Religious Sister of Mercy is a witness of faith on Rocky Top

Sr. Joan Miriam Nelson attends the University of Tennessee with an eye toward nursing

By Gabrielle Nolan

Among the sea of orange and white on the University of Tennessee campus in Knoxville, one particular student stands out.

She wears a dark blue habit with a large cross around her neck, and a black veil covers her hair.

Sister Joan Miriam poses with a statue of Tennessee Volunteers mascot Smokey on the University of Tennessee-Knoxville campus, where the Religious Sister of Mercy of Alma, Mich., is studying.

Twenty-eight-year-old Sister Joan Miriam Nelson, a Religious Sister of Mercy of Alma, Mich., is going back to school to pursue a nursing degree for her community.

“I’m trying to get into the nursing program,” she said. “I am basically entering in as a freshman. … I’m just finishing my second semester at UT taking mostly the science courses that I did not take (in undergraduate studies).”

Sister Joan Miriam will apply to enter UT’s nursing program this fall and is scheduled to graduate in three years.

“Once I have the degree, it’s where can I serve best,” she said, noting that her religious order’s superior general will decide that.

“I do have a personal love for the aging population, so I would love if it was an option to be a nurse for aging adults, but we also have other opportunities,” Sister Joan Miriam said.

While at the motherhouse in Alma for the first two years of her novitiate, Sister Joan Miriam discovered a passion for helping others.

“There was an elderly Sister who had dementia,” she explained. “The postulants and the novices were the ones who took care of her, and it was through that that I realized I really, really loved attending to the physical needs of this Sister. And then other Sisters were like, you’re good at it.”

“It sort of coupled with gifts that God gave me and a desire,” Sister Joan Miriam continued. “So then after talking to my formator and then the superior general as well, she said to go ahead and pursue a degree in nursing. It was not something I had ever thought about before I entered. I was pretty adamant that I could not be a nurse.”

She arrived in Knoxville in July 2020 as a second-year novice and volunteered for one year with the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic, a ministry within the diocese that travels to provide health care to the poor and underserved rural areas of East Tennessee.

College, take two

Sister Joan Miriam, whose birth name is Adelina Rebecca Clementine Nelson, was born and raised in Oklahoma.

Sister Joan Miriam lived near Oklahoma City for most of her life and graduated in 2017 from Oklahoma State University in Stillwater with a degree in human development and family science.

She then found herself back on a university campus in August 2021. Returning to the college scene has both its challenges and its blessings.

“In Oklahoma, there are no hills, at least not where I was. So those hills [at the University of Tennessee] were pretty killer,” Sister Joan Miriam said while laughing.

Sister Joan Miriam wears her white lab coat over her habit as she examines bacteria in a science lab on the University of Tennessee-Knoxville campus.

She described the changes from when she was an undergraduate student as a layperson to her life now as a Sister and student.

“It was very different,” Sister Joan Miriam said. “Now I’m coming onto campus for classes after we do our morning prayers, and then I leave campus at a certain time so I can get back for our evening prayers. So, it’s not living that traditional life of the college students.”

Sister Joan Miriam said it was an adjustment to have homework assignments again, as she is “really having to regiment my time because it’s not like I have all evening to study.”

“My work at this point and what I’m being asked to do with the community is go to school, but there’s also sort of a timeframe on that,” she explained, noting how her schedule also carves out time for prayer, rest, and recreation (she loves to sew and do paper crafts).

“It’s been interesting,” Sister Joan Miriam said of her school experience. “Last fall, as I was going into my classes, I’m like, I feel awkward. I’m a new student, I’m at least 10 years older than half of the kids in this class, and I found that people were very hesitant to talk to me.”

“I don’t know if they were just scared or nervous or like, what is this?” she continued. “I mean, thinking about it, it’s probably just as interesting for me to be around them as for them to have a Sister in their class.”

Not being immune to loneliness, Sister Joan Miriam felt the distance from her peers.

“It was hard at first, it was really hard,” she said. “Being lonely was definitely difficult.”

One of Sister Joan Miriam’s first friends on campus was her microbiology professor who, though not Catholic, was intrigued to learn about her life as a religious Sister.

“I would go to her office hours, and she was very open, and she just wanted to know about me being a Sister,” she said. “It was lovely, and I still visit her. Office hours is what really got me through those first few months.”

Because the University of Tennessee is so large, classes can have hundreds of students at a time. However, labs are smaller classrooms with around 20 or so students, offering a better chance for connection.

“You’re working with partners [and] you have to talk to each other,” Sister Joan Miriam said. “That was how I first started to build friendships.”

She shared that interacting with students has been a blessing, especially when those interactions turn to faith.

“It was beautiful because being a Sister in a habit, it makes a clear statement about who I am and what I believe without me saying it,” Sister Joan Miriam said. “So, there was one young woman in particular who was also faithful, not Catholic, but she asked me to pray for her at different times because she knows that is what I do.”

“To see at times the students be somewhat vulnerable… and then to have that privilege to pray for them, that’s definitely been a blessing,” she said.

‘Trying to live my faith well’

For Sister Joan Miriam, her own faith journey ignited after receiving the sacrament of confirmation as a sophomore in high school.

“After confirmation, I realized that sort of the preparation for confirmation couldn’t have been it,” she said. “So, that idea of just one moment wasn’t the end. So, then I started going to youth group after, and then through that I went to one of the Steubenville conferences, and that was the first time I had really seen Sisters in habit who were also younger.”

While at a Steubenville conference, there was an invitation for all of the young women considering religious life to come forward for a special blessing.

“When they had asked, are any of the young women here open to religious life, being a Sister, I was like, I am,” Sister Joan Miriam said. “I realized, at that moment, I was trying to live my faith well, and I had just sort of put it together that to live my Catholic faith well meant I had to be open to all the vocations that God would offer.”

She went down to receive the blessing, and her youth minister cried because she was so happy.

“I was like, what did I just do? So, that was sort of the first time I had ever thought about being a Sister,” Sister Joan Miriam said.

After she started school at Oklahoma State, Sister Joan Miriam joined the Catholic student group on campus.

“They were very vibrant and very faithful, and it really helped me in my faith,” she said. “I started going to daily Mass, which was a completely foreign concept to me up until that point.”

Throughout her time in college, Sister Joan Miriam said she was thinking about pursuing religious life but knew she wanted to graduate first.

The summer after she graduated from college, she met with the vocations director for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. Sister Joan Miriam told him that she knew she wanted to pursue religious life but didn’t know how to find an order.

While flipping through a booklet of the various religious orders around the world, they came across the Religious Sisters of Mercy from Alma.

Sister Joan Miriam stands in front of the iconic Ayres Hall on the University of Tennessee-Knoxville campus in April as she was attending classes.

“When he got to the Religious Sisters of Mercy, he said, ‘You have to look at them! I love them,’ and he folded the page halfway over so that I would be able to find it again. Then from there, it had contact information, and I called and came on a Come and See (retreat).”

During her visit in January 2018, Sister Joan Miriam wrote a letter requesting to enter. She entered postulancy in August of that year. In August 2021 she took her first vows.

“They are temporary vows, so it is for three years,” Sister Joan Miriam said. “Then after three years, you renew vows for two more years; then after that two years is up, then you can profess perpetual vows.”

It wasn’t difficult for Sister Joan Miriam to think about a new name for her religious life.

“One of my favorite saints is St. Joan of Arc, whom I’m named after,” Sister Joan Miriam said. “She’s my patroness. She and I have been friends for a long time.”

“And then we all have a form of Mary in our name,” she added. “I chose Miriam because it’s more indicative of the Hebrew way to say Mary, and I really love the Old Testament, specifically the first five books.”

Before entering religious life, Sister Joan Miriam said she had not previously sat down with the Bible just to pray with it.

“So, about a year and a half after I became a Sister I just started reading the Old Testament. I got to part-way through Kings, and I was like, OK, I’m going to pause,” she said while laughing.

“But those first five books, they’re beautiful,” she continued. “I just found, especially with the stories of Moses and the Israelite community, of how often they turned away…in some versions it says they grumbled against God. But in His providential care, He always provided them what they needed, led them to the promised land. It wasn’t always easy, but He was always calling them to Himself. I just love to read those and pray with those.”

This summer, Sister Joan Miriam will join the other temporarily professed Sisters at the motherhouse in Alma for over a month to retreat there and take continuing formation classes.

She will resume her classes at the University of Tennessee in the fall semester.

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