Sister Denise Wilkinson
Years in the Congregation: 43 years
If I were not an SP, I would be: awfully sad!
The evolution of Sister Denise Wilkinson’s life led her quite naturally to joining the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. She grew up in Chicago, part of a close-knit, God-worshipping Catholic family. She attended Catholic schools, and by the time she was at Marywood in Evanston for her high school years, she knew where she was headed.
Much different than today, it was acceptable to talk about religious life as a career option.
“It was all right with your peers. That was as good a choice as anything else would be. People talked about it openly. Other students encouraged you to do it,” Sister Denise remembered.
So she did.
“I saw religious life as a way to make a difference and as a way to be part of something big and grand and holy,” she said. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I thought I did.”
Sister Denise had been around and was taught by sisters, so she had a strong familiarity with religious life, but she still had some surprises coming her way.
“What I saw was the external life. I saw them teaching. They went down to chapel every night, so I guess I knew they prayed. I didn’t get that there was a whole lifestyle behind them,” she said.
“I found out they had a very specific schedule of prayer, work and recreation. I didn’t really understand that life was structured around the vows. How could anyone at age 18? I think the vows, like the vows of marriage, are something we grow into. I never thought much about that beforehand. I know I did not understand at that time the centrality of God in this lifestyle,” she said.
Sister Denise’s father died in an auto accident when she was three years old. Her mother and grandmother closed the ranks of the Wilkinson children; Denise, age 3; her brother, age 2; and her sister, age 6. The expectations were clear: they would all stick together and help one another.
Her father’s death was a life-changing event for the family to be sure. However, it gave Sister Denise the opportunity to learn resourcefulness, interdependency and living together as a family community. How important those early experiences would become in the future.
Today, after 43 years as a member of the Congregation, Sister Denise serves as the general superior. Even though she claims “I know I’m just Denise and they (other sisters) know I’m just Denise,” her role obviously is quite different than most other sisters.
And the distinction was never so prominent as it was the autumn of 2006 when the Congregation’s foundress, Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI.
Sister Denise was called upon, with the other members of the Congregation’s general council, to make important decisions, lead the pilgrimage to Rome, plan the local celebrations and handle a few thousand other details.
“There have been so many times I have said to myself, ‘Why am I here?’ There is no answer to that, of course. I think, in a way, I was asking myself how is it that I want to be in this spot? How does the Congregation want me to represent them at this moment? It was very weighty,” Sister Denise said.
“Mother Theodore was so present to me for those months (surrounding the canonization). I think I developed a new relationship with her. I guess I would say she became my mentor. I talked to her a lot. I thought about her a lot,” she said.
The role of general superior is not something Sister Denise ever expected or sought.
“It has called me way beyond where I would like to go sometimes. I feel comfortable being here. I just keep thinking, ‘She (Mother Theodore) did it. You do it.’ She didn’t back down. She didn’t quit. She had to move forward. She had a lot of doubts and concerns, but she did it.”
Prayer was a central part of Saint Mother Theodore’s life, giving total devotion to God. As a successor to the Congregation’s foundress, prayer also is important to Sister Denise.
“I came from a family with incredibly strong faith. I can remember sitting around the table and we were always talking about God and the church. It’s what I grew up in. I remember my aunts and uncles and Mom and their friends talking about God and their faith like it was just a way of life” she recalled.
She remembers the early years in the Congregation when prayer time was very structured. “It taught me the rhythm of prayer. Morning prayer is probably best for me, probably because of the kind of body clock I have,” she said.
She also enjoys quiet time, centering prayer, frequent opportunity for Eucharistic Liturgy, evening prayer when she examines her day and prays for those who need it most and celebrates the happiest moments of each day.
Through her years of ministry as a teacher, college administrator, a member of the Congregation’s New Membership Team, a term on the General Council and now as the leader for her sisters, Sister Denise is confident the path was right.
“I have to say that as many down times, as many valleys, as many shadows, as many crises that have been a part of my 43 years here, I can honestly say I never once was unhappy that I was a Sister of Providence. I never once doubted this is who I want to be. I don’t mean it in a Pollyanna sort of way. We have a very high ownership level of our Congregation and what we do. We don’t always agree. We’re very different from one another. And yet we have managed for these 167 years to stay connected, to work for the good of other people. And we have a genuine affection for one another. We have a purpose,” she said.
“I am a 62-year-old woman who can look back on my life as a Sister of Providence and say that because of the ministries, because of the people I have met, I have fallen into communities of people who have loved me and whom I have loved, where I have used my gifts. I am happy. I am fulfilled,” she said.
How can she and other Sisters of Providence share their happiness, devotion to God and dedication to ministries with other women who might be thinking about the call to religious life?
“There is still a lot of good to be done. The need for persons whose central focus is to bring the presence of God into every day is overwhelming. If a woman is looking for something meaningful, there is no shortage of opportunity,” Sister Denise said. “Fundamentally, we’re all searching to be authentically connected with all others, not just human others, but creation others, God others. We find different ways to do it. I say, hey, give it a try. Come see us anyway.”
Favoritesfood: brie cheese
plant: zinnias, cosmos, marigolds really any to cut and bring inside
book: anything written by P. D. James
movie: African Queen
tv show: I’m famous for not watching TV
vacation spot: near water: stream, lake or ocean
recreation: gardening, movies
animal: Giraffe; all that neck and no voice
sport: I’m a very fair weather fan; only care at playoff times
pizza topping: veggie
dessert: fruit pie
time of day: morning
season: all of them
comic strip: Zits
childhood activity: making perfume and selling it to the neighbors
hero/heroine: Saint Mother Theodore, of course, and all firefighters; Al Gore