Sister Janis Coakley

Written by Patricia Glinton-Meicholas

Sister Janis Coakley OSB caretaker of St Martin Monastery Grotto

Only daughter of Samuel and Sarah Coakley, Sister Janis was born in Calabash Bay, Andros, preceded by three brothers and followed by another four. In her estimation, her birthplace was the “happy settlement”, where she lived in a Loving home and was surrounded on all sides by the homes of grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins, with whom she enjoyed the same warm and enfolding relationship.

Janis, like other Catholics of Calabash Bay, who lived there before the second half of the 20th century was privileged to interact with the pioneers of the Bahamas Catholic community, who founded the parishes and built many of the early church structures with their own hands. She was baptized by Father Gabriel Roerig, OSB, who came to The Bahamas on 4th June, 1894 with Father Melchior Bahner, OSB, just three years after the first permanent Catholic

mission was established in this country in 1891 by Father Chrysostom Schreiner, OSB. Roerig and Bahner were the first priests posted here to assist Schreiner full time. Roerig built the first churches on Andros and was to spend the rest of his life there until his death in 1950. According to Sister Janis, Father Gabriel cared for and looked after the people of Andros to the best of his ability.

Even the nurturing of Sister Janis’ vocation is steeped in Bahamian Catholic history. Although she had no contract with religious women in her formative years, her mother had and had actually wanted to become a nun. Mrs Coakley told her daughter stories of her interaction with religious men and women. She had been in class with Anna Harvey, who became Sister Rosella. They were instructed by Father Arnold Mondloch, OSB, one of the stalwarts

among the early Benedictine missioners. She met the first religious women when three Sisters of Saint Martin came to Andros and stayed in her family home. Her cousins Charles and Telzena Coakley were two early Bahamian vocations. Charles, ordained on 20th June, 1957, was the first Bahamian-born priest of the Diocese of Nassau.

The young Janis stayed in school in Andros as a monitor until she was twenty. This was the only route to education beyond the basics for the majority of clever young Bahamians of that day. She next attended Aquinas College. At the age of fifteen, she spoke of her wish to enter the Convent but her father refused initially saying that his daughter did not yet know her own mind. Janis eventually won the day and entered the Saint Martin community in 1961. Her formation took place at Saint Benedicts Convent in Minnesota and she remembered how astonished and frightened she was at the sight of over 900 nuns in habits.

Sister Janis would spend five years in the Minnesota Convent. During those years, she completed her secondary education at St Benedicts High School and emerged with her diploma at the end of two years. She went on to the College of St Benedict to do a programme in Practical Arts and thereafter had the opportunity to teach Religious Education in St Cloud Diocese.

She made her first vows in 1968 with her proud parents in attendance. Her entrance into the novitiate was witnessed by her two brothers. She returned home in 1971 and pronounced final vow5 in Nassau in 1973. Her primary work was in teaching religious education and lending support to the parishes. She provided assistance in CCD to Father Sylvar Bromenshenkel, OSB at Resurrectior Parish, Father George Wolf, OSB at Hol Family and Father Peter LaVierge at Lyford Cay.

After pursuing teacher certification at The College of The Bahamas Sister Janis went full time into the classroom. She was to spend ten years at St Bede’s, leaving in 1990 to go to St Francis/Joseph School where she spend the next seventeen years. She retired in June 2007.

During an interview in the same year, Sister Janis spoke of the religious life as her calling and a joy. The Sisters of Saint Martin were a beloved family, but the life had not been without its ups and downs.

Although she had been allowed to go back and forth to nurse her mother during Mrs Coakley’s last illness, Sister Janis had often wished she had been able to be with her beloved parent full time However, she pointed out that she “put her whole life before the Lord and

depended on his leading.”