It is a measure of Joanne Abdalah's devotion to God that eight bishops, including Metropolitan Philip of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, will take part in her funeral tonight at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral in Oakland.
Mrs. Abdalah, an Upper St. Clair resident who died at 57 after battling ovarian cancer for more than two years, was the wife of the cathedral's dean, the Rev. John Abdalah. But she was a national church leader in her own right. She was also a hospice social worker who continued to care for patients throughout her own illness.
Born in Rhode Island, her father died when she was a child, and she saw her mother rely on faith, said her sister, Mary Lou Catelli, of Lincoln, R.I.
"Joanne always felt that God would provide. There's never been an obstacle that she didn't think would be taken care of," she said.
She graduated from Brown University, earned a master's degree in library science from the State University of New York and, later, a master of social work from the University of Pittsburgh. She met her future husband through an Orthodox youth movement.
When they married in 1978, "Joanne was probably more active in the church than I was, although I was already in seminary," Father Abdalah said. "As a very young woman she was secretary for her parish council, a Sunday school teacher and all kinds of things."
She started the library at the Antiochian Village Conference and Retreat Center in Ligonier, served as president of the North American Board of Antiochian Women and was co-editor, with her husband, of the church's national magazine, WORD. At national church conferences, she organized support sessions for other clergy wives.
It was his mother, more than his father, who inspired him to seek priesthood, said Gregory Abdalah, the oldest of her three children, who graduated from seminary just before her death.
"She was the perfect example of how to serve in the church," he said.
"It was from my mother that I learned about taking care of people, helping people."
A decade ago, the Abdalahs made a mission trip to an Orthodox monastery in Guatemala, where they met 10-year-old Maria, who had been in an orphanage there for two years.
"I really fell in love with her," said Maria, now 19 and the Abdalah's adopted daughter.
Her adoption into the Abdalah family "was the best thing that ever happened to me."
Mrs. Abdalah sought her social work degree because she often informally counseled students to whom she taught English at Westmoreland County Community College.
She later went to work for Family Hospice.
Her many commitments didn't wear her out because she embraced all of them with love, said her son Joseph, a business planning manager for Hewlett-Packard in Houston, Texas.
Both of his parents were multi-taskers "and the way they get it done is that they focus on each person, not on receiving anything back," he said. "She was able to give everything she could without getting frustrated because she never looked for anything in return."
Mrs. Abdalah's cancer was in an advanced stage when she was diagnosed more than two years ago, but she continued all of her work.
"Oftentimes her cancer counts were higher than the patients she was visiting," Father Abdalah said.
Mrs. Abdalah wrote about her cancer for the May edition of WORD, expressing hope that she would recover, despite the discovery that the cancer had spread to her brain.
She wrote of the peace she found in prayer.
Despite the hope expressed in her essay, she was always prepared for death, Joseph Abdalah said.
He believes that the way his mother handled her illness answers the question of why God allowed her death.
"She was an inspiration in a situation where most people were down and had lost their faith in God and were frustrated with life," he said.
"She really is a witness that you can keep your faith, you can be happy, you can do everything you need to do while you have this disease."
In addition to her husband, children and sister, she is survived by her mother, Matilda Josephs, and another sister, Lois Kilsey, both of Lincoln, R.I.; and a brother, Leo Josephs, of Massachusetts.
A vigil will be held today from 4 to 8 p.m. in St. George Cathedral, with the funeral following. Burial will be tomorrow at 10 a.m. at Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Ellwood City.
Donations may be made to the St. George Cathedral Sunday School Building Fund, 3400 Dawson St., Pittsburgh, PA 15213.
Ann Rodgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416.