Related: Academics, Higher Education, Sisters of Notre Dame, Social Justice Issues, Trinity, Trinity Alumnae, Women, Women's Leadership

Remembering Trinity’s Philosopher Queen: Sr. Helen James John, SND


Update:  The Washington Post obituary for Sr. Helen James John is terrific — what a lovely tribute!

I had never heard of the philosopher king before I sat in my first class with Sr. Helen James John, SND, who died earlier this week at Mercy Villa in Baltimore.  She captivated my imagination from the earliest lecture on Plato’s Republic in her famous Survey of the History of Philosophy course.  She would have held her own quite nicely in the company of Plato and Aristotle, Aquinas, Rousseau, Locke, Hildegarde and Marx, all of whom made guest appearances in her Philosophy courses across almost 50 years at Trinity.  For this freshman in the fall of 1970, she was my gateway to ideas, perspectives, ways of thinking and knowing the world that were fresh yet ancient, obvious and yet impossibly impenetrable at times.  She was Trinity’s real Philosopher Queen.

A cum laude graduate of Trinity’s Class of 1951, majoring in English with minors in Latin and Greek (those were the days!), Janie (as she is known to family and friends) joined the Sisters of Notre Dame and continued her studies in Philosophy at Catholic University where she earned her master’s degree with a dissertation exploring “Metaphysical Principles in Thomistic Cognitive Psychology.”  She received her Ph.D. in Philosophy from Louvain University in Belgium.

Sr. Helen James John began teaching at Trinity in 1954, splitting teaching duties in her early years between Philosophy and English.   By the early 1970’s when I was a student here, her courses were considered absolutely essential for a great education at Trinity, and she was an intellectual force both in the classroom and all over campus.  Her own scholarship soon delved into feminist philosophy, and she became a leading scholar on Hildegarde von Bingen.  She was a major contributor to the Society of Women Philosophers, an increasingly passionate voice for the imperative of illuminating women’s voices in teaching and research in Philosophy.

Sr. Helen James John’s commitment to social justice went well beyond philosophy.  She developed interdiciplinary seminars in Bioethics, Death and Dying, Faith and Feminism, Justice and the Economy.  She worked in SND community ministries as time allowed and lent her time and considerable intellectual prowess to numerous organizations including the Sisters of Notre Dame.  She earned many grants, particularly from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and with her grants she was able to travel and deliver scholarly papers at leading universities in the U.S. and Europe.  Her scholarship and wide recognition as a leading feminist philosopher brought greater recognition to Trinity as well.

Retiring in 1998, Janie continued her service to the Sisters of Notre Dame and her ardent commitment to justice and feminist principles.  While she has not been part of the Trinity campus community for many years, those of us who knew her recall her with great fondness and respect for her large intellect, passionate commitment to justice, and amazing ability to teach students how to think deeply, to reason critically, to debate logically, and to live ethically.

Sr. Helen James John’s work and commitments live on among the thousands of Trinity alumnae who had the privilege of knowing and learning from her.  We give thanks for the privilege of having known, however briefly, the remarkable mind and passionate spirit of Trinity’s Philosopher Queen.

Mass of the Resurrection for Sr. Helen James John will be on Saturday, December 1, 2012 at 11 am at the Sisters’ Chapel at the Mercy Villa, 6806 Bellona Avenue, Baltimore.

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5 Responses to Remembering Trinity’s Philosopher Queen: Sr. Helen James John, SND

  1. Martha Keyes Pendergast says:

    Thanks to Anne and Ellen for the post in TC ’81 FB page. . Sr Helen James John was one of my most influential teachers. I consider myself very fortunate to have been one of her students. She had a great sense of humor and was a true thought provoker! I learner much abiut insightful, critical thinking from her and I loved that she challenged, rebelled and laughed her way through life. I regret that I did not keep in touch with her over the years and let her know what a profound difference she made in the way I see and think. Martha Keyes Pendergast ’81

  2. Nancy Schott says:

    I was a back door philosphy major, graduating, just barely, in 1976. Sr Helen was way beyond me intellectually but was gentle in her criticism and direction. Although I never used my philosphy again in my business career, I do feel that it was always part of my life and part of my decision making.

  3. The year I took Sr. Helen James’ philosophy course, I was sick and barely passed. Yet I remember so much! I’m very moved by reading about all her other studies and scholarship. Rest in peace, good sister.

  4. Carrie Kulp-Hanna says:

    I remember her so fondly, her joy seeing students understand the value of philosophical inquiry, or watching her Orioles win. She was a tremendous example of resilience and faith after her stroke 14 years ago, and even in pain and frustration, she maintained her humor and generosity. I am better for having known her.

  5. Minerva San Juan says:

    It was Janie who interviewed and hired me in the summer of 1994. From the moment, in the search committee’s interview, that Dr. Harris-O’Brien’s questioned me about the possible pernicious effects of Relativism and Janie completed my answer adding clarity and depth, Janie became my mentor. We talked constantly; about the shape of the Philosophy program at the College, about the Society of Women in Philosophy, about Aquinas, Locke, and Marx, about Hypatia, about Bioethics. She had a ‘mild’ stroke that first semester; I was at the hospital with her as everyone worked on her and as she quoted Aristotle (in the Greek)and made reference to his chapter on friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics. Janie was back in the classroom the following semester, gently leading discussions. She was an amazing teacher whose theory of teaching was about thinking – about starting a conversation focused on difficult issues and showing, almost immediately, that we were, as human persons capable of rational persuasion. The classromm was about that kind of dialogue, the kind that taught discernment in the midst of analytic passion.

    Once, when I was presenting a paper at the World Trade Center, in an elevator, another philosopher noticed my Trinity badge and said with a huge smile, “You must know Janie! She wrote an article that redirected my research.” Everywhere I went, from the American Philosophical Association to SWIP to the ACPA, Janie was mentioned with admiration for her intellect and gratitude for her kindness and generosity.
    She was the voiceat Faculty Meetings that reminded us of the broad scope of our responsibility to Social Justice; she was thie visionary who taught us about the unity of the liberal arts; she was my friend.

    I have missed her every day she has been away. And I so regret not having visited her this past year.


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