Joan Frawley Desmond, Register Editor Extraordinaire, Retires

EDITORIAL: The Register says farewell, but not goodbye, to a treasured longtime colleague.

Joan Desmond, the Register's longtime senior editor, retired March 27.
Joan Desmond, the Register's longtime senior editor, retired March 27. (photo: EWTN)

March 27 marks a bittersweet milestone in the history of the National Catholic Register: the formal retirement our esteemed colleague, Senior Editor Joan Frawley Desmond.

It’s bitter, for our readers but even more for her colleagues here at the Register, because collectively we are going to be deprived of our regular encounters with Joan’s penetrating insights and her profound witness of Christian faith, hope and love in her personal and professional life.

Yet it’s also sweet, for it provides an opportunity to recall some of her most exceptional articles and, even more, to cherish her as a friend and mentor to so many others.

Joan’s formal announcement of her impending departure sent the Register’s other editors and reporters rummaging through her online archive, hunting down articles we found especially eloquent and meaningful. This was no easy task, given her prolific output: Since the Register joined the EWTN News family in 2011, she has authored more than 1,300 articles.

The articles flagged by her colleagues highlight one of Joan’s great strengths — her range as a writer. They include a report about Catholic responses to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza; an analysis of how the Church engages with totalitarian regimes; a touching account of the life of Blessed Solanus Casey, framed around an interview with a 91-year-old nun whose younger sister was cured of a dangerous ear infection immediately after Father Solanus prayed over her; a story about how a Catholic school in Kentucky was transformed by a decision to celebrate Mass daily there; an article featuring the loving attention given by the Little Sisters of the Poor to elderly residents of a care home that Joan visited in San Francisco, situated in the context of the high-profile legal case the nuns undertook against the federal contraceptive mandate; and a report about healings at the famous shrine in Lourdes — a topic very close to Joan’s heart as a member of the Order of Malta.

As has been the norm for Joan’s contributions, each of these articles is about something that matters profoundly. They are also great reads. 

Why? Because, alongside her natural storytelling abilities, Joan has a singular ability to report intelligently about complex issues, combined with an unrivaled capacity to tap sources with firsthand knowledge of the subject she is reporting about.

Indeed, Joan’s sourcing reservoir is so vast that it has been standard practice for Register colleagues to seek her guidance about who to tap for their own assignments. A key reason she was able to assemble this impressive stable of sources, ranging all the way up to the highest echelons of the Church, is her personal integrity. The people she interviews know from experience that she can be trusted to report fairly and accurately about what they have to say. 

Above all, Joan has demonstrated an uncanny ability to ask the right questions — the ones that go right to the heart of what’s most important. “I’ve often received compliments from bishops and other Church leaders who have told me they read everything Joan Desmond writes,” Michael Warsaw, chairman of the board and CEO of EWTN, noted this week. “Joan’s deep insights and gift of clarity will be missed here at EWTN and within Catholic journalism.”

An equally strong commendation was delivered by another media-savvy Church leader: Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, founder of Ignatius Press.

“What her faithful, informed, articulate journalism has done for the Church cannot be praised enough,” Father Fessio said of Joan's illustrious career.

Two of Joan’s other recent articles merit additional attention in this Register tribute to her as a consummate Catholic journalist. The first one is her remarkable first-person account of how St. Martin de Porres touched the life of her mother, Gerardine Frawley, who served as the Register’s publisher from 1970 to 1995. 

The second one is the profile Joan penned about her longtime friend Fran Maier, who was hired by her mother in the late 1970s to serve as the Register’s editor-in-chief and who in turn mentored Joan as she commenced her own work as a journalist. Insightful profiles are another of Joan’s journalistic specialties, and it’s remarkably fitting that this one will serve as a capstone for her career.

And it’s even more fitting that Fran himself should have the final word in this tribute to our colleague Joan, who will be so sorely missed by everyone in the Register newsroom (even though we definitely intend to keep drawing on her insights going forward, albeit on a more informal basis).

“I’ve admired Joan Desmond as a journalist, colleague and treasured friend for 40 years,” Fran told the Register this week. “She’s a woman of exceptional Catholic character, keen intellect, deep faith, and professional excellence — a model of the very best in religious journalism.  

“I’ll miss her byline, and she’ll be hard to replace; but what a gift her skills and spirit have been to the Register and to the Church. And the good news for those who know Joan is simple: Her friendship remains.”