By Joyce Coronel, The Catholic Sun

PHOENIX — There was a major surprise for Xavier College Preparatory President Sr. Joan Fitzgerald, BVM, at a March 16 all-school Mass celebrated by Bishop John P. Dolan of the Diocese of Phoenix.

Pope Francis has awarded her the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Medal, (“For Church and Pope”) one of the highest honors the Holy Father can award to laity and religious.

After Communion, chancellor and vice moderator of the curia Dr. Maria Chavira stood at the lectern and to announce the award.

The medal was being given to Sr. Joan “in recognition for her faithful service to the Church in Catholic education, which she has carried out with distinction for over 63 years, of which 60 years have been served in the Diocese of Phoenix,” Chavira said.

Last September, Bishop Dolan petitioned the pope, asking him to consider granting the medal to Sr. Joan in recognition for her leadership and many years of service.

“Bishop Dolan received news a few weeks ago that Pope Francis has bestowed this prestigious recognition to Sr. Joan Fitzgerald,” Chavira said. “She is the second recipient of this medal in the Diocese of Phoenix. The first was Mrs. MaryBeth Mueller, past superintendent of Catholic schools.”

Mueller was on hand to pin the medal on Sr. Joan while Domonic Salce, superintendent of Catholic schools, held the large, framed certificated festooned with a gold bow.

The nearly 1,200 students at Xavier College Preparatory rose to their feet and cheered.

“She’s just been a great leader all the way around,” Mueller said. “Spiritually, her commitment to her religious vows and yet her witness to Jesus being in our life and then running a school like this — the academic excellence, the community building. She’s a financial guru and look where she’s brought Xavier in all these years.”

Salce called Sr. Joan “a force of nature.”

“Her devotion to the students, her dedication to making sure they become disciples of Christ and seeking excellence in their education is outstanding,” Salce said.

Salce also pointed to how she began at Xavier as a Spanish teacher and “worked her way up through the ranks, presiding over the growth of the school and the addition of new buildings.”

The school has a number of notable graduates, including an Arizona Supreme Court judge as well as women who have gone on to excellence in both collegiate and professional sports, Salce added.

Wendy Mostoller, co-chair of mathematics department, lauded Sr. Joan’s leadership.

“It’s such a great honor for Sr. Joan but very well deserved for all the service and all the years that she’s spent with Catholic education and all she’s done for Xavier College Prep,” Mostoller said.

“She’s very humble but very much stands with her students and with her teachers. She tries to create the best atmosphere for the girls and provide the best education for them.”

In her brief acceptance speech, the self-effacing Sr. Joan quipped that she’s not one for spontaneous speeches. She then turned the spotlight to Mueller.

“I would not be here were it not for MaryBeth Mueller. We worked together for many years through the ups and downs of the educational field,” Sr. Joan said.

The Mass at Xavier that included the award ceremony was part of Bishop Dolan’s effort to visit each of the Catholic high schools in Phoenix during his listening tour.

In comments to The Catholic Sun, Bishop Dolan congratulated Sr. Joan “as she receives this Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice award for her distinguished service here in the Diocese of Phoenix. She has been a blessing, not only to Xavier College Preparatory, but to her religious community and to so many here in Phoenix. [This is] a well deserved honor from our Holy Father.”

Sr. Joan was principal of Xavier from 1974 through June 2016 and now serves as Xavier’s first president. She received a Bachelor of Arts from Mundelein College in Chicago, Illinois, and a Master of Arts from Arizona State University.

The Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal is not the first time Sr. Joan has been the recipient of an award. She’s received many accolades through the years, including being named one of Phoenix Business Journal’s​ Most Admired Leaders for 2020; the Elizabeth Ann Seton Award for Leadership to Diocesan Schools; the Ministry Award from the Diocese of Phoenix; and the National Catholic Education Association’s Secondary Education Award.

See more photos of Bishop Dolan’s visit to Xavier.