Joan Carr’s Catholic faith was her compass. It guided her in everything she did.
Carr devoted herself to many aspects of Catholic life – as a teacher, principal, administrator and later superintendent of Edmonton Catholic Schools, as a volunteer, and as a board member for a variety of Catholic initiatives and causes. Her loss is being felt across the Catholic community.
Carr died of cancer on Feb. 9. She was 67. Her funeral Mass was celebrated Feb. 15 at St. Joseph’s Basilica, where she was a parishioner. Over 600 mourners from across Alberta gathered to pray for Carr as the Mass was concelebrated by Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith, Bishop David Motiuk of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Edmonton, and several other priests.
“Her faith was vibrant. It was at the centre of who she was,” said Sister Zoe Bernatsky, a professor of theology at Newman Theological College, who knew Carr through the college and Alberta’s Ukrainian Catholic community.
“Joan’s work came out of a sense of vocation – that she was called to do this. She was called to share her gifts from God. She was a great exemplar of virtue and commitment in many ways. I feel like I’ve lost a mentor and a friend.”
That sense of vocation was always a part of Carr’s life, even in her final moments. Carr sent an email to Bernatsky last December and mentioned that her cancer was worsening. But in her message, Carr also revealed her unwavering trust in God.
“Even with the challenges she was facing from a lack of energy and feeling fatigued, she expressed how thankful she was to the Lord and to those who were praying for her,” Bernatsky recalled. “She said she missed her life of service, but she recognized that the Lord was making way for a different service for her.
“You can see her life was imbued with faith,” Bernatsky added. “She would have had every excuse not to take the time to email me back, but she still did. She lived life with a sense of purpose, to reach out to others and fulfill her duties, no matter the hardship she was going through.”
Carr was born on Oct. 11, 1952, in Lamont, 70 kilometres east of Edmonton. She married her husband Kevin, a former president of Newman Theological College, in 1991 and they raised three children – Sue, Jim and Patrick.
In her 45 years with Edmonton Catholic Schools, Carr served as kindergarten teacher, principal, consultant for special education services, and human resources administrator before being appointed superintendent in 2006. By 2019, she was overseeing more than 4,200 staff and 44,000 students in 95 schools.
“Her commitment to the goals and ideals of Catholic education was second to none. It was everything to her,” said Dean Sarnecki, executive director of the Alberta Catholic School Trustees Association.
“She gave her heart and soul to that school division. It’s hard to imagine Edmonton Catholic without her there, and I imagine it will be very hard to replace her.”
As superintendent, Carr helped expand services in early learning, post-high school academics and Indigenous learning. In 2016, the Canadian Association of School System Administrators named her Canadian Superintendent of the Year.
“Joan was never tired. I honestly don’t know where she got her energy from,” said Corine Gannon, an assistant superintendent with ECS.
“She made sure we prayed together, and she walked the faith by her leadership. She would often say, ‘That’s not good enough’ or ‘That’s not going to do.’ We would have to go back and rework it, and suddenly we’d get an email late at night or an early morning phone call with a new idea she had.
“She must have been healed by many angels, because she was relentless in her pursuit of excellence and doing everything she could to support our kids.”
That energy and passion came from making student well-being her first priority, Gannon said.
“In the kind of leadership position she had, we often just look at organizations as a whole. But Joan never lost sight of the fact that education really meant looking after the individual child, and finding what we could do to best support and nurture that child,” Gannon said.
“She reminded us of that all the time in the way she would talk to us and challenge us. Whatever circumstances came our way, she always guided us in the direction of finding what will be best for the individual student.”
Sister Bernatsky was once asked to give an opening prayer for a leadership committee at the school division, and she struck by how strongly Carr knew her team’s individual talents.
“She was not only aware of her own gifts; she was someone who saw the gifts in other people and called them out,” Bernatsky recalled. “Joan was such a great leader that she could have certainly drawn more attention to herself, but she was all about bringing others to the table. I could see that she closely knew the unique gifts of her people and she trusted them with particular tasks.
“It’s a great model of Christian leadership because it’s what Jesus calls us to do – to know our own gifts and use them willingly, and to see the gifts in others and call them forth.”
Bishop David Motiuk knew Carr as part of the Ukrainian Catholic community. He says she never treated education as just a job; for her, it was ministry.
“She was one of Jesus’s disciples for today,” Bishop Motiuk said. “She was motivated by her love of seeing the faith grow in our young people. She showed His presence, His love, and His mercy in guiding and forming young hearts and minds, and teaching them that they are loved by God.”
In her personal life, Carr chaired the Sign of Hope Campaign for Catholic Social Services in 2007 and served on the board of directors of the Friars’ Ball fundraiser. Her community work included service on the Mayor’s Task Force to End Poverty, the Junior Achievement of Northern Alberta’s Board of Directors, and the TELUS World of Science Foundation. At her downtown parish, she served as a Eucharistic minister.
“To me it’s important to note how committed she was,” said Rev. Martin Carroll, a former rector of the Basilica. “When she spoke about her life in Catholic education, she especially stressed that the Catholic school is a place where the Gospel is lived. It’s not just that religious lessons should be taught, but that faith was the life of a Catholic school.”
Although she was a private person, Carr would always make time for others.
That outreach was felt in the Indigenous community in particular. Cree elder Betty Letendre says Carr was at the forefront of reconciliation. Carr established the Council of Elders at Edmonton Catholic Schools and promoted a Cree bilingual program and enculturation efforts in schools.
She attended the annual Ben Calf Robe Pow Wow each year and was recently honoured with her own Cree name ̶ Asiniy Iskwew, meaning “Strong Woman.”
“From the beginning she made every effort to meet with us and come to our ceremonies. She honoured and recognized our way of life,” said Letendre. “I remember one year Joan made ‘growing Indigenous education’ as the Number 1 goal of the division. Seeing that listed there, it really struck me. It’s an image that has stayed with me ever since.”
In her final months, only Carr’s closest colleagues knew she’d been sick since June 2019. Despite that, she pressed on with the many tasks and responsibilities on her shoulders.
“I knew sometimes the multitude of issues that were crossing her desk, but I don’t think she ever complained once,” said Bernatsky. “You just think of how many schools, teachers, families and all the concerns she must have been dealing with at all times. Yet there was no sense of being burdened ̶ that never came across. She just remained very focused on her mission. Some leaders get tired of being leaders, but she just kept going.”
As superintendent, Carr had insisted that an inscription be visible in every school: “Be it known to all who enter here that Christ is the reason for this school. He is the unseen but ever present teacher in its classes. He is the model of its staff and the inspiration of its students.”
School division officials say Carr’s leadership and legacy is ingrained in their halls, and so is the sense of loss.
“No one I’ve met has been that committed and dedicated to Catholic education. No matter what part you had in the division, she always gave you her complete attention,” said community relations manager Lori Nagy.
“Even during her sickness we were in contact nearly every day. She was still in charge and committed to ensuring everything was done well. We were fortunate to have her as our leader for so many years. It’s hard to think that light and that guidance is no longer here.”
Assistant superintendent Corine Gannon concurred: “She was so passionate, and that passion will never fade away. It’s become intertwined in the living body of our Catholic schools.”
This article was updated on February 18, 2020.