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Sr. Johanna to Receive Cor Misericordiae Award

November 22, 2019
By Deb Daley

Sr. Johanna Burnell, RSM, provided vision and leadership to Mercy High School as President from 1988-2009.  In 2020 she will celebrate her 60th year as a Sister of Mercy. Sr. Johanna will receive the highest award Mercy bestows, the Cor Misericordiae Award, at FIESTA 2020.  

Sr. Johanna’s passionate belief in Catherine McAuley’s mission and a conviction that private, faith-based education should be affordable to all young women were motivating factors for her successes at Mercy. 

“I was brought in as President during a challenging time in the history of the school. An extremely popular and well-loved principal, Sr. Corrine Connelly, RSM, ’58, was leaving. As a result, enrollment was down, and there were conversations among leadership, about closing the school. Arriving at Mercy, I discovered a wonderful spirit, some excellent teaching, and expert leadership in Principal Carolyn Jaworski. I firmly believed that closing was not an option,” she said.

As Mercy’s first President, co-leading the school with Principal Carolyn Jaworski, the distribution of authority allowed Sr. Johanna to concentrate on externals rather than the academics, on parents rather than students, on the board rather than teachers.  

Nationally, the concept of negotiated tuition had failed in private schools. It was not working because there were no sustaining funds to support the program. Thanks to the encouragement of the Sisters of Mercy and the money that Sr. Corrine saved through fundraising, an endowment was established.  

She also laid the foundation for more strategic leadership and more aggressive development by realigning positions and hiring a Recruitment Director.  Board makeup also needed serious attention. The school’s low tuition led to misconceptions about the quality of education. Sr. Johanna recruited savvy business leaders as well as dedicated and committed alumnae who were “not afraid to take action.”

She also recruited Gene and Marilyn Spence in late September of 1988 to act as chairs for the 1989 Twelfth Night Ball held in February. They set the bar for Mercy’s major fundraising event as chairs responsible for the entire event.

“I was fortunate because great people were surrounding me, from board members to the Spences and the exceptional Mercy staff,” she said.  

During her 21 years at Mercy, Sr. Johanna’s achievements were many, including: 
•    Growing enrollment from 216 to close to 390 students. 
•    Undertaking numerous capital campaigns that included renovating science labs, administrative offices, and computer labs; replacing the roof; renovating the chapel; remodeling the dining hall and much more; building the Catherine McAuley Athletic Center, and Franey Hall and expanding the Sheehan Library.
•    Developing a Minority Enrollment Initiative to recruit minority girls more aggressively, with 19 percent diverse enrollment during her tenure. 
•    Increasing faculty salaries, upgrading computers and other equipment, while continuing to expand fundraising to support tuition assistance. 

Her strong foundation of service was honed early in life. As one of nine children, Sr. Johanna knew as a young child that she wanted to be a Sister. "I graduated from Cardinal Glennon High School (a Mercy school) in Kansas City at 16. My father asked me to wait to enter community because he thought I was too young. I am so glad I did!”

Rita Burnell entered the community in 1960 at College of Saint Mary where she earned a degree in Elementary Education and was given her mother’s name, Johanna. She also went on to get a Master’s in Administration at the University of Missouri, Kansas City.

As an educator, Sr. Johanna taught at elementary schools in Omaha and Kansas City for seven years. She then became the Principal at St. Peter’s Grade School, Kansas City, from 1971-1984 and Associate Superintendent of Schools at the Chancery Office, Kansas City, from 1984-1988. 

“I have always loved to do what I am doing at the time I am doing it. When I came to Mercy, my entire previous career was on the academic side of the house, but I knew this was what I was called to do. And that was not to let this school close, to try to make a difference at Mercy High School,” she said.

Sr. Johanna has served in several capacities for the Sisters of Mercy from being the Development Director for the Mercy Volunteer Corps., to a past member of the Mercy Secondary Education Association and serving on several community committees and groups. She has also lent her talents to many boards, including College of Saint Mary and Mount Saint Mary Academy in Little Rock.

When asked about receiving this latest honor, she talked about how the award was created. “Ingrid Kalinowski Borghoff ’65 developed the Cor Misericordiae Award during my time at Mercy.  I never once dreamed I would be one of its recipients,” she said.