Limits and self doubt tethered to a messiah complex have always been the toughest part of Sister Janet’s personal journey. But she credits this prism with fostering her passion for justice.
She was born in New York City to Arthur and Brigid Harris and attended Good Shepherd and Saint John Chrysostom Elementary Schools, then Cathedral High School for 9th grade. In 1946, she moved with her family from New York City to San Francisco. As the train pulled out of Penn Station, she described feeling like a weak-stemmed flower about to be replanted in the wrong garden. She determined that after graduation she would return to New York. It all seemed so trivial and insignificant later. But at the time, she was filled with painful uncertainty.
In San Francisco, her father registered her at the Academy of the Presentation. As the days and months passed, she began to see the cross threads in the tapestry. What once was unsettling, over time became clearer. Sister Mary Annetta McFeeley, PBVM, with her uncanny instinct for recognizing a vocation, pushed. Sister Mary Salome Taylor, PBVM, with her beautiful “invisible grace,” gave her space to muddle through. But it was the sudden death of a New York friend that gave her the final push. A few days before her friend’s death, seated on a bus at the corner of Masonic and Turk Streets, Janet knew with absolute certainty that she would not return to New York.
She entered the Presentation Novitiate July 1, 1947, and was professed April 10, 1950. Her teaching experience began with the first grade at Our Lady of Loretto in Los Angeles. For the next ten years, she moved up the grades, finally being assigned for ten years to Our Lady of Loretto High School. During this time, she received her B.A. degree from the University of San Francisco.
In 1974, she completed her M.A. in film from Loyola University, Los Angeles. Her thesis film on Los Angeles gangs acted as a catalyst for becoming a chaplain and gang counselor. Subsequent work with gang members in East Los Angeles in the 1970s drew the attention of People magazine, The Merv Griffin Show and other media. It was a passion for the poverty and injustice in these lives that attracted the attention rather than any personal talents or skills.
As head of Detention Ministry for the Diocese of San Bernardino in the 1980s and 1990s, and later as Catholic Chaplain at Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles, Sister Janet worked closely with incarcerated youth, often using writing as a means of helping them gain direction, hope, and insight. Recognizing the inherent dignity and potential of every young person, she has doggedly pursued a belief in the transformative power of the arts.
In 1997, a group of professional writers and Sister Janet started the “Inside Out” Writing Program at Central Juvenile Hall. With the help of dedicated probation and school staff, “Inside Out” soon became a vehicle of change for many young offenders who discovered a talent for expressing themselves through poetry, essays, songs and plays. November, 1999, saw the publication of these writings entitled “What We See: Poems and Essays from Inside Juvenile Hall.” This program has proven that youthful offenders, still in their most formative years, can become more mature and more aware of making better choices.
The significance of that choice to enter religious life is now woven deep into the texture of her life. She is filled with profound gratitude for twenty-five years of teaching and thirty-three years of working in the Los Angeles juvenile justice system, a place where things are seldom morally neat.
Still there is biblical faith and support. As she continues the struggle for justice for our young offenders, she finally realized the inescapable truth that God’s love is a part of all that is, and she is grateful for His presence in the events of her life.
In 2015 Sister Janet came to the Motherhouse in San Francisco and has been living what she describes as “the Life of Riley” ever since. In 2009 she received an honorary doctorate from the University of San Francisco for her involvement with the young people in the juvenile justice system. She recalls that the honor was humbling. “Looking back on my life, I am filled with profound gratitude to God for calling me to be a Sister of the Presentation.”