At an age when most Minnesotans ease into a cushy retirement, Sister Joan Tuberty moved her worldly belongings into a tiny apartment in a 95-bed complex for low-income residents — many grappling with mental illness and other conditions.
It was the latest chapter of a long life that included years as a cloistered nun, a hospital psychiatric nurse, a university nursing professor and a spiritual director at nearby St. Olaf Catholic Church in Minneapolis.
Tuberty didn’t have a clue she would stay 15 years. When she recently packed her suitcases at the age of 87, she ended a run as one of the most enduring and endearing residents of Catholic Charities supportive housing.
“My ministry … had often been with highly educated and professional people,” said Tuberty, recalling her decision to move into Exodus Housing. “I wondered … could I connect with the poor? Did I have something to offer?”
Catholic Charities, meanwhile, wondered much the same thing when Tuberty asked them about moving in. The folks at Exodus were either staff or residents. There was no precedent for a Catholic nun with a master’s degree who just wanted “to be present” there.
“We thought it would work either fabulously well or be terribly wrong,” said Tracy Berglund, housing director for Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “It turned out to be a very successful experiment.”
After moving into a three-room apartment — a kitchen, bathroom and bedroom — in 2002, Tuberty continued her work as spiritual director at St. Olaf while getting to know her new neighbors. Over the years, she offered spiritual guidance, organized community-building events such as coffee-and-doughnut socials, held a support group for women with mental illness, and just offered an ear to listen.
Bridging a gap
Joe Selvaggio, a veteran Minneapolis nonprofit leader, was impressed with the unusual arrangement.
“She bridged the gap between the have-nots and the middle class, something not a lot of people are good at,” said Selvaggio. “She was a quiet, unsung hero, doing the work of the Lord day in and day out.”
Tuberty also impressed many “haves” at St. Olaf, where she gained a following for her centering prayer and spiritual guidance. She also was a founder of WomenSpirit, a group formed in 1997 by several downtown church leaders to explore women’s spirituality that continued 15 years, said Joan Miltenberger, a ministry director at St. Olaf.
It was at St. Olaf that she met U.S. Appeals Judge Diana Murphy, a parishioner who attended a variety of Tuberty’s programs.
“She has a mystical side, but also a real community side to her,” said Murphy, who became a friend. The centering prayer group that Tuberty led, for example, “wasn’t just holding hands and praying. They did good works in the community, too.”
Tuberty says that Jesus didn’t live in some isolated area, but among the people. That was her guiding principle until last October, when she moved to the mother house of the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls.
She will determine her next chapter of life after dealing with some health issues — and getting some rest.
“I was 72 when I moved in [to Exodus],” said Tuberty. “And I just celebrated my 88th birthday a few days ago. I’ve been on the road a long time.”