On her 100th birthday, Sr. Jean Ann Gorman chats with us about her amazing life.
Born in 1922, Sr. Jean Ann Gorman is looking forward to her 100th birthday and becoming a centenarian on January 10, 2022. “I never thought I’d live this long,” she told me. As I listened to her life’s story it was hard to believe how sharp her mind was, far sharper than most, myself included. I couldn’t wait to ask more questions. She indulged me with any question asked. Why had she chosen life as an IHM Sister? Her paternal aunt was part of an order in upstate New York and Jean had inquired there. Her aunt gently suggested that staying closer to her parents would be a better idea. Jean was the oldest of six and her mother had health concerns. The closest place for her to follow her aspirations was the IHM Sisters in Monroe. She graduated from St. Francis de Sales High School on June 9, 1940; she entered the convent on June 29. She told me she weighed 90 pounds.
I didn’t know what to expect from a centenarian when I asked what her earliest memory was, but I did not anticipate the answer I received. Sr. Jean Ann told me her earliest memory is of her family moving from Highland Park to Fordson just as they were beginning to pave the streets. Kerosine was the fuel with which they heated their home, cooked their food, and lit their lamps at night. Where was Fordson? I had not heard of a town named Fordson. I knew of Fordson High School and Fordson Tractors, but a town called Fordson? When l learned that Fordson was a town only from 1925 to 1929 before it became a part of Dearborn, I knew how good her memory was.
Busy with work and classes all day, it was when she lay in bed, at 9 p.m. lights out and quiet, she could hear the nearby neighborhood children playing that she longed for her brothers and sisters. She was happy with her new family of IHM Sisters, yet there was an ache for her birth family.
As a Novice, she and a peer were sent to observe a sister teaching a second-grade class. One day, she was directed to take over a class of 60 first graders. She was 19 and teaching a class of 60 first graders in the morning and another group of 60 first graders in the afternoon. She was sent to St. Agnes school in Detroit. St. Agnes school opened in 1917 at the beginning of the school year with seven Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters teaching 180 children in grades one through eight. By the end of the School year, these seven sisters had 330 students. Sr. Jean Ann was there for six years and then went on to Epiphany School and first graders. The Epiphany School is still there, the crosses above the entrances stand steadfast, next to the boarded-up windows and above the crabgrass and weeds straining through the cracked walkways. Sr. Jean Ann has fared better than her beloved school.
She and a group of her fellow Sisters who were now fast friends were sent to San Leandro California to open a mission. They took the train because Sr. Mary was afraid to fly. The strongest image for Sr. Jean Ann was on the train as they moved through western states, she and Sr. Honey spied a herd of wild horses running free, wild, bucking, and playing in the hills. She pauses and says, “I’ll never forget that. There was just something about those wild horses.”
When she returned from opening the San Leandro mission, she hadn’t seen her parents for three years. This was the longest she had gone without seeing them. Her father was concerned about her weight. She still weighed under one hundred pounds. Yet, all he needed to hear for his worries to be relieved was how she enjoyed bread and gravy. She was sent back to Detroit, this time to a poor neighborhood in St. Boniface parish and school. She was teaching middle school and eighth grade and was appointed Superior.
St. Boniface stood in the shadow of the old Tiger Stadium. It’s gone now, even though, in 1983 it was designated as a Michigan Historic site and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. Sr. Jean Ann was at St. Boniface from 1964-68. During the 1967 Uprising, the priests and nuns kept the school open for the neighborhood. The residents were terrified, their homes were being burnt down, stores were being looted. They had no place to go for safety, so they came to the school. There were four priests and the IHM sisters. They divided up into groups of three, two sisters and a priest. They worked two-hour shifts throughout the night. They allowed the neighborhood people into the school for safety and refuge. The priests and nuns took mattresses off their beds and put them on the floor of the school so there was a place for folks to sleep. . The racial makeup of the St. Boniface area was a variety of cultures and nationalities. As Sister put it, “We had a mix of everything.”
Sr. Jean Ann was adamant with me when she told me repeatedly, “we don’t know what poverty is. “She told me of a little girl who stopped coming to school. Sr. Jean Ann sent someone to her home to find out why. They had no food; the child was too ill to come to school. When word came back of the family’s situation, they packed up everything they could get. Sister remembers the care package containing a big ham, crackers, potatoes, canned vegetables and took it over to the family. Yet, the child remained out of school, so Sister went herself to inquire. The mother, in embarrassment, said the girl had been sick because she ate too much and her body, unaccustomed as it was to having food, was wracked with cramps so her mother had taken her to a nearby parish where she had learned there was a visiting doctor.
Sr. Jean Ann loved the children she taught in Detroit. She loved how real they were, and she loved how they were with each other. Some children came to school hungry, without a lunch. classes stopped every day at 9:30 a.m. for breakfast and then at noon she watched the lunchroom as children with lunches made a big show that their mothers had packed them too big a lunch and they couldn’t possibly eat it all, then implored those without any lunch to help them out, take half their sandwich it was too much. She pauses here and smiles at the memory. She seems to be right back there 60 years ago like it was yesterday. She finishes with a story about a student that further illustrates her point. A boy came to school with a quarter to buy a pad of paper and when he got the paper, he went around asking everyone in the class if they needed a sheet of paper.
Sister asked him, “what are you doing, your mother gave you that money for paper, and you’re giving it away. Why?”
He said, “if I run out my friends will help me out.”
Sr. Jean Ann stressed to me that would not have happened in an affluent area with a child needing paper. No, it would not play out that way.
Sister told me the student with the paper in a more affluent area would have said, “I’ve given you three sheets of paper already. I’m not giving you any more.”
The poorest of the poor, in Sr. Jean Ann’s eyes, were the most generous. She affirmed this was always her experience. She wasn’t faulting those who had more. She was making a point about how we, as a culture, need to be careful about how we regard our bounty.
She went on to teach at Thomas Aquinas, St. Josephs’ Trenton, and St. Cyprian. In 1985, after 44 years of teaching, she was called home to Monroe, but she wasn’t done yet.
She grins widely and tells me with relish, “I drove for 20 years.” She drove other sisters to medical appointments and anywhere they needed to go. As soon as Sisters were permitted to drive Sr. Jean Ann had learned to drive a manual transmission, and she continued for the next two decades.
Since retiring she has traveled extensively. She’s enjoyed the many cruises she has taken. She loves seeing new places. She is still very much interested in social justice issues. She thinks about children a great deal, especially those who need help. She was happy to learn of Fr. Solanus Casey being offered for Sainthood, but she feels Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a Saint, as well as Mother Theresa of Calcutta unequivocally.
When I asked her how she was planning to celebrate her big day? She said, “I’ve already had my party, there were four generations there. It was September 18 at Michigan Bar and Grill.”
When I asked her why she had the party in September she told me, “I don’t want them on the road in January.” She is still taking care of her family and extended family even now as she sets to enter her eleventh decade on earth.