Michigan lawyers in history: Petronilla “Sister Ann” Joachim


by Carrie Sharlow   |   Michigan Bar Journal


Normally, an individual attorney’s admission to practice before the United States Supreme Court does not warrant front-page treatment from newspapers across the country.1 However, this lawyer, teacher, and occasional airplane pilot was also a practicing nun wearing her full religious habit. No one could recall a nun appearing before the high court in this capacity before. But Petronilla M. Joachim had made a practice of doing the unexpected, and her admission to the Court was just one in a long line of her achievements.

Petronilla Joachim was born in Cologne, Germany, on Oct. 15, 1901, to August and Johanna Joachim. Like many families around the turn of the century, her father journeyed to the New World in search of a better life and the rest of the family — his wife, Johanna and children John, Erna, Petronilla, and Walter — followed later, although not for a couple years.2 The family settled in Detroit, where August worked as a machinist in various industries.3

Perhaps if August had not died unexpectedly at the relatively young age of 49, Petronilla might have realized her dream of entering a convent when she was a teenager.4 But the family finances took a hit with August’s death, and everyone at home had to pitch in. Petronilla certainly could have dropped out of high school at 13 and worked for the rest of her life “clerking in a drugstore at $4.50 a week,”5 but she didn’t. Instead, she continued her education through night school,6 took a course in stenography, and eventually found work in a law firm.7

That job was a defining moment in her life. Joachim realized that she “was on the wrong side of the desk.”8 Whether her original plans involved such an extensive education, that realization led her to earn a law degree from the Detroit College of Law and a master’s degree from the University of Detroit by 1924.9

Never a shrinking violet, Joachim became involved in a myriad of extracurricular activities. With women just having gained the right to vote, she ventured into the political arena, assisting her former law professor in his campaign to be elected to the recorder’s court.10 She networked by joining a number of clubs and served as secretary of the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan.11 And always a bit of a tomboy, she won a state title in tennis and took flying lessons, after which she briefly worked as a stunt flyer.12

In 1928, Joachim revisited her youthful dream of entering the convent. That made headlines across the country; even if people knew of her earlier wish, they were still flabbergasted: “Miss Joachim Succeeds in Profession in Which Few Women Win Out, That of Law.”13 But Joachim “just felt like [she] had accomplished all [she] desired” in the legal profession and decided she “could better serve God in the field of religious education.”14 Thereafter, she was known as Sister Ann Joachim. If anyone expected Sister Ann to stay at the Dominican Sisters convent at Adrian and be a typical nun, they weren’t very familiar with her track record. She certainly saw no reason not to continue her education — by 1940, not only had she been admitted to the Supreme Court to practice, but she added to her previous degrees by earning a bachelor’s degree from Siena Heights College, a master’s degree from Loyola University in Chicago, and a doctorate from the International Catholic University in Freiburg, Germany.15 With five degrees in hand, it made complete sense that Sister Ann taught at Siena Heights College — everything from “political science, economics, parliamentary law and international relations classes”16 — and even served as head of the school’s social studies department.17 She also carved out time to teach her students tennis.

And while she “had accomplished all she desired in the legal profession,” there was no reason to let a good education go to waste. Sister Ann served as counsel for the Dominican Sisters and helped her fellow nuns and their families with legal issues.18 Perhaps the best part was that she didn’t need to worry about charging fees.

With either a limitless amount of energy or a severe lack of sleep, Sister Ann also wrote and published articles on everything from the “legal aspects of associations” to civil rights of minorities to a comparison of the constitutions of the United States and Switzerland.19 She was a regular on the lecture circuit, traveling across the country to speak at religious meetings, medical conferences, and anything to do with women’s issues.

And while she wasn’t flying planes anymore, Sister Ann rode in them around the world, including a visit to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. As with her entry to the convent and her admission to the Supreme Court, this, too, made news across the country as Sister Ann became “the first nun, in habit, to tour the U.S.S.R. since the 1917 revolution.”20 She and her travel companion were even provided with a “special guide” because they “asked so many questions and wanted to stop for so many pictures.”21 The religious habit came in handy for hiding undeveloped film and notepads with Sister Ann’s uncensored observations of the country. In retrospect, it’s amazing she wasn’t forced to leave the Soviet Union mid-trip — she “threatened to make ‘an international scene’ if the authorities tried it,” and they must have taken her seriously.22

By the late 1960s, Sister Ann had a résumé that few could match, and it was surely time for her to retire after more than 40 years in the convent and nearly 50 years as a member of the bar. Instead, she decided to run for a seat on the Adrian City Commission and won, placing first out of eight candidates.23 While she wasn’t the first woman on the commission, she was the first nun and, arguably, the biggest celebrity in town.24

When Sister Ann Joachim died on Jan. 8, 1981, it wasn’t entirely unexpected, but it, too, made the news across the country as newspapers struggled to summarize the life of this “thoroughly extraordinary person.”25 During her 79 years, she’d done everything from flying airplanes to earning five academic degrees to traveling across the world to serving in political office. But every obituary, however short or long, seemed to highlight her as the “first nun ever to be admitted to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court.”



1. Nun to Practice at Highest Bar, The Spokesman-Review (May 26, 1936), p 1; Nun Admitted by Supreme Court, The San Francisco Examiner (May 26, 1936), p 1; Michigan Nun is Admitted to Practice in High Court, The Times-Tribune (May 25, 1936), p 1; and Nun Admitted to Practise of Law in High Court, Decatur Herald & Review (May 26, 1936), p 1.

2. Nat’l Archives and Records Admin, Washington D.C., Roll #: 2733; Volume #: Roll 2733 - Certificates: 8700-9299, 24 Mar 1925-25 Mar 1925.

3. “United States Census, 1910,” database with images, GenealogyBank (https:// genealogybank.com/#), Erna J Joachim, Detroit Ward 17, Wayne, Michigan, United States (Original index: United States Census, 1910, FamilySearch, 2014), and Cook, Sister Ann Joachim: The Uncloistered Life, Detroit Free Press (January 9, 1981), p 12A.

4. Death Records, 1867-1952, Mich Dept of Community Health, Division for Vital Records and Health Statistics, Lansing, Michigan, Death Records.

5. Nun Lawyer With Clientele Of 1100 Charges No Fees: Sister M. Ann Joachim, Here to Lecture Before Hospital Institute, Once Handled Political Campaign, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (July 21, 1940), p 11A.

6. Nun is Expert At Books, Play: Sister Ann Joachim Is Lawyer, College Professor, Plane Pilot And Athlete, The Charlotte Observer (August 8, 1950), p 12-A.

7. Year: 1920; Census Place: Detroit Ward 17, Wayne, Michigan; Roll: T625_816; Page: 8B; Enumeration District: 546.

8. Versatile Nun Both Teacher And Coach at Siena Heights, Battle Creek Enquirer (April 9, 1950), p 13.

9. Nun to See Murphy Take Vow, Detroit Times (February 5, 1940), p 4.

10. Women Lawyers Urge Fair Sex Back Murphy to Defeat “Bloc,” Detroit Times (March 5, 1923), p 3.

11. Bar Women Plan Open Meeting: Lawyers to Hear Miss Olive Lathrop, Secretary, in Address, Detroit Times (October 5, 1924), part 7, page 2.

12. Versatile Nun Both Teacher And Coach at Siena Heights.

13. The Enquirer & Evening News (January 15, 1928), p 10.

14. Jack of All Professions: Her Accomplishments Run From Law Work to Flying, Lansing State Journal (April 9, 1950), Third section, p 8.

15. Versatile Nun Both Teacher And Coach at Siena Heights.

16. Year: 1940; Census Place: Adrian, Lenawee, Michigan; Roll: m-t0627-01778; Page: 2B; Enumeration District: 46-15, and Versatile Nun Both Teacher And Coach at Siena Heights.

17. Versatile Nun Both Teacher And Coach at Siena Heights.

18. Jack of All Professions: Her Accomplishments Run From Law Work to Flying.

19. Versatile Nun Also Is Lawyer, Professor, Athlete And Pilot, Intelligencer Journal (July 19, 1950), p 20.

20. Hashley, Sister Ann Sports Long List of Firsts, Lansing State Journal (March 27, 1969), p F-5.

21. Derrick, Nun’s View Of Russia Related Here Tuesday, The News-Palladium (February 10, 1966), p 4.

22. Hall, Sister Ann Joachim Isn’t Stereotype Nun, Lansing State Journal (October 13, 1972), p C-15.

23. Nun A Winner, The Hillsdale Daily News (November 3, 1971), p 4.

24. Morris, Lively Nun Sets Pace In Election, Detroit Free Press (August 15, 1971), p 13A.

25. Cook, Sister Ann Joachim: The Uncloistered Life, Detroit Free Press (January 9, 1981), p 12A.