Mom and the Girls' Trip to Ireland - 2016

Beyond the Pale


Sister Joan

Sally Bailey, 1927

Sally Bailey, 1927

Born Sara (Sally) Catherine Bailey, Sister Joan was the sixth of seven children born to Martina Swift and Leonard Bailey. She entered the Congregation of the Humility of Mary in 1945 and made her final profession in 1951.

For many years she taught at several schools in Iowa (Des Moines, Fort Madison, Centerville, Rock Island) and served as a school principal at St. Joseph’s School in Neola, IA before she retired from teaching. She spent several years as the activity director at the Bishop Drumm Care Center in Johnston, IA. After she retired and had more time to travel, Sister Joan went to Ireland and England with her sister and husband, traveling to Gort and to Brewood (Staffordshire, England) to find the roots of her grandparents.

Sister Joan kept us all connected through her letters. She cranked out multi-page, typewritten letters filled with stories from all branches of the family, and her mailing list included somewhere upwards of 250 addresses! If there was a new baby born, she would write the parents for the complete name and date of birth so she could add it to the letter. If a cousin moved across the country, she’d share the new address in her next letter. When I first began reading the letters, I did not know how all the names mentioned in the letters might connect to me, but it didn’t matter because her stories were always engaging and entertaining. Sometimes her letters were so long that the envelope required extra postage, and when I saw one of those in my mailbox, I knew I was in for a treat. I could never throw her letters away. After Sister Joan died in 2000, I missed her terribly, and somedays when she was on my mind, I would pull out one of her old letters, sit down with a cup of coffee and enjoy the stories all over again. It was almost like having a visit with her.

Sally Bailey, David Baur, Helen Bailey Baur, Joe Bailey, Martina Bailey. ~1943

Sally Bailey, David Baur, Helen Bailey Baur,
Joe Bailey, Martina Bailey. ~1943

I think that Sister Joan probably spent a fortune of her own money in pursuit of family history – traveling across the country to visit a family gathering or photograph a cemetery, and paying the fees for photocopying documents in libraries and courthouses, not to mention the funds she probably spent on postage. She was tireless in documenting detail of the family and was especially good at mining the archives of newspapers and county records. Over the years, she spent countless hours digging through records, copying photos and chasing down details. She was generous in sharing what she collected, making copies of entire stacks of papers or clippings and mailing them off to Mom, me and others for editing or just enjoying. If it had not been for Sister Joan, we would not have the compiled memoirs of her mother, Martina Swift Bailey, nor the collected letters written by Agnes Swift on her 1911 trip to Europe and 1917-19 service as an Army nurse in France. Sister Joan compiled them, organized them, ferreted out more information to supplement them, and then put them in a form to share with others and made dozens of copies. And this was all before the convenience of computers and digital scanners.

When I started to pay attention to family history, it was Sister Joan who taught me the importance of documenting sources and writing down facts. She knew the frustration of trying to identify unknown persons in photos, so she impressed upon me the need to write names on the back of a printed photo before stashing it away or sharing it with someone. I’ve tried to follow that advice, but whenever I come across a photo that I didn’t label because I thought I would “always remember” who was in the picture, I think of Sister Joan.

Sister Joan was the first person I knew who used computer software to compile a family tree, and her database on the Swift family was the starting point for my own. In the past few years, the online tools to support genealogical research have become increasingly sophisticated and convenient, and I know Sister Joan would appreciate the ease with which one can find documentation for which she might have driven hours to secure. At the same time, when I start with Sister Joan’s information and go off to find a primary source, thinking I am going to discover something “new” to add to hers, I am astounded at how thorough her work was even without the convenience of the internet.

Sister Joan, 1985

Sister Joan, 1985

Countless generations are indebted to Sister Joan not only for her bringing us together and sharing our stories, but also for her vast collection of photos and documents. The boxes of records from her work more than filled a room, and in fact, when she moved to the Humility of Mary Center in Davenport where she spent her final years, she had an extra room in her apartment entirely devoted to housing her archive. After she died, her nephew David Baur and others were gracious enough to store and protect the collection, and recently, her niece and husband Ruth and Ralph Roesler, have begun organizing and digitizing the precious photos and records. (I stumbled across their online archive when I read about their website in an email message from a woman in Ireland, who is likewise exploring her roots in the Swift family!) I have relied heavily on the archive for most of the old photos used on this website, and for that, I am most appreciative to Ralph.

Not one to romanticize the history, Sister Joan focused on facts and documents. Yet at the same time, she knew the value of keeping the stories attached to the photos or the old faded record. These details were fertile ground for my imagination, and because of Sister Joan’s work, I feel I know my ancestors much better than most people could claim. She would have enjoyed knowing that our trip was enriched by the detail she worked so hard to gather and preserve, and I thought of her often during this journey.


Other stuff and 2023 trip

This page was last edited on 09-Apr-2023

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