THANK YOU • At the Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton, Guardian Angel Dinner Dance kickoff reception held May 11, staff and supporters acknowledged Daughter of Charity Sister Joanne Dress, diocesan executive director of Catholic Social Services, who, at the end of June, will be leaving to begin a new assignment in St. Louis, Mo. Here, Sister Joanne, center, is surrounded by Marlene Lao-Collins, diocesan executive director of Catholic Charities, left, and Christie Winters, founding director of Visitation Relief Center. For full story and Lao-Collins’ reflections on Sister Joanne, see page 10.  Christina Leslie photo

THANK YOU • At the Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton, Guardian Angel Dinner Dance kickoff reception held May 11, staff and supporters acknowledged Daughter of Charity Sister Joanne Dress, diocesan executive director of Catholic Social Services, who, at the end of June, will be leaving to begin a new assignment in St. Louis, Mo. Here, Sister Joanne, center, is surrounded by Marlene Lao-Collins, diocesan executive director of Catholic Charities, left, and Christie Winters, founding director of Visitation Relief Center. For full story and Lao-Collins’ reflections on Sister Joanne, see page 10.  Christina Leslie photo

Story by Jennifer Mauro | Associate Editor

Daughter of Charity Sister Joanne Dress may be leaving her position as executive director for Catholic Social Services, but the diocesan department that was new when she arrived six years ago will always bear the legacy of its first mentor.

“Knowing Sister Joanne has been one of my best life experiences,” said Marie Gladney, executive director of Mount Carmel Guild, Trenton, a diocesan agency that serves the poor of Mercer County. “She has offered support and advice when we needed it, attended our board meetings and events and kept us focused on our mission. She visited our worksites often and spoke about our works, successes and difficulties with the Bishop and Chancery staff. Any time you asked Sister a question, she would supply an answer or find one quickly.”

That legacy of serving others is one that was echoed among the directors of the Diocese’s numerous social service agencies as Sister Joanne prepares to leave her position in Trenton at the end of June to take a similar assignment for the Daughters of Charity in St. Louis, Mo.

“I have thoroughly enjoyed working with her,” said Thomas Mladenetz, executive director of Mercer County Catholic Youth Organization. “From our first meeting, it was abundantly clear that Sister Joanne was very sharp and had a wealth of experience in the social services field.”

Working as a Team

Sister Joanne, who is a member of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, the sister congregation to the Vincentian community, arrived in the Diocese in 2011 after serving as chief executive officer and executive vice president of Catholic Charities Community Service of Orange County, N.Y. Her primary responsibility was supervising the Department of Catholic Social Services, newly established by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., and its mission to work as a team to assess and meet the needs of the Diocese’s dozen agencies and its clients. One of her first priorities was bringing the directors of the agencies together for quarterly meetings to share information and provide updates on current and future initiatives and activities.

“Her abilities as a facilitator and director made every agency feel welcomed at the table,” Gladney said. “During her tenure, we became a team that supported one another just as Sister Joanne supported us.”

Mladenetz agreed, saying bringing the directors together “not only kept us all in the loop, it provided  us opportunities to collaborate. Sister Joanne, in her quiet way, was a tremendous conduit to make good things happen all over the place.”

For example, Mladenetz cited how through Sister Joanne’s role as delegate to Bishop O’Connell, the CYO  board of trustees felt better connected to the Diocese. During this period, the CYO continued to expand, including taking over the former Martin House Learning Center, at the request of its board, in 2012. The now CYO East State Street Center, located in Trenton’s Wilbur section, offers children services such as pre-school and after-school programs, food and health programs, athletics and more.

“Sister Joanne helped us in so many ways to get established at this new site, including obtaining funding,” he said.

Mladenetz also praised Sister Joanne’s help with the planning of the Msgr. Toomey Annex at the CYO’s childcare site in Yardville, named after its founder and first director, Msgr. Leonard Toomey. The multi-purpose camp opened in 2014 and provided what Mladenetz called “desperately needed indoor space for our growing year-round programs in Yardville.”

“Although Sister Joanne never knew the late Msgr. Toomey, she recognized the significance of honoring the founding director of the CYO in Mercer County with this beautiful new space to be enjoyed by future generations of young people,” he said.

“Sister Joanne had her finger on the pulse of every program [and] service offered by the CYO. I believe this was the case with every social service agency in the Diocese,” Mladenetz added.

That warmth and knowledge was appreciated by Joseph T. Williams when he was installed as diocesan president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society nearly four years ago.

“She was very gracious in her welcoming and offered to help in any way she could – and did she ever,” he said enthusiastically.

“Whenever I attend a regional or national meeting of the [St. Vincent de Paul] Society, I usually find an opportunity to drop the statement, ‘I have the easiest job in the society: my Bishop is a Vincentian and the executive director of Catholic social services for the Diocese is a Daughter of Charity.’ That usually gets a chuckle, but I always know how true the statement really is.”

Williams, too, recognized Sister Joanne’s guidance in working with various departments in the Chancery, including providing support in establishing new conferences in diocesan parishes and coordinating recovery efforts after Superstorm Sandy, when the parish conferences were asked to assist in the distribution of funds generated by Bishop O’Connell’s special collections for Sandy survivors.

“Sister has always been ready to support our ministry to serve those in need,” he said. “In spite of the fact that her responsibilities cover a wide range of 13 organizations devoted to social services throughout the Diocese, Sister has a wonderful way of making you feel your situation will be given the highest priority no matter how busy she may be.”

Many Hats to Wear

A month before her departure, Sister Joanne herself is humble as she sits in her Chancery office wearing a powder blue cardigan, her office neat, binders full of the necessary material her successor will need. A search is under way to fill her position.

“I’m thankful the Bishop had the insight that there needed to be a connection between Catholic social services and the Diocese so that we could learn more about their services and support them in any way we could,” she said. “My thought from the beginning was that I would learn about what the agencies were doing and be supportive.”

Support has been part of her life’s work. Sister Joanne began as an elementary teacher, spending 10 years in New York and Delaware, before serving 12 years as a director of religious education in New York and New Jersey.

She went on to become pastoral associate and director of religious education in St. Joseph Parish, Harlem, N.Y., for about five years before becoming director of Catholic Charities in Orange and Sullivan Counties, based in Newburgh, N.Y., for eight years. In 2006, she was named to the Catholic Charities Community Services position, which was followed by her arrival to the Diocese. 

Of her many roles, she said, “There hasn’t been anywhere I’ve been asked to go where I haven’t been happy. You just have to come to know the people.”

Getting to Know You

Collaboration is a result of getting to know each other, Sister Joanne said, which is why she also made it a goal to ensure more meetings between outreach workers at the parish level and diocesan and agency employees.

“As we listened to each other, we shared ideas and learned about common resources,” she said. “I was delighted in seeing them work with each other.”

That was particularly demonstrated in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. “Part of what got them [agencies and parishes] working together was Sandy,” she said. “They realized no one parish can do everything.”

That extended to diocesan staff as well, she said, explaining that the Diocese’s role in helping secure and distribute monies and building services strengthened the relationship between the parishes and the Diocese.

“The most important thing is collaboration and support,” she said. “That’s our role, to be supportive. And if you don’t know the answer, find someone who does.”

Admiration and Friendship

Leaning on those who know the territory is a strategy Sister Joanne plans to continue in her new role as coordinator of sponsored works for Daughters of Charity in Missouri, where she will oversee social services agencies across eight states.

“I don’t need to know it all; I just need to know who to go to,” she stressed. “It’s always a collaboration – not just one person.”

For those who know her, however, this “one person” will be missed.

“It has been an honor and privilege to serve with Sister Joanne. Mount Carmel Guild’s board of trustees, staff and I will miss her very much,” Gladney said.

Mladenetz agreed, saying how much joy followed Sister Joanne when she visited the CYO, often bringing books and donations for the center.

“Very often, I’d get a call or email that she’d be in the area and would like to stop by to see the kiddies in one of our pre-schools,” he said. “She loved these visits, and so did my staff and I.”

“Although I am very sad to see her leave, I feel blessed to have had this opportunity to work with Sister Joanne. She had a powerful impact on me in so many ways,” he added.

That impact is a two-way street, Sister Joanne said, emphasizing that one of the biggest highlights of her job is working with people one-on-one. “From coworkers to directors to clients and parishioners, they’re generous and good people. I’m very appreciative of the Bishop for having trust in me to be the delegate of the Diocese when it comes to social services.

“I got great joy in seeing the work and service being done. Hearing from different people who have been helped makes it all worth it.”