Paving the Way for Women: The Scientific Contributions of Sister Joan Acker, H.M.
By Mary Cay Doherty, ArchivistPlease click here to view the digital poster.
A couple of months ago, we took a peak at the sciences at Magnificat
, and celebrated that an all-girls environment provides advantages and opportunities for young women, particularly in the sciences. And the Sisters of the Humility of Mary who founded Magnificat High School are central to the identity, mission, and values that enable us to educate young women holistically. Today we dig a little deeper into the heritage left to us by the Sisters of the Humility of Mary by exploring the contributions of a very special Magnificat science teacher — Sister Joan Acker, H.M.
Sister Joan taught at Magnificat from 1964 to 1979. During her time as a Chemistry teacher here, Sister Joan coached seven students to the International Science and Engineering Fair, and one, Maryanne Povinelli
(one of 451 competitors) won the grand prize in 1978, just one year before Sister Joan would leave Magnificat High School for her next assignment at the Cleveland Clinic.
So who was Sister Joan?
Joan Acker was born in 1926 to parents Fred and Margaret Acker. She had a younger brother, Thomas (who is a Jesuit priest) and a younger sister, Patricia Acker Basista (who married, had a family, and passed away in 2013). According to the 1940 Census
, the family lived at 18817 Hilliard Road in Rocky River just a little over a mile from where Magnificat High School would be built in 1956.
Sister Joan went to St. Christopher Elementary School and graduated from St. Joseph Academy in 1943. She studied English, Spanish, and Chemistry at Villa Maria College in Erie, Pennsylvania and earned her B.A. in 1947.
After graduating from college, Sister Joan taught in the Cleveland Public Schools until January 30, 1949 when she decided to enter as a postulate into the Sisters of the Humility of Mary. She took the name Sister Mary Myles when she was received into the Novitiate on July 17, 1949. Her first vows were professed on July 17, 1951, and she took her final vows three years later on July 17, 1954.
Sister Joan chose “Myles” as her religious name to honor her patron saint. In Latin, “miles” means “soldier.” As “Sister Mary Myles,” Joan Acker paid homage to Joan of Arc, “the Maid of Orleans,” who courageously led to the French to victory over the English in the 1429 Battle of Orleans during the Hundred Years’ War. She burned at the stake by the English in 1431, was later exonerated (posthumously), and was declared a saint in 1920. Six years after the canonization of Joan of Arc, Fred and Margaret Acker welcomed their own little Joan into the world.
As Sister Mary Myles, Joan’s ministry within the Sisters of the Humility of Mary focused primarily on education. After teaching three years at Central Catholic High School in Canton, she returned to the Cleveland area to teach at Lourdes Academy from 1954-1964 and then at Magnificat from 1964-1979. In addition to the seven Magnificat students who were grand prize winners at the Northeast Ohio Science Fair and went on to the International Science Fair, Sister Joan also coached nine Westinghouse Science Talent Search Winners at Lourdes and Magnificat.
The Magnificat yearbooks reflect a significant change for Sister Joan and other Sisters in the H.M. Community. In the 1965-1967 yearbooks, she is identified by her religious name, Sister Myles, but from 1968 on, as a result of Vatican II, she is identified by her baptismal name, Sister Joan Acker.
In addition to teaching, directing student science projects, and leading science clubs, Sister Joan also served as a Genesis advisor for Magnificat seniors. One of the more memorable placements that she facilitated was a three week visit for senior twins Sue and Mimi Slaght with an Amish family in Bellville, Pennsylvania in May 1976. The May 1976 issue of The Magnificat
reported that the girls wore simple dresses and helped to whitewash a barn during their Genesis experience with the Amish.
After leaving Magnificat, Sister Joan had a one year fellowship at the Cleveland Clinic to help with research on hypertension before returning to the academic setting as a faculty member at Borromeo Seminary College (1980-1991). During her early years at Borromeo Seminary College, Sister Joan was one of several scientists who were technical advisors for a project that developed an audiovisual program to teach DNA and Recombinant DNA
. From 1991-1998, she taught science and religion courses at John Carroll University, and in 1998, she and colleague Ernest Spittler won a $10,000 John Templeton Foundation Science and Religion award for the “Issues in Science and Religion” that they developed.
Throughout her life, Sister Joan embodied Magnificat’s lifelong learning value. In 1961, Sister Joan (then Sister Mary Myles) earned a Master of Science degree in chemistry
with a minor in physics from the University of Notre Dame. And as Sister Joanne Gardner, H.M. says “Sister Joan was a consummate learner and attended NSF [National Science Foundation] institutes and other summer classes in more institutions than [I can] list…”
From 1998 until her death at the Villa in 2006, Sister Joan Acker was a writer and spiritual director. She authored an article “Creationism and the Catechism”
for the December 2000 issue of America
. In the article, Sister Joan challenged the articulations in the second U.S. edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church for not endorsing evolutionary theory more stridently. As a scientist and a woman of deep faith, Sister Joan argued that acknowledging the role of evolution was not only good for science, but also for our faith since it reinforced the importance of God the Creator who set such exquisitely perfect mechanisms in motion to form the world in which we live.
Researching Sister Joan uncovered a potential for mistaken identity. There was another Joan Acker active as an academician in the United States during many of the same years as “our” Joan Acker. The “other” Joan Acker was a sociologist from the University of Oregon who became a relatively well-known scholar in the second wave of feminism. This Joan Acker was born in 1924 (just two years before “our” Joan Acker) and died in 2016. In his critique of Sister Joan’s article “Creationism and the Catechism,” John Shea inaccurately claims
“Sister Acker teaches sociology at the University of Oregon and has been involved in feminist activities since the late 1960's.” The close birth and death dates for these two women who share first and last names made careful cross-checking of information a necessity in the research for this article.
Sister Joan left an indelible mark on the world. In the online guest registry
affiliated with her obituary, Sister Barbara Lenaric, H.M. commented “Sister Joan taught astronomy and science when I was a novice at Villa Maria [sic] back in the 60s. I loved her class…” Ann McGill, an H.M. Associate
, said of Sister Joan, “She was truly a wonderful and learned woman, and I and my prayer life are much the richer for the opportunity [to have known her.]”
And the current president and CEO of the Great Lakes Science Center, Dr. Kirsten Ellenbogen
, even has ties to Sister Joan Acker. In a February 2016 interview with WKYC Channel 3
, Dr. Ellenbogen credited her mother, Mary Lou Gaffey (a Lourdes graduate) for instilling in her a love of science. Mary Lou then posted a link to the interview on the Sisters of the Humility of Mary Facebook page
, and wrote, “A tribute to Sr. Mary Myles (Joan Acker) who helped make possible for me these [science] opportunities.” Sister Joan shared a love of science with Mary Lou Gaffey. Mary Lou Gaffey shared that love with her daughter, Kirsten. And now as President and CEO, Kirsten Ellenbogen helps instill a love of science in visitors to the Great Lakes Science Center.
While we celebrate Sister Joan’s influence beyond the halls of Magnificat, we are especially grateful for her years of service here. Sister Joan Acker — learner, teacher, writer — shepherded our young scientists for fifteen years and helped to shape the science department. We hope that as she looks down upon us from heaven, Sister Joan Acker smiles proudly knowing that she made a difference in the science and faith lives of so many young women.Please click here to view the digital poster.
_____. “ACS Recombinant DNA Program.” The Chesapeake Chemist, Vol. 39, No. 4
. Maryland Section American Chemical Society, April 1983.
_____ . “Commencement Exercises, Summer Session 1961.” The University of Notre Dame
. Notre Dame: The University of Notre Dame, 1961. http://www.archives.nd.edu/commencement/1961-08-03_commencement.pdf
_____. “Maryanne Wins International Fair.” The Magnificat
, Vol. 19, No. 5. Rocky River: Magnificat High School, 1978.
_____. “Science Department.” Magnifier ’65
. Rocky River: Magnificat High School, 1965.
_____. “Seniors Venture Forth: Genesis Encourages Growth.” The Magnificat
. Rocky River: Magnificat High School, May 28, 1976.
Acker, Joan. “Creationism and the Cathechism.” America: The Jesuit Review
(New York: America Press Inc.) 2006. https://www.americamagazine.org/issue/392/article/creationism-and-catechism
. Accessed 12/11/2018.
Eppley, George. “Hero: Sister Joan Acker, H.M. “Gladly Would She Learn and Gladly Teach.” Eppley Files
. Accessed 12/7/2018.
Gardner, Joanne. “RE: Sister Joan Acker.” Email to Mary Cay Doherty, December 6, 2018.
Shea, John B. “New evolutionary theology: Abolishes Adam and Eve, Sin, and Redemption.” Life Issues.net: Clear Thinking about Crucial Issues
, 2005 (originally written in 2002 and reproduced with permission from Catholic Insight). http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/she/she_17newevoltheology.html
. Date accessed 12/11/2018.
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Magnificat High School Archives Statement of PurposeThe Magnificat High School Archives exists to procure, evaluate, preserve and provide access to materials of enduring historical value to Magnificat High School, thereby enriching scholarship about and appreciation for the school heritage and the living endowment provided by the Sisters of the Humility of Mary.