Meet the AFS Board: Sister Joan Penzenstadler

On January 3, 1882, Aurora Family Service was founded as the Associated Charities of Milwaukee.  This year, we are celebrating our 130th year of building stronger, healthier families and communities.  Meet some of the inspiring leaders who are forging the future of Aurora Family Service.

Sister Joan Penzenstadler arrived at Mount Mary University in 1981 as a professor of theology.   She joined a rich heritage that dates back to 1850, when Mother Caroline arrived in Milwaukee with funding from King Louis of Bavaria to establish the first Motherhouse of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in the United States.

After receiving a house from the bishop, Mother Caroline established 265 schools with the support of different societies and sponsors. Under her leadership, the Notre Dame convent grew to encompass an entire city block with over 500 students at 1324 N. Milwaukee St. When the Sisters built the $6 million Notre Dame of the Lake in 1957 — now the home of Concordia University in Mequon — the 106-year-old convent was razed for redevelopment, but the area is still known today as “Convent Hill.”

The Sisters also founded St. Mary’s Institute in Prairie du Chien in 1872.  This Institute became a college in 1913, the first Catholic college for women in Wisconsin. In 1929, the facility

college moved to Milwaukee and changed its name from St. Mary’s College to Mount Mary College.   It relocated on the acreage that had been the old Swan Farm.

When Sister Joan arrived in 1981, there were 60 sisters on staff, including the college president and most of the administration.  By 2004, many of those sisters had retired, increasing the need for others to carry forth their mission.  “With less sisters on staff, we needed to put mission into the marrow of everyone’s bones,” said Sister Joan.  In 2009, she was named Vice President of Mission and Identity.

How did you get involved with Aurora Family Service?

“Earlier this year, Mike Arnow approached me and requested that I join the board.  I considered this a great honor. Not only do Aurora Family Service and the School Sisters of Notre Dame both go back to the 1800s, but they share a common root belief: if you want to change society, educate and empower women. I look forward to bringing that belief to life in my new role.”

“Both Mike and Jane [Pirsig] mentioned that AFS was missing a spiritual family component.  After all, tradition and religion mean so much to families.  I accepted their nomination, attended the spring and summer board meetings, and will complete my orientation in October.  Mike invited me to come and see the work, and the more I see, the happier I am to be affiliated with this group.”

What is the #1 challenge facing Milwaukee families?

“Families often struggle to stabilize and stay intact in times of crisis. With better education and training, we can give families the head start they need to succeed.  ”

“We aim to keep families together by providing the right balance:  economic, physical and emotional.  We work with people in terrific stress, aid and alleviate them, and help them overcome their burdens.  The missions of Aurora Family Service and Mount Mary are very similar.  It’s not about lowering the bar, it’s about raising the floor.”

What is your vision for the future of Aurora Family Service?

“We will continue to nurture this idea of balance in the family, and in turn, make a significant impact in the lives of families we serve.  Aurora Family Service is perfectly positioned to lead tremendous change in Milwaukee.”

“How do we know if we’re successful? It’s all the little messages you see, such as people holding their head high with dignity and grace, regardless of their worldly challenges.  Percentages and statistics are one indicator, but these golden moments are filled with heart. The people of AFS are so very attentive to their clients.  This says a lot to me about the authenticity of the work.  The authenticity is present in their everyday relationships, even to someone as new as I am.  It’s living proof of our success.”

Aurora Family Service helps families overcome challenges, changes and crisis to live well again. We achieve stability and strength for families through counseling, parenting, elder care, financial, career, health and community services.  For more information, visit our website, follow us on Facebook, or call 1-414-342-4560.

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