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Unknown Stories of WNY: WNY nun first woman to be a Special Agent in the FBI

The story of how a Sister of Mercy became one the the FBI's first female Special Agents.


It is the story of a major life change, that made history along the way. The story of a local woman who went from being a nun, to becoming one of the F.B.I.'s first-ever female special agents.

Joanne Pierce grew up in Niagara Falls, and after attending Niagara University, she entered the Sisters of Mercy convent, and ultimately found herself teaching school at Mount Mercy Academy in South Buffalo.

Sisters Margaret Mary Gorman, Marie Andre Main and Sharon Erickson, all taught with Sister Joanne, and all three have fond memories. 

Sister Marie says "she was very thorough in whatever she did, I think that was a very nice trait, she was very thorough, she was very approachable and she she was a good listener." 

Sister Margaret recalls some of the lighter moments. 

"Every night after we had a hard day teaching, we'd go upstairs in the convent and we would play games. She always wanted to play Clue. That should have been a clue," Sister Margaret said.

In a 2012 interview filmed by the F.B.I. to commemorate the 40th anniversary of her accomplishment, Joanne recalled her days teaching, and the day her future changed. 

"I had been teaching school and I met an agent who came to our school doing recruiting and I talked to him," Joanne said. 

Sister Sharon says she was not shocked by Sister Joanne's decision. 

"No, I was very proud of her and I was not really surprised because you could see she had potential," she said.

Soon Joanne's supervisors at the bureau saw that potential as well. She joined as a researcher at the training academy in 1970, but when acting Director L. Patrick Gray opened the special agent position to females in 1972, Joanne's supervisor asked if she had any interest in applying and she jumped at the chance. 

"I loved the work that I was doing. I enjoyed it immensely. Then this just happened. So it wasn’t something that I had been planning to do or I thought was going to happen at the time."

This former nun from the Falls was about to be one of the first two female special agents in F.B.I. history. 

"I got assigned to a fugitive squad and that time was military deserters kind of thing. I can remember very vividly the first case I had. We went out to get the guy and he found out that we were looking for him and he called back into the office; he was incensed that a woman was being sent out to get him, you know, that he wasn’t worthy of a guy. He had to have a woman go after him."

She had to overcome many things, attitudes toward women in the workforce at the time, as well as the physical testing. She rose to every occasion and paved the way for so many others like Sandra Berchtold. Berchtold is the supervisory special agent of the white collar squad in the Rochester branch of the Buffalo field office. She says Joanne Pierce was a trailblazer. 

"I read that her supervisor accepted her immediately, I think that put a lot of clout behind her that the supervisor accepted her and assigned her the hard cases and she was able to prove herself," Berchtold said. 

She can only imagine the hurdles that the new special agent had to clear. 

"To take on a class and walk into a room with only one other female, that's intimidating. That takes a lot of courage," Berchtold said.  

And yet Joanne never saw it that way. 

"I honestly didn’t see myself as a pioneer. It was just a role that I was fortunate enough to become a part of and I just was just carrying out that role of special agent. So, I didn’t think of it in that regard at the time anyway." 

But her colleagues probably did. Joanne, and Susan Roley Malone, the other woman in that initial class 50 years ago, were affectionately called "The Nun" and "The Marine" by their fellow agents.

Now, half a century later, women make up just 22% of special agents, nearly 20 of them in the Buffalo Office. Joanne Pierce Misko is now retired and lives with her husband, a fellow retired agent. 

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