Nun called to serve ‘even before birth’
HOLLIDAYSBURG, Pa. (AP) —
In Youngstown, Ohio, a large portrait of St. Therese of Lisieux, a French Catholic Discalced Carmelite nun, hung in the bedroom of Joseph and Mary Tokasz Ferenchak. Today, the same portrait provides solace to their daughter, Theresa Ann, now known as Carmelite Sister M. Joachim Anne Ferenchak, administrator and CEO of Garvey Manor and Our Lady of the Alleghenies Residence.
Sister Joachim is overseeing Garvey’s second major expansion during her 24-year tenure at the Hollidaysburg home.
The fourth of the couple’s six children, Sister Joachim said her mother never told her the story behind the saint’s painting until the day she entered the convent of the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm.
Pregnant with their third child, Mary Ferenchak had recurring dreams of St. Therese beckoning her to come closer. A portrait of St. Therese — which matched Mary’s dream — came up for sale and the couple purchased it and agreed to name the child Theresa. They had a son, but when their fourth child was a girl, Theresa Ann fulfilled their promise.
“I feel I was predestined even before birth,” Sister Joachim said. “I knew from an extremely young age I would enter religious life.”
Her cousins recall that she wanted to play “being at church,” or “being the nun who taught in the school,” she said. “I felt called to a personal relationship with Christ” early in her teens, she said.
As a high school student, she volunteered in a facility where the Carmelite Sisters cared for the aged, which “gave me a clearer direction that this is what God was calling me to be in my life.”
Garvey employees Joann Kasun, second assistant administrator, and Holly Keller, director of development, say their faith has been enriched and their careers enhanced through the interactions with the Carmelite Sisters, and Ferenchak specifically.
“Sister Joachim,” Keller said, “is amazing. Everything here begins with a prayer to make sure the mission and ministry is at the center of everything we do. That’s what makes Garvey so special and different. You feel the presence of the ministry and it guides you every day.”
A 27-year-employee, Kasun worked in Human Resources when Ferenchak came as the new administrator. Kasun described Ferenchak as an “extremely intelligent, very intuitive and faith-filled and mission-driven leader.”
Sister Joachim selected Kasun for advance leadership training in the Carmelite mission and also through Penn State to earn a nursing home administrator’s license — a five-year process.
“I couldn’t have done it without Sister … she supported me and encouraged me,” Kasun said.
The two had always enjoyed a positive relationship when Kasun served as HR director.
“I remember her saying in one of my performance evaluations that she appreciated that I didn’t always agree with her. I felt comfortable enough with her and she instilled that confidence in me that disagreeing with her wasn’t going to be a black mark on my career,” Kasun said. “I also knew when to stop disagreeing because the buck stops with her decision. But I could ask a question about her decision and get an honest answer.”
Kasun described Sister’s work ethic as tireless.
“She is absolutely devoted and dedicated to the residents,” Kasun said. “She has committed her life to the residents.”
When Sister Joachim selected her Carmelite name; she chose Mary Joachim Anne: Mary for the mother of Jesus, and Joachim (pronounced Joe-a-kim) and Anne for the parents of Mary — and the grandparents of Jesus.
“I took this name because I would be working with the elderly and thought there could be no better patron Saints than Jesus’ mother and grandparents. The Apostolic Ministry of (a) Carmelite Sister is to care for and provide services to the elderly in long-term care facilities.”
The ministry operates exclusively in the field of geriatrics.
After the completion of her religious formation, Sister became a registered nurse in 1975 and earned a four-year nursing degree in 1983.
“Being able to be in ministry to the frail, vulnerable elders, whom I believe God has entrusted to my care, and assuring that they are treated in a very personal manner, with respect and compassion is the most satisfying way of life I can imagine,” she said. She said it has been “an honored life experience.”
The COVID-19 pandemic changed life at Garvey Manor, where 56 residents and 70 employees contracted the virus. The administrator complimented her staff for “doing a hero’s job” and said the pandemic changed her ministry as she wasn’t able to greet every new resident and their family.
“Prayer is what keeps me sane in the chaos of a pandemic so that I can function not in panic mode, but with a positive outlook,” she said.
Sister Joachim is overseeing Garvey’s second significant building expansion, but remains humble.
“Anything that’s happened here for the good is because God has directed it and people here have responded. It’s when we fail to follow the direction of the Holy Spirit that we can get ourselves into trouble,” she said.
Sister Joachim said she went through a “dark period in the late 1980s,” a period she doesn’t regret because it “made me a stronger person with more trust and reliance on God. During the dark time, I realized I was relying more on myself than on God. In reality, it is when you operate on faith — not feelings — that sustains me through difficult times. If you don’t walk the way of the Cross to Calvary, then you can’t celebrate the joy of Easter.”
The Ferenchak file
Name: Sister M. Joachim Anne Ferenchak
Family: Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm; entered religious life in 1967.
Education: Bachelor of Science in nursing at College of Mount Saint Joseph, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1983; Master’s degree in Health Services Administration, Saint Joseph College, Standish Maine, 1995.
Career: Administrator and CEO of Garvey Manor and Our Lady of the Alleghenies Residence.
Awards: Awarded the Gallitzin Cross by the Diocese of Altoona Johnstown.