Joan Dressler knows the name of just about every priest in the Diocese. That’s because she’s been the warm smile that has greeted every seminarian on a required pre-ordination retreat and visiting priests entering the kitchen at House of Prayer for Priests for the last 30 years.
“She would meet all of them when they were just about to be ordained. She’s a very motherly person and, as one who has raised a big family, she had very good judgment about people. She knew how to be supportive and gracious with the priests starting from the time when they were just about to be ordained,” says Father Gordon Moreland, SJ. The former director of House of Prayer for nearly 32 years, Fr. Moreland hired Dressler in 1987. “Often, the priests would come in and see her in the kitchen before I would see them come around for something they needed. She is a friend to many of the priests in the Diocese.”
The House of Prayer for Priests in Orange is a retreat house for local clergy. It includes two chapels, casitas that accommodate up to eight visitors and offers confession, spiritual direction, as well as day and extended week retreats. Dressler has served as cook at House of Prayer for nearly 30 years. When needed, she will drive 22 miles from her Laguna Woods home to prepare a meal for large groups gathering at House of Prayer.
“She will always ask which priests are visiting or what would a priest like to eat. She really provides a loving and caring presence to those who come to the House of Prayer,” says Father Domenico Di Raimondo, MSpS, who became the new director at the House of Prayer last August. “Sometimes she’ll say ‘Well, I could retire but the House of Prayer means a lot to me and the priests mean a lot to me.’ She says we are here on a mission. She doesn’t see her presence here as work, she sees it more like a mission, a vocation, a calling from God.”
Dressler, the youngest of seven children, grew up in a Catholic family in Long Beach during World War II. She says it was a harsh time to live in and she did her part to contribute.
Her devout Catholic mother had all seven of her children baptized at Holy Innocents Parish in Long Beach. Dressler’s earliest memory of volunteering was helping her mother clean the altar linens at age 10.
“My mother always did the linens and the priest would bring them by and lay them on the yard. We would rinse them and they would have grass all over them. In those days we didn’t have an automatic washer or dryer. We had to wring and wash,” she explains. “Father would be so upset because she would have to shake them all out again and line dry. A lot of times we would walk the linens back to the church which was quite a ways.”
Dressler attended Long Beach Polytechnic High School and married soon after graduation, raising seven children of her own, all of whom were baptized at Holy Innocents Parish and by the same priest who baptized her as an infant.
“Three of my children went to Holy Innocents School and the Carmelite nuns wanted me to make dolls for [the nuns] to send to their parents, a replicate of their outfit,” she says. “I also volunteered once a week at the parish school and let the Carmelite sisters give my hours to a mother that had children at the school that couldn’t get time off work to help. Later I taught sewing to the 8th graders for almost two years when they had the program.”
In 1968, she and her husband moved their growing family to a larger home in a neighborhood in Cypress, eight houses down from St. Irenaeus Parish where she served as a sacristan and created the flower arrangements for funeral and wedding Masses on the weekends while working full time as a florist at Wayne’s Flowers. She eventually was hired as a cook for the parish rectory in 1981 and continued for five years. Father Moreland later hired her to work as a cook at House of Prayer in 1987. Over the years, she has also decorated the bishops’ residence for Christmas and created the floral arrangements for ordinations and sewed banners for the altar.
“I’ve probably been to most all of the tabernacles in Orange County setting up for different Masses,” she laughs.
Dressler’s invaluable work didn’t go unnoticed. To honor her work in the Church, she was chosen to serve as sacristan during a Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II at Dodger Stadium in 1987.
“It was such a great honor but it didn’t really hit me until it was all over and even when the pope put the rosary beads in my hand, which I still carry in my wallet to this day,” she says. “I was so focused on the work. I just wanted everything to be right.”
At 83, Dressler could easily retire but she loves the work she does in the Church and respects the priests she serves.
“I have a love for the Lord. If I didn’t have my faith, I wouldn’t be here today,” she said.