling Maki

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When Sister Joan Byrne completed her high school education at a boarding school run by the Irish Sisters of Mercy in County Westmeath, Central Ireland, she made the biggest commitment of her life: to stay on and join the religious order.


(Photo: Lance Murphey)

It was the 1960s, and Catholic bishops in the United States were inviting Irish nuns from that order, which has a particular focus on the education of women and children, to come to the U.S. to teach.

In 1966, Byrne left the Land of Saint and Scholars and headed to Florida, where she spent the next 10 years teaching children then began pursuing a degree in occupational therapy.

“As I went through my college education, doing internships in different areas, I felt occupational therapy was the one in which I could do the most good,” Byrne said. “I love working with families, and this gave me an opportunity to work with parents and children, and teach parents how to help their own children at home. That’s the aspect of it that I just love.”

After receiving her degree, Byrne decided she wanted to work in early intervention for infants with special needs, a field that at that time – the late 1970s – was beginning to grow.

Her calling in 1979 brought Byrne to Memphis, where she worked with newborns through preschool-age children at Les Passees Inc., an organization dedicated to enhancing the quality of life for local children and their families. For 12 years she worked mostly with young children diagnosed with cerebral palsy: positioning and feeding them, and helping them to develop their fine motor, play and self-help skills.

Byrne then worked for a time at nonprofit Special Kids and Families before being invited to teach children at Madonna Learning Center, a private, independent, faith-based nonprofit school for 5- to 18-year-olds with special needs, located at 7007 Poplar Ave. in Germantown.

Founded in 1969 by three Benedictine Sisters from Ferdinand, Ind., the center focuses on children’s cognitive, social, emotional, spiritual and physical developmental needs.

“Since it was started by nuns, it’s easy for me to work there because people there understand what nuns do,” said Byrne, who has served as the center’s occupational therapist for eight years. “I support and work with the teachers, and they support and work with me because I’m trying to help the children be more successful in their school setting and in their life setting.”

The children with whom Byrne works have a wide spectrum of disabilities. Most have Down syndrome, although the school lately is seeing more students with autism. Many students have both cognitive impairments and sensory issues, and Byrne works with them on specialized equipment such as swings and trampolines, which she says helps regulate their central nervous systems.

“Madonna is committed to making the best for every child and family there,” she said. “What’s really nice about those students is they’re just so open and accepting and welcoming of each other and of everyone. They inspire me, and I’m sure other people too, to keep in mind the important things in life that sometimes we forget – acceptance and love for each other.”

The Madonna Learning Center continues to grow. In addition to its day school program, the center now offers B.I.G., which stands for Building Independence Group, a transitional program for young adults 18 and older that helps participants further develop independent life, employment and social abilities.

“We’re actually outgrowing our space, so we’re going to be involved in a building campaign in the future to make the school bigger, so that’s going to be a nice project,” Byrne said.

Byrne is the only member of her order in Memphis, but she said she never feels alone here because “I’m part of something bigger than myself that’s concerned about the big issues in life.”

Twice annually she meets fellow Irish Sisters of Mercy in the region to discuss their goals.

“We have as our focus a goal towards educating women and children, ending poverty wherever we can, and environmental issues,” she said.

“Those are three of the things that we’re focusing on now.”

Byrne attends mass at St. Patrick’s Church, 277 S. Fourth St., a church to which she feels a strong connection because of its history and mission of outreach to the poor.

And when she isn’t working, you’re likely to find Byrne, a Crosstown resident, practicing yoga, riding her bicycle or walking the Shelby Farms Greenline.

“I’m an outdoors kind of person and I love all the gardens and the parks and the opportunities for walks here,” she said.

Although she does miss family in Ireland, whom she visits from time to time, Byrne said she really feels at home in the Bluff City.

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