Firmly rooted like the Woods
This article is reprinted from summer 2008 issue of HOPE.
Do you recall the 1982 movie “Sister Act”? In it, comedian Whoopi Goldberg stars as lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier, who inadvertently witnesses a murder. She ends up at an inner-city Catholic church and its convent dressed as (you guessed it) a nun.
“Deloris” is asked to improve the convent’s choir, while trying to stay in the good graces of the mother superior (actress Maggie Smith). At the start, the mother superior is stiff and resistant to new ideas. However, by the end of the movie, the mother superior softens.
“That is the perception people have,” Sister Maureen Abbott said, referring to the media’s portrayal of nuns as rigid. “Part of it is complimentary,” she said. The other part is not so flattering.
Sister Maureen formed real-life impressions of women religious at an early age. In Buffalo, N.Y., where she was born, her family’s life centered on their parish. As a second-grader in January 1946, she moved with her family to Robstown, Texas, and she was enrolled at the newly opened St. John School, with four recently arrived Sisters of Providence as faculty. Since both parents had grown up as “city kids,” the rural Texas town was a big change, so it was natural that her family’s life centered on their parish. The family grew right along with the parish school and she graduated from St. John High School in 1956.
Right after high school, Sister Maureen left home and, at the age of 17, came to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, where she entered the Congregation on July 22, 1956.
Sister Maureen said the Sisters of Providence influenced her life early on. “All of the Sisters of Providence I knew were teachers,” she explained, “and I always wanted to be a teacher. Besides, the sisters talked about far-away places like Chicago, and my mother had planted the travel bug in my imagination.”
To those ends, Sister Maureen taught in Indianapolis, California, Chicago, Texas and Oregon. She served as a principal in California and Illinois. Her experience includes Sisters of Providence provincial administration, working in diocesan administration and adult education. She now serves as director of Ministry Formation and defender of the bond in the Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Portland, as well as part-time staff in the Sisters of Providence Archives. “So you see,” she said, smiling, “I’m still an educator.”
Sister Maureen said she’s always made it a point to consider “how to carry on and inject a positive aspect into personal relationships.” In her work, she has made it a priority to greet everyone and ask about their day. “That draws people out where they are,” she explained, adding, “It gives them a chance to be valued for who they are.”
If you tried to describe the Sisters of Providence in today’s world, Sister Maureen surmised, “Good luck with that because we’re all over the place.” Translate “all over the place” to mean not only geographically, but to include all the various ministries, the sisters’ numerous interests and philosophies as well.
Still, “there is continuity,” Sister Maureen assured. “We are like the trees in the Woods. Each tree is very rooted in common soil, soaking up nourishment from the soil and spreading out to the environment.”
Prayer, of course, is an important part of the sisters’ days. Sister Maureen cautioned, “If you don’t make prayer a scheduled part of the day it is unlikely to happen.”
The most important thing about prayer, she said, is to realize it’s God’s initiative. “You start with the assumption that it is God who is after us,” Sister Maureen emphasized. “We need to pay attention to that. There’s the nudge. We need to do our part by taking time for spiritual reading to counteract the culture, and just sitting in the true listening format of meditation. But … Providence? That’s God’s part.”