Sister Mary Joseph Tirpak, OSF, 80

Not many people can say they’ve powered up a nuclear reactor. But that’s just one of many memories Franciscan Sister Mary Joseph Tirpak has of her years as a science teacher.

“I was teaching physics at the time,” she explains. “And I’d received a grant to attend a program at Penn State. Our group was given the (supervised) opportunity to bring up the reactor until we got a sustained reaction.”

A member of the Bernardine Franciscans of Reading, Pennsylvania, Sister Mary Jo, as she is called, has served in religious life for more than 60 years. Her association with her community goes back to her childhood education. “The (Bernardine) sisters were always present,” says Sister Mary Jo. “It was part of growing up. I had eight different teachers in grades one through eight, and they were always very kind. I loved our sisters!”

After professing first vows in her community in 1958, Sister Mary Jo went on to teach high school science for 33 years. “I was well prepared for that,” she says. As a member of the first graduating class of Alvernia College (now University)—an institution founded by her community—she had received rigorous instruction. In addition to teaching, she also served in various administrative positions.

Following teaching, Sister Mary Jo ministered in formation for nine years, helping new members prepare for their lives as Franciscans. Later she was elected to community leadership, serving five years as a council member and five years as the assistant congregational minister.

At age 80, Sister Mary Jo remains in full-time ministry, now serving as the local superior of the community’s retirement home. As such, she ensures their day-to-day needs are met and attends to their emotional well-being. “Sometimes they just need someone to talk to,” she explains. “You can never really say what any day is going to look like. You have to react to the immediate needs.”

In good times and bad, Sister Mary Jo relies on Psalm 91. “It’s about learning how to trust,” she explains. “It’s gotten me through some tough times. I know that God is always there.” This trust is reflected in her philosophy of life. “Just be happy,” she says. “God will take care of the rest.”