“I’m a farm girl who never could have imagined this,” said Sister Judith Desmarais of her 50 years of teaching, ministry to deaf people, and leadership of the religious community at the regional and international levels. She had no dream in 1962, when her mother let her fly from Washington’s Yakima Valley to Boise, Idaho, to visit cousins, that she would one day be flying to visit sisters’ ministries worldwide.
Sister Judith was born at St. Elizabeth Hospital and grew up with four siblings on a hop farm in Moxee, Wash. She attended Holy Rosary grade school in Moxee and St. Joseph Academy in Yakima. She did not consider religious life until between her sophomore and junior year, when she and her sister were CYO camp counselors. One counselor was entering the Tacoma Dominicans. “I thought maybe I could do that.”
Chooses religious life over Gonzaga scholarship
In her senior year, when the prospect of a scholarship to Gonzaga University in Spokane arose, she made another choice. “I felt I had to try it (religious life). I didn’t know what it meant, but I’m still here, so it was a true call.”
She entered the Sisters of Providence at Providence Heights, Issaquah, Wash., in 1962 and made first profession in 1965. She made perpetual profession in 1971 at Holy Rosary Church in Moxee.
For nine years, Sister Judith taught primary grades at Our Lady of Lourdes School and St. Joseph School in Vancouver, Wash., and at Holy Family School in Seattle. Working with their visual orientation and uncomplicated language helped her with her volunteer work with students at Washington State School for the Deaf in Vancouver.
Working with deaf “a call from God”
The rewarding but challenging volunteer work motivated her to seek to turn it into a full-time ministry. “I had to convince the archdiocese to hire me,” Sister Judith said. She was encouraged to go to school and get a degree in public school teaching for the deaf, but she said she preferred a religious setting. She took training at Seattle Central Community College to learn the sign language interpreting skills for what became her favorite ministry.
“I believed it was a call from God,” Sister Judith explained. She felt that even more strongly because working with the deaf was an early ministry of the Sisters of Providence. It was, in fact, the last work that Mother Emilie Gamelin gave assent to in 1851, before she died in September of that year. The ministry began with a novice who had been teaching a young deaf girl and a priest who had been teaching some sign language at the Asile of Providence.
Sister Judith continued working with deaf people full-time for 14 years, eight in Seattle and six in Portland. It was rewarding to see deaf people develop their potential and also become leaders for their community.
In 1991, Sister Judith transitioned into a ministry of religious community leadership when she was elected provincial councilor for the former Sacred Heart Province. After the fourth year of the five-year term she became interim provincial superior. In the General Chapter in Montreal, Quebec, in July 1997, she was elected to a five-year term as a general councilor and then she was re-elected for a second term in 2002. While in Montreal, she interpreted for an English Mass for English-signing deaf people and also worked with the Sisters of Seven Dolors, a deaf community.
Finds rewards in leadership
Sister Judith returned to leadership in 2010 when she was elected a provincial councilor for Mother Joseph Province. In a bit of déjà vu, she finds herself serving again as provincial superior during the two final years of her term.
Leadership has had its rewards. “To get to know all the sisters in the community really is a richness. You go everywhere and see the work, the ministries and the dedication.” Leadership is very different at the General Leadership level, she added. Provincial leaders are focused on the individuals, their ministries and province ministries, while the general leadership is focused on provincials and their councils, and “on where the community is going worldwide.” Through their visits to the provinces, General Leadership Team members become more than just a picture on the wall to sisters around the world.
Continues to interpret for liturgy
Sister Judith continues serving as an interpreter for Sunday liturgy as time permits, and she assures that an interpreter will be present for the Jubilee celebration to interpret for her many deaf friends who plan to be there.
“I will have had 20 years of leadership when I’m done with this term as provincial superior,” Sister Judith said. She will be 71 then, and hopes to immerse herself in volunteer work, “to be of service to someone,” perhaps with deaf people or students who need a tutor.
“Fifty years doesn’t seem possible,” she said of this Jubilee. “I don’t feel very old and I’m fortunate to have good health and energy to continue in ministry.
She enjoys communications and rich connections with other religious communities via the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), of which she is chair of Region 15, through Women of Providence in Collaboration (WPC), and with family and friends throughout the world.
“Providence of God, I thank you for all!”