Sister Joan Paule: Joyful in action

Maria Schmiesing

Guest Writer

“I just came to say hello,” said junior Maria Carneckis.

Carneckis had stopped in the office doorway of Sister Joan Paule Portenlanger, TOR. They began chatting about various things.

When the conversation went from philosophical to practical, Carneckis decided she needed to prove one of her points to Portenlanger by using self-defense moves.

At this point, another student, sophomore Lena Nelson, joined Carneckis and Portenlanger. Carneckis asked if Nelson would be her prop for demonstrating some self-defense moves to Portenlanger.

Nelson agreed, approached Carneckis and laid her hand on Carneckis’s shoulder. Carneckis, not having discussed what exactly would happen, had a look of surprise on her face.

Exceedingly amused by the entire proceeding, Portenlanger began to laugh. She said she hadn’t laughed that hard in months, maybe even years.

This joy displayed by Portenlanger is one of her defining features. As one of the chaplains in Sts. Kolbe and Clare halls, she has a lot of interactions with students. Her joy and approachable personality are some of the things that recommended her for the job.

The Rev. Luke Robertson, TOR, knew that Portenlanger was going to be reassigned, so he reached out and asked if she would be chaplain for Kolbe Clare.

Robertson, who is also a chaplain of the hall, said that it was important to have as many female chaplains as possible for the women’s dorm. As to why he chose Portenlanger, in particular, there were a few reasons.

Robertson had been on Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Gaming, Austria, campus at the same time that Portenlanger was there. He saw her interacting with students and knew that she would be a great fit as a dorm chaplain.

“When I think of Franciscan joy, Sister Joan Paule has Franciscan joy,” said Robertson.

He compared her joy to when St. Francis of Assisi received the pope’s blessing to found a religious order and spontaneously started dancing. Robertson said he had never seen Portenlanger spontaneously dance, but he had heard her spontaneously sing.

He said, “In the sacristy or at the end of a meeting, she’ll spontaneously start singing.”

Portenlanger, after working in Austria, lived with some of the sisters of her order in Steubenville and worked at a thrift store.

Portenlanger said, “I missed working for Franciscan University. I had three years between Gaming and this (working as a chaplain).”

Portenlanger thinks she is well-suited for her job as chaplain for a few reasons.

She said, “I think first of all, naturally, I’m a people person. I love interacting with people. I want to get to know them. I have the ability to relate and listen and get out of myself and into their world.”

During her office hours, the tall, older woman can be seen sitting in her office in her simple Franciscan habit and pale floral mask. When she sees a student walk by, her green eyes crinkle into a smile as she greets them, often drawing them into the office to chat for a bit. Her slight wrinkles and ready laugh give her a warm, motherly air.

For Portenlanger’s birthday, Carneckis and Nelson conceived a plan to make the day memorable and fun.

They filled a whole bunch of balloons and bought 50 rubber ducks, then proceeded to fill her office with them.

Portenlanger was surprised, but joyful as usual, at the crazy birthday decorations that had taken over her small office.

Carneckis said, “She’s very outward with childlike joy, so I thought she’d like something crazy.”

Another student, junior Katie Collin, also remarked that she liked Portenlanger’s sense of humor, and added that Portenlanger makes everyone feel seen.

Collin said, “She makes Franciscan seem more homey with the motherly love that she gives off.”

Collin remembers talking to Portenlanger with some other students about going to see a Shakespeare play that was going to be performed on campus. Although none of the other students ended up going, Collin checked in with Portenlanger and they decided to go. Several other sisters from the order went also. They got food from Crazy Mexican, went to the play and had a good time, said Collin.

Nelson said that Portenlanger is “really good at having fun, but also at giving great spiritual advice.”

Portenlanger is her spiritual advisor and “is very inspiring,” said Nelson.

Portenlanger loves her work. She said her favorite part is when she sees an “ah-ha” moment — when she helps a student come to a new realization.

She said, “I have felt God working through me in those moments. He gives me the words and uses my words and reflections to give insights to another person.”

Robertson said that Portenlanger has a huge heart and people can see that she genuinely cares about them.

Portenlanger loves to talk to and hang out with students. That’s what makes her perfect for the role of chaplain.

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