Sister Ann Sullivan
Years in the Congregation: 41 years
Someday, I’d like to: return to Ireland
Remember when you actually received something you sought and that queasy feeling of “what do I do now” came over you?
Sister Ann Sullivan, director of White Violet Center for Eco-Justice, a ministry of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, has experienced that feeling more than once in significant doses.
The first came when she entered the Congregation. She grew up in the small farming community of Henderson Grove, Ill., just outside Galesburg. The family farm was just that, a family farm. Many relatives lived nearby; some lived together. The harvest sustained the family and the animals for the coming year. As soon as young Ann was old enough to be carried around, her family had her outside connecting with everything on the farm. After Sunday Mass, it was common for the family to gather for breakfast.
“We had a very early introduction to the family and to the natural world, and we were lucky enough to grow up in a situation where we spent most of the days with both our mother and father. We were outside a lot with Dad. It was punishment to tell us we couldn’t go out with Dad,” Sister Ann said.
The sense of family community was an impenetrable fabric. But three cousins had journeyed from the family to become Sisters of Providence. The family was familiar with the Congregation because Sisters of Providence “were the only sisters in town” in the Galesburg area.
“The potential to join the Congregation was not a foreign idea. It was always right there,” Sister Ann said. Her family had visited her cousins at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, so she said she associated the motherhouse with family.
“I talked with Sister Helen Rose Newland (RIP) to let her know that I might be serious about this,” Sister Ann recalled. “I told my mother and dad and I thought it would be a big shock for them, but it wasn’t. They were very supportive.” Ann Sullivan, a deeply rooted Illinois farm girl, became a Sister of Providence, and that queasy feeling came upon her.
“Being a family-oriented person, you look back and think, why in the world would I do that? It seems counter to everything that was a value to me,” she said. “It was a culture shock, but what helped us is that it was a culture shock for 50 other women [who entered with her.]”
Sister Ann pursued her academic training and set out to be a teacher. Eventually she was assigned to a school in Galesburg. When it came time to enhance her own education, she wanted to study psychology. She started in school psychology, but later switched to clinical psychology. She was working in a community health center near her hometown.
Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College administrators began contacting her about assuming the chair of the school’s psychology department. “I don’t know what possessed me, but I finally said OK,” she remembered. That became another head-scratching moment.
“I hung up the phone and said ‘What in the world do you do now?’”
The Congregation’s General Chapter of 1991 generated a strong commitment to preserve and strengthen the natural environment. With a background in farming where crops were grown organically, the desire for a cleaner, healthier environment was appealing to Sister Ann.
After conversations with her General Superior, housemate and cousin, Sister Nancy Nolan, she prepared “a little, one-page proposal that went to one of the Chapter’s committees,” suggesting ideas for the Congregation to implement as it strengthened its commitment to a healthier environment.
An eco-justice committee was established, a plan was developed, a location was selected and a position for the directorship was posted. Sister Ann applied and was chosen.
“I sat over in the office that first day. I had the plan on my desk and a pencil in the drawer. I thought, ‘Now what do I do?’”Another queasy moment. Soon, sleeves were rolled up and work began.
“I looked at what it was going to take to do it and where we needed to start, what could go into place immediately. We focused on education and public policy. We started with a real small garden. We mudded in tomatoes that first summer,” Sister Ann said.
In 10 years, White Violet Center for Eco- Justice has grown to become the home of a prize-winning herd of alpacas, of enough organic vegetables to bolster motherhouse kitchen menus and sell at a weekly farmer’s market, of tours and education for thousands of visitors each year, of organic croplands, of restored motherhouse wetlands and maintained certified natural forests. It also has become a resource and model for other religious congregations that are developing their own commitment to environmental care.
Even though a lot of strategy, planning and physical work make the center’s programs successful, Sister Ann emphasized the spiritual contribution is what ties everything together. “The spirituality is a profound connection to life and to the Creator. That supports the whole notion of sacrament that we have beautifully played out in our Catholic faith, that ordinary things have a spirituality and holiness to them,” she said.
The “now what” opportunities have given Sister Ann unique paths to follow in her chosen life as a Sister of Providence.
“Religious life has been a gift to all women. It enriches women. We had women ahead of their time. They were principals and heads of hospitals before other women had that opportunity. Women use their gifts and talents and services in ways that weren’t always available to them. That has changed now. Women can be of as much service as they wish. I think the key to religious life is the community aspect,” she said.
“Religious life is a serious option for women, as it has been for a very long time. It’s a serious option for women who are looking for a sense of community, a way to work together to accomplish things that they could never accomplish by themselves. White Violet Center is a good example. I could have had this good idea anywhere, yet it wouldn’t have happened without the support and encouragement and voice of the Sisters of Providence,” Sister Ann said. “The sisters have a reputation that is credible. As women religious in the community and in the church, we have a megaphone. When we speak, a lot of people hear. That would not be true, necessarily, as individuals. And we have wonderful resources that are enormous when we try to do something like this.”
author: Joyce Rupp
actress: Meryl Streep
course in school: Literature
least favorite course in school: Calculus
If I weren’t an SP: I’d be a mom and a teacher.
vacation spot: Wisconsin lakes
animal at the zoo: alpacas , of course
food: mom’s apple pie
least favorite food: liver
TV show: Boston Legal
activity: Being with Mom and Dad on the farm.
hobby: stained glass
my best friend says: I make difficult work look easier than it is.