Meet Mary Jo Cherry: SSJ Partner in Mission

It all started with a simple lunch.

Mary Jo Cherry’s search for a college brought her to Erie. She was taught by the Sisters of Mercy in DuBois, Pa., so, of course, she planned to visit Mercyhurst College. But, in addition, she decided to look at Villa Maria College.

“Mom, dad, and I went to Villa first,” she recalled. “We were at lunch with Sr. Lucille, Sr. Lucy, and Sr. Teresina, when Sr. Lucy, who was from St. Marys, said, ‘Shall I tell them who I am?'”

“Then she turned to my father and said, ‘I’m Lucy Woods, Paul Woods’ sister.’ And my father, a long-time friend of Paul’s, shouted, ‘Well, Lordy sake!”

“It was like home… and we all agreed it would be Villa.”

Like most college students, Mary Jo knew that this would be the start of building her life’s work. What she didn’t realize was that the Sisters of St. Joseph would help her build a family – and, in the process, become cherished members of her extended family.

Mary Jo’s lifelong commitment to education took her away from Erie. Still, she always returned between earning degrees – a bachelor’s from Villa Maria College, a master’s from the University of Maryland, and a doctorate from Kent State University. First, she taught at Villa Maria College; then, she was director of Maryvale. Finally, she served as dean of the College of Education, a joint program between Villa Maria and Gannon.

These roles, of course, made Mary Jo a member of the SSJ family, but that’s not the best part of the story.

“We don’t get back often anymore, but the sisters who taught me, taught with me, and were a part of Nelle’s life will always be family,” she said.

In 1983, Mary Jo decided that she wanted to adopt a child. After much thought and prayer, she contacted Catholic Charities and was placed on the waiting list. Finally, four years and a month later, she got the call.

“I received the call on Monday, and on Tuesday, I went to Erie to meet Nelle,” she said. “I walked up to the third floor of the old motherhouse, and there she was, with Sr. Joseph John.”

Sr. Joseph John McDonald holding Nelle Cherry after her christening. Nelle is one of more than 120 infants cared for by Sr. Joseph John during her 20 years as a foster mother.

Nelle was nine months old and had been in the loving care of her foster mothers, Srs. Joseph John McDonald and Irene Lunger, for two months.

Two weeks later – when it was time to bring Nelle home – one of the sisters cautioned Mary Jo. “Be ready,” she said. “We don’t talk to Joseph John on the days when she places a baby. They are her heart.”

That day would not end Nelle’s relationship with the sisters. Mary Jo and Nelle visited often.

Mary Jo reminisced. “I would carry her up the stairs at the motherhouse and ask, ‘What do you have to do, Nelle?’ And she would say ‘kisses!’ And as soon as they heard her voice, all the sisters’ doors would open.'”

“She’d yell, ‘Joe John, I’m here!’ then barely get her hugs and kisses in because Sr. Irene would be waiting with a chair on wheels to roll Nelle up and down the hallway.”

For Mary Jo and Nelle, family is forever.

(l-r) Sr. Joseph John McDonald, Mary Jo Cherry, Nelle Cherry, and Sr. Mary Irene Lunger.

Likewise, we will always consider Mary Jo and Nelle beloved members of the SSJ extended family. We congratulate Mary Jo on her retirement from teaching at Ursuline College for 34 years. We are grateful to be a part of their story, and for all they do to continue loving and supporting the sisters and our ministries.

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