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Joanmarie Smith

By Gloria Durka


Joanmarie Smith, C.S.J. (1932-): the William A. Chryst Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio from 1981-2003. Known as a dynamic and creative teacher, she specializes in philosophy of religious education and pastoral theology. The author of more than forty articles, co-author and editor of seven books, she has published three books, Morality Made Simple (But Not Easy) 1982; A Context for Christianity in the 21st Century 1995; and Teaching as Eucharist 1999.


Joanmarie Smith was born in New York City on June 20, 1932. Her father, Charles J. Smith, was Director of Personnel for the Department of Marine and Aviation. Her mother, Gertrude R. (Conroy) worked as an Administrative Assistant in the NYC Department of Traffic. She has one younger sister, Suzanne, who worked for the NYC Department of Personnel. Joanmarie completed Our Lady of Mt. Carmel elementary school in 1946 and high school in the Juniorate of the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1950. She has always relished being a "New Yorker" even though she spent more than twenty years living in Ohio. She still regards New York as her home. Shortly after her high school graduation, Joanmarie entered the Congregation of St. Joseph (Brentwood, New York). As a Sister of St. Joseph, she completed a bachelor's degree in secondary education at St. John's University in 1963 where she majored in English. She went on to earn a master's of arts degree in philosophy and a doctorate in philosophy at Fordham University in 1971. During her doctoral studies, she was mentored by Robert Johann who directed her doctoral dissertation, "John Dewey and the Ideal of Community." To this day traces of her dissertation can be discerned in her lecturing and writing.

Joanmarie began her teaching career in 1953 as an instructor in elementary school. For seven years she taught junior high school in an all black school in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of New York. She has always been proud of this experience and is convinced that it has provided her with a sound foundation for being a teacher. She taught junior high school from 1960-64. From 1964-65, she was an instructor in Religious Studies at Mary Louis Academy in Jamaica, New York, a high school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph. The following year she began teaching at Brentwood College where she chaired the Philosophy Department until 1971. Following the completion of doctoral studies, Joanmarie was named Assistant and then Associate Professor of Philosophy at St. Joseph's College in Brooklyn, New York, a post which she occupied until 1981. During her tenure at Brentwood College and St. Joseph's College, Joanmarie delighted in teaching the young Sisters of St. Joseph who were studying for their bachelor's degree. To this day so many of her students from this period speak glowingly of her wit, intelligence, energy, and intellectual acumen, and credit her with sparking within them a love for learning that is grounded in critical thinking.

This gift of teaching was recognized in public ways: she received the Creative Excellence Award at her 1963 graduation for her B.S. in Secondary Education; the Outstanding Teacher Award at St. Joseph's College in 1974; and Outstanding Educator of America Award in 1975.

Another profound influence on her personal philosophy of education has been her almost lifelong friendship with the late Maria Harris. Their friendship began when they were both young sisters in the Congregation of St. Joseph. Their interest in and support of each other's work continued until Maria died in 2005. Joanmarie is swift to say that Maria Harris has been her closest friend and most honest critic of her work.

Following the exciting aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, Joanmarie began a new phase of teaching when she was invited to teach a graduate course at the Institute for Religious Education and Service at Boston College. She frequently described the experience as "delicious" because she savored every minute of it. The classes were large at that time. More than 100 students registered for each of the courses offered during the Institute's summer program. These were experienced pastoral ministers, catechists, directors of religious education, and teachers who were working for their master's degree in religious education. She found the experience of teaching such students to be exhilarating and challenging. The following summers found her teaching summer school at several institutions which offered graduate programs. These included Creighton University, Fairfield University, Barry University, Providence College and New York University. The teaching at NYU provided her with the opportunity to teach doctoral students in an interfaith setting. The student body provided her with ample opportunity to test her teaching skills. She delighted in helping students to confront issues of pluralism and commitment, and "to tease out" (to use her phrase) their implications for their own educational environments. This experience helped ready her for her next teaching position.

In 1981 Joanmarie accepted a faculty position at Methodist Theological School in Ohio. Here, where she considered herself the "resident nun," Joanmarie began her longest tenure at an educational institution. As a Roman Catholic, she had a privileged position from which to shape courses in ministry, spirituality and religious education. And it was in Ohio that she found a new passion - football. In many ways, her newly acquired love of the game symbolized her affection for her new surroundings. She frequently spoke of her admiration for her colleagues as well as for her environs. It was as if she surprised herself - a "city girl" feeling at home in the Midwest.

While at METHESCO, Joanmarie's audience widened. She began to accept invitations to address groups of Protestant religious educators and pastoral ministers. She found herself giving days of retreat and recollection for pastors and ministers. At the same time she continued to be active in Roman Catholic circles as a speaker at religious education meetings and conferences for religious sisters. Throughout her teaching career, Joanmarie has served the broader community by teaching in many different settings. She taught course to inmates of Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, to Senior Naval Chaplains at the Chaplains' School in Newport, RI; to the nursing staff of Suffolk State School for the Mentally Retarded; she gave workshops in organization and management at the Roman Catholic Seminary in Huntington, NY; and she presented workshops for numerous elementary and high school faculties as well as for personnel in religious education centers.

Her interest in pluralism flowered in the METHESCO environment, and spurred by the experience, she was able to devote an entire year to research and writing on various topics related to the theme. Awarded a sabbatical by colleagues and administration of METHESCO, she spent the year at the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at Collegeville in Minnesota. Here she researched and wrote on relativism, conversion, and commitment as they relate to the shift toward pluralism. The fruits of this period continue to be teased out by her in a series of articles and essays.

As part of her academic responsibilities, Joanmarie frequently took part in a summer program for METHESCO students which are held in Oaxaca, Mexico. It was here that she met the dedicated Zapotec laywomen who became her new "passion." She received fresh energy and insights from the many friends she made there, especially in the person of Maria del Socorro Fragoso Nevarez. The experience of living and working among the poor had a profound experience on her. Upon returning to the US, Joanmarie committed the honorarium she received from speaking engagements and book royalties to support a house of spiritual formation for the Zapotec women. She was tireless in her efforts to secure grants and donations to support the efforts of the Zapotec women in their quest for better lives. For the purpose of raising spiritual and financial support for this newly found community building project, she arranged a U.S. speaking tour for Maria del Socorro Fragoso Nevares. Colleagues recall with admiration how Joanmarie sought ways to provide a truck for this Mexican religious education center.

Throughout her academic career, Joanmarie has consistently regarded herself as both teacher and scholar. She believes that good research makes for good teaching. The fruit of her scholarship is readily evident in the record of her publications. Starting with her first essay published in 1971 (Knowing Isn't Everything), Joanmarie regularly published articles in a variety of scholarly and professional journals, and she has contributed essays to edited collections as well. She savors the whole research process: reading, pondering, critiquing, synthesizing, applying, generating new insights; writing. Early in her academic career she was a regular presenter at the American Academy of Religion and presented papers at national and regional meetings. She was convinced that scholars of religion could be enriched by the insights of religious educators, and she was proud to be recognized as a religious educator with academic interests and competencies. Her love for reading and the breadth of her interests never ceases to fascinate her students and colleagues. Philosophy of science, critical theory, hermeneutics, cosmology, feminist theology, spirituality, quantum physics are a few of the areas which feed her intellectual curiosity. And these have enriched her contributions to Christian education.

Of all her memberships in professional associations, there are some that are of special import for her. The Association of Professors and Researchers in Religious Education became a regular forum for her to present papers and "works in progress."

From 1985 to 1987 she served as president of APRRE. She also was active in the Religious Education Association and presented papers at national and regional meetings. From 1978 to 1980 she served on the REA Board of Directors and was a peer reviewer of articles for the journal, Religious Education . From 1984 to 1990 she was an active member of the International Seminar on Religious Education and Values, an invitational seminar of scholars and researchers at which she presented scholarly papers.

Contributions to Christian Education

Given the rich and diverse experience of Joanmarie Smith, it is not easy to isolate any one or two of her contributions to the field of Christian Education. There are several audiences which would like to claim her work as having special relevance for them: colleagues in scholarly associations; professional religious educators, graduate students of theology and spirituality; seminary students preparing for ministry, etc. But as one who has known her for thirty-five years both as collaborator, co-teacher, and colleague, I would identify three central themes that have influenced her work: community, aesthetics and pluralism. It is how she has addressed these themes that have special importance for Christian education. In addressing these themes Joanmarie has consistently given rigorous philosophical underpinning to their implications for religious education and pastoral ministry. She grounds theory in solid interdisciplinary research, and is able to generate novel insights that spark creative thinking and practice among her students and colleagues. As so many have described it, "to be in her presence as a teacher and a writer is to be invited to participate in intellectual inquiry as an adventure - an adventure framed in faith."

The influence of John Dewey can be discerned in much of her work. She is indebted to him for his theory of community, and for his explication of the role of the aesthetic in human experience. But here is one of her contributions, to be sure. While drawing on Dewey's insights, she "plays with them" - in her phrase - thereby enlarging, widening, and embellishing them with recent research in philosophy of science, pastoral theology, feminist scholarship, to name but a few areas, coupled with her constant reflection on the lived experience of diverse peoples. Early in her writing and teaching, Joanmarie was fond of declaring that "nothing is as practical as a good theory." And her writings demonstrate how this is so. For example, in Modeling God: Religious Education for Tomorrow (1976) she and her co-author trace the historical shift of thought away from realism and show why this shift necessitates a new theory of knowledge. In this context they elucidate faith as a fundamental means of experiencing reality. She and her co-author suggest the potential of the process model of God for describing and enriching human experience. At the same time, vital Christian concepts such as the Incarnation, tradition, worship, the Eucharist, and engagement acquire new significance. The educated person emerges as a religious person, one capable of being committed to more and more adequate models of reality. This book is an invitation for religious educators to probe their beliefs more deeply and to reimagine a new vision by which to reconcile the existence of God with contemporary experience. This is a theme that Joanmarie probes and unpacks throughout her later writings, sometimes more directly than others, but always with fresher and fresher insights. For example, in A Context for Christianity in the 21st Century (1995), she revisits themes which she addressed throughout her scholarly career: pluralism, relativism, conversion, and commitment. She proposes that conversion is "transformation - an ongoing commitment to the object of our believing, to the centrality of God in our lives." (p. 27) As such "Evangelizing still makes wonderful sense in an age of pluralism" (p. 159). She draws on aesthetics to declare that "evangelism is the structured struggle to share the pleasure of the good earth's God." Her essay, Evangelizing from the Perspective of Beauty (1992) offers a compelling exposition of how beauty as an aesthetic quality can propel us to embrace the struggle not only to eliminate injustice but to establish justice.

In her latest book, Teaching as Eucharist (1999), Joanmarie further delineates how practical a good theory is. In his review of this work, Berard L. Marthaler, Executive Editor, The Living Light , writes that she " … outlines practical strategies that can be used by teachers at all levels; and in presenting profound ideas in clear and straightforward prose, she inspires all of us who teach to reflect on the sacredness of our task." Similarly, the editor of the Religion Teachers Journal , Gwen Costello describes the book as "inspired reading" and she further declares, "The Eucharist, so central to our faith, here becomes the source and sustenance of the teaching ministry."

Joanmarie Smith began her retirement from METHESCO in 2003 and has already started another active phase of work. How does one sum up a "work in progress" such as Joanmarie? A citation from The Word is Seed, a Decree of the General Chapter of the Sisters of St. Joseph, Brentwood, 1968 , can be helpful. In it, the Sisters declare that they "who are Christian persons, have been called … to be splendid and striking witnesses to our world of God's plan for all people." To those who know her as teacher, scholar, colleague, friend, and sister, it is already apparent that she has been just that - a splendid and striking witness. And her future work promises more of the same.



  • Smith, J., & Durka, G. (1976). Modeling God . New York: Paulist Press.
  • Smith J., & Durka, G. (Eds.). (1976). Emerging issues in religious education . New York: Paulist Press.
  • Smith, J., & Durka, G. (Eds.). (1979). Aesthetic dimensions of religious education . New York: Paulist Press.
  • Smith, J., & Durka, G. (Eds.). (1980). Family ministry . Minneapolis: Winston Press.
  • Smith, J., & Coll, R. (1981). Death and dying: A night between two days . New York: Sadlier.
  • Smith, J. (1982). Morality made simple (But not easy) . Allen, TX: Argus.
  • Smith, J. (1995). A context for Christianity in the 21st century . Allen, TX: Thomas More Publishing.
  • Smith, J. (1999). Teaching as eucharist . Totowa, NJ: Resurrection Press.


  • Smith, J. (1971). Knowing isn't everything. America , 124 (11).
  • Smith, J. (1972). An American theory of community. Living Light , 4 (4).
  • Smith, J., & Durka, G. (1975). Reviving the comparative degree. Aitia , 3 (1), 20-23.
  • Smith, J., & Durka, G. (1976). Modeling and religious education. Religious Education , 71, 115-132.
  • Smith, J., & Durka, G. (1977). Modeling and religious experience. Lumen Vitae , 32, 465-480.
  • Smith, J., & Durka, G. (1978). The role of American women in academic and religious pursuits. Journal of Theta Alpha Kappa , 1, 28-29.
  • Smith, J. (1979, May). Is leisure necessary? The Alternative .
  • Smith, J. (1979). Celebration for the left-lobed psyche. Living Light , 16 (1).
  • Smith, J. (1979, January 25). Faithing: A dynamic activity. The Tablet .
  • Smith, J., & Durka, G. (1981). Is art necessary? Religious Education , 76 (1), 27-32.
  • Smith, J. (1980, May). A neglected resource for would-be mystics. The Alternative , 6 (4).
  • Smith, J. & Durka, G. (1980). A new papacy and religious education. Lumen Vitae , 35 (3), 475-482.
  • Smith, J. (1983). Private prayer and the quest for social justice. Religious Education , 78 (4), 563-565.
  • Smith, J. (1983). The religious conversion of Ebenezer Scrooge. Religious Education , 78 (3), 355-361.
  • Smith, J. (1984). Evaluation: the specifying activity of education. Religious Education , 79 (3), 462-468.
  • Smith, J. (1985). Case for inclusive language: A response. Religious Education , 80 (4). 634-643.
  • Smith, J. (1985). The need for "rule" ethics and the practice of virtue. Religious Education , 80, 255-264.
  • Smith, J. The conversion of the Jews. Religious Education , 82 (4), 592-605.
  • Smith, J. (1989). Ecumenism, commitment and evangelism. Quarterly Review , 9, 1.
  • Smith, J. (1989). Art as religious education. Momentum , 20, 11, 61-62.
  • Smith, J. (1992). Evangelizing from the perspective of beauty. Religious Education , 88 (4), 521-531.
  • Smith, J. (1993). Teaching toward conversion. Religious Education , 89 (1), 101-108.
  • Smith, J. (1994). The human character of conversion. Journal of Spiritual Formation , 15 (2), 187-196.

Chapters in Books

  • Smith, J. (1976). Challenging the framework. In G. Durka & J. Smith (Eds.), Emerging issues in religious education (4-10). New York: Paulist Press.
  • Smith, J. (1976). The heroic age. In M. Harris (Ed.), Parish religious education (775-783). New York: Paulist Press.
  • Smith, J. (1979). Community: An aesthetic perspective. In G. Durka and J. Smith (Eds.), Aesthetic dimensions of religious education (99-106). New York: Paulist Press.
  • Smith, J. (1980). Grandmother, aunts, "aunts" and godmothers. In G. Durka & J. Smith (Eds.), Family ministry (168-181). Minneapolis: Winston Press.
  • Smith, J. (1981). The nun's story. In R. Coll (Ed.). Women and Religion: A reader for the clergy . (60-70). New York: Paulist Press.
  • Smith, J. (1985). Western contemplative spirituality and the religious educator. In J. M. Lee (Ed.), The spirituality of the religious educator . Birmingham: Religious Education Press.
  • Smith, J. (1985). Language again and still. In F. Giltner & R. Floyd (Eds.), Women's issues in religious education . Birmingham: Religious Education Press.


  • Smith, J. (1983). [Review of the book Contemporary approaches to Christian education ]. Religious Education, 78 (2), 292-293.
  • Smith, J. (1984). [Review of the book To set one's heart]. Religious Education , 79 (3), 470-471.
  • Smith, J. (1985). [Review of the book Education for spiritual growth]. Religious Education , 80 (2), 326-327.
  • Smith, J. (1992). Book reviews. Religious Education , 87 (1), 158-164.
  • Smith, J. (1997). Book notes. Theology Today , 54 (7), 290-291.

Audio cassettes

  • Smith, J. (1982). A call for orthodoxy (Cassette Recording). Libraries Worldwide.
  • Smith, J. (1982). Analyzing experience (Cassette Recording). Libraries Worldwide.
  • Smith, J. (1982). Faith and truth (Cassette Recording). Libraries Worldwide.
  • Smith, J. (1983). Inaugural lecture: Pluralism, commitment and evangelism (Cassette Recording). Libraries Worldwide.

Excerpts from Publications

Smith, J. (1995). A Context for Christianity in the 21st Century . Allen, TX: More Publishing.

Liturgy is the preeminent nourishment of conversion and commitment. The assembly for worship, particularly in the Eucharist, is characterized by remembering, relaxing, and relating. We make space and time to remember the original vision and make new memories. We cultivate a community that can spell us when we fall asleep in the vigil, and we hear our beliefs critiques against the Christian story/Christian score. Finally, the liturgy promotes relaxation by celebrating our conviction that no matter how tragic our personal circumstances, how prevalent evil seems in the world - we are players in a comedy. (the very word comedy implies a messianic image, coming as it does from the Greek meaning originally a banquet with singing!) Evil and death will not have the last word. Existence has a happy ending. (pp. 165-166)

Smith, J. (1999). Teaching as Eucharist . Totowa, NJ: Resurrection Press

We should not be surprised that he who came that we might have life and have it more abundantly (Jn. 10:10) would most frequently be addressed as "Teacher." There can be no more life-affirming task on earth than teaching. Think of what we do. We distill and evaluate the information, skills, and values of the ages. We bring the past and present into communion for the future generations of the planet. We are saying that we treasure what humanity has bequeathed to us and that we hope to enhance the treasure. We are offering "what earth has given" and "the work of human hands" and minds have made, in the belief that it can become for all of us life-giving nourishment, food for the way. (p. 13)

Smith, J. (1992). Evangelizing from the Perspective of Beauty. Religious Education , 88 (4), 530-531.

… the God the Good News is uniquely graspable. This God is God-with-us. The Incarnation reveals that our planetary "stuff" is drenched with Deity. The Eucharist is not an exception to the rest of reality, but a clue to it. The score tells us that we grasp God when we grasp anyone. This very graspability reinforces the priority of mission as the overcoming of injustice. The passion and death of Jesus convinces us that anyone's passion is God's pain, that God's Beloved is crucified by any injustice. But justice is not simply the absence of injustice. We are commissioned not only to eliminate injustice but to establish justice … Evangelism is the structured struggle to share the pleasure of good earth's God. Evangelizing still makes wonderful sense in an age of pluralism.

Author Information

Gloria Durka

Gloria Durka is Professor of Religious Education at the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education, Fordham University. She has collaborated with Joanmarie Smith on many projects including team teaching, co-authoring and co-editing several publications in the field of religious education.