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.