From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

JoAnn Nilles, Catholic Charities’ ‘institutional memory,’ retires after 47 years

by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff

(From the Aug. 23, 2001 edition of the Inland Register

JoAnn Nilles will retire from Catholic Charities Aug. 31, ending a 47-year career with the agency. In those years she has seen the agency grow from “nine or 10 employees” to about 120. She’s had three bosses and known four bishops. She started as a clerk-typist and ends as an executive administrative assistant. Donna Hanson, Diocesan Director of Catholic Charities, fondly calls her “our institutional memory.”

Nilles came to Catholic Charities right after graduating from Marycliff High School in Spokane. The school principal had recommended her to the late Father Bernard Schiller, then director of the agency.

“I don’t know how I got hired,” Nilles said. “I did everything wrong (at the interview); it was just a comedy of errors.”

But she transcribed several letters for Father Schiller amidst the commotion of some seminarians who were painting the office. Apparently that satisfied Father Schiller; she was hired. Her first day was July 6, 1954. Nilles said her pay “was very low, but I got two raises within a short time.”

She remembers the first typewriter she used, a Royal manual, “one of the black ones with the keys that would jam,” and how happy she was when she got her first IBM Selectric, a model of electric typewriter. “I felt I could really fly after that,” she said.

She remembers that dictation had the potential to be an unnerving experience. The machine was “one of those where you shaved the tubes when you finished what was on them. But you had to stand back in case they exploded.”

Catholic Charities’ work was different in those years, Nilles said. “It was basically foster care and emergency assistance. Counseling was not yet the thing, since there was a stigma attached. It was just starting to be recognized.”

The agency also helped unwed mothers, which had a stigma of its own. Some of the unwed mothers came from prominent families, and Nilles remembers that occasionally she would be asked to leave the office if Father Schiller thought she might know the unwed mother-to-be.

One unwed mother was the person Nilles replaced on the job. “No one was supposed to tell me why she left, but they did anyway,” she said.

In fact, Nilles said, “I blushed my way through the first year or two of my employment.” Having attended Catholic schools, she said she had led a pretty sheltered life and had never heard of the kinds of problems that could take children out of their homes.

“There was much secrecy,” Nilles said, ”since it was a shameful thing to have problems.” She remembers yelling down to a caseworker, who was standing in the parking lot talking to her boyfriend, what “nocturnal enuresis” was and how to spell it. (For those who don’t know, it’s the technical term for bedwetting. “The caseworker thought it was hilarious,” she said.)

She remembers being asked in the early 1960s to be the staff person for the Christmas Registry. This meant she interviewed people, filled out forms, and worked with St. Vincent de Paul to get food and toys to people in need for Christmas. Father Schiller said he would hire someone to do her regular work. Pretty soon, though, he asked her to do the typing for the Christmas collection because “he didn’t think the person they hired would do it right.” So that was added to her Christmas Registry duties.

“I did this for two years and slept through Christmas both years,” she said.

Catholic Charities also arranged adoptions for a couple of years. Nilles remembers a trip she took in 1966 to deliver a baby to an Air Force couple in Puerto Rico, a trip which could also be called “a comedy of errors.”

She and the baby left Spokane under the threat of an airlines strike. They got as far as Chicago and the strike was called, canceling the flight.

Her alternate reservation could not be found, and she had to wait seven hours for another flight. She learned that it was “almost impossible to go to the bathroom with baby in hand.”

When she finally reached San Juan, there was no one to meet her, and the staff at the motel could not find her reservation. The wire she sent to the adoptive parents saying she would be late didn’t arrive until after she had met the couple and delivered the baby.

Not only did Nilles have difficulty getting to Puerto Rico; she had difficulty leaving. She ended up staying with the couple for several days, since the strike complicated return flights. Finally she secured a standby reservation and waited eight hours at the San Juan Airport before she was able to catch a plane to New York. She had to fly home through Canada. She had gone two days without sleep.

She got back from the trip just in time to help move the Chancery Office. Its location at 317 N. Howard was being taken by freeway construction and it was being relocated to its current address on West Riverside. The month was July; the weather was hot.

Several new people had been hired during Nilles’ absence. “I had been gone so long, they thought I was a figment of everyone’s imagination.”

As the years passed and social needs changed, the scope of Catholic Charities’ work also changed. Assistance is still offered to unwed mothers, single mothers and children, but in different ways. Among the agency’s many programs are St. Ann’s Children’s Home, the CAPA (childbirth and parenting alone) program, and St. Margaret Shelter. Counseling is offered now, refugees are assisted in resettlement, housing programs and chore services help the elderly. The House of Charity continues its long history of helping homeless men.

With the increased work came increased paperwork, especially when Catholic Charities began receiving government funds. Computers, along with the internet and e-mail, make the paperwork easier, Nilles said, but nevertheless, “everything has to be documented, justified and verified,” usually on a deadline.

Since most of Nilles’ work involves confidential information, she couldn’t talk about it, not even to other employees. “I don’t think my family or anyone else knew exactly what I did there. You just didn’t talk about it. That was part of being in administration.”

Nilles didn’t take work home to her family either, since she never married. “That’s what saved me,” she said. “I could never have kept up with everything if I had been married.”

Father (now monsignor) Frank Bach succeeded Father Schiller. He is the one who brought Donna Hanson on board in 1964; Hanson had just moved to Spokane and Nilles was one of the first people she met. Hanson became associate director in 1974 and full-time director in 1978. Nilles became Hanson’s executive administrative assistant in 1986.

“Never once have I ever questioned JoAnn’s confidentiality, integrity, or her loyalty,” Hanson said. “Everyone should be so blessed to have as a co-worker someone as professional and loyal as JoAnn has been. She was always willing to help, lots of times when it was not in her job description.”

She said the agency would not try to replace Nilles. “We’re looking at this as an opportunity to create a new path, and we hope it works as well.”

Nilles grew up in Chewelah and attended St. Mary School there through the ninth grade. Her family moved to Spokane and she entered Marycliff her sophomore year of high school.

She recently moved into a new apartment and one of her first tasks in retirement is to “finish moving in.” She plans to visit family (she has seven brothers and sisters and “lots of nieces and nephews”) and hopes to do some traveling. She also professed a long-standing desire to learn to quilt.

She said she would miss being part of Catholic Charities, but more specifically, she said, “The one thing I will miss is the people. I’ve enjoyed working with everyone, and all three of my directors were terrific. But I won’t miss working.”

Nilles realizes that, as she put it, “my time is past. I’ve done what I could and now I’m entering a new part of my life, hopefully a better one.” But she is gratified in knowing that she played a part, however small, in the many programs Catholic Charities put in place to help others.

“There was never a dull moment, and I wouldn’t change a thing,” she said.

Nilles will be honored at a staff luncheon hosted by Bishop Skylstad Tuesday, Sept. 4.


New assistant is Spokane native

Mary Cole of Seattle is the new executive assistant at Catholic Charities. She began work Aug. 20, to train under JoAnn Nilles for two weeks before Nilles retires.

Cole had been employed at the University of Washington where she worked with special needs students who required some accommodation to complete their studies. Prior to that she worked on the psychiatric ward at Children’s Hospital.

Cole grew up in Spokane.

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