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Still rooted in Christ’s love

This article is reprinted from the summer 2008 issue of HOPE.

“I am concerned about who the Sisters of Providence are today. They don’t wear a habit. Most of them don’t teach in schools anymore. They are against the death penalty. They speak out on things that I think have nothing to do with religion. While I was taught by these sisters, I am sometimes confused about who they are now.”

These are the kinds of comments Sisters of Providence hear from time to time — or hear about if the speaker is uncomfortable speaking directly to them. In such changing times, of course, that is not surprising. So I will attempt to describe the community I know and love to see if my description will help put a face on contemporary Sisters of Providence.

It is true that most of us do not wear a habit as we once did. Originally, many years ago, religious habits were simply the peasant dress of the time, not intended to set religious apart but to show that we were ordinary women in service to our neighbors.

During ensuing centuries, the role of religious evolved, and wearing a habit became a symbol for the “apartness” of religious women. Most of us alive now grew up with — and accepted — that understanding. However, during intense discussions among us in the late 1960s (when almost everything was changing), this belief system was examined and discussed in great detail, and with a great deal of angst among us. The final result was that — because of differing/shifting/altering perceptions about the reasons for wearing a habit in the changing world we served — we could not fully agree with one another about this issue and it would be best to allow an individual sister to make her own choice. That significant vote took place in 1969 — almost 40 years ago.

Did this choice weaken our vowed commitment? I believe not. In fact I think it has strengthened it. In the past we often were treated with great respect because we were wearing a habit. Now that respect must be won by our work and our service as we walk among you, sometimes not recognized as a sister.

We are aware that there are some people who feel that the value of wearing a distinctive habit is so great that it should be re-established. Perhaps, in the future as mores change again and life flows on, that will happen as it is happening in some more traditional communities right now. However, at present almost 99 percent of Sisters of Providence have chosen to wear contemporary dress, though in public we proudly wear the SP cross symbol as a clear sign of our commitment. I hope this description will help explain how we came, painfully and over many years, to our choice for contemporary dress and especially underscore that a life of love, mercy and justice continues to be our strong, vowed commitment.

Why don’t most of us teach in schools anymore? Largely because the advancing age of many of us leaves us with less energy and makes teaching in schools very difficult. Furthermore, sisters did such a good job of developing an educated Catholic population that a significant lay contingent has taken over the Catholic school system and is doing a fine job of staffing it.

Also, we were forced to sell many of the schools we had built and owned, primarily to enable us to take care of our aging membership, and so our options to teach in those schools are fewer. However, many of us love teaching; it has been part of our lives for years. Wherever we serve now we feel we are using the skills we learned as educators. In other words, we consider ourselves as still teaching, but in different ways.

Relative to our being “against the death penalty,” or “speaking out on things that have nothing to do with religion,” these are among the choices we have made as a community during many common assemblies. If you were to join us for one of those assemblies you would see the wide variety of points of view among us, and know that it is never easy for us to agree. When the Sisters of Providence speak as a group, it is the result of a long-discussed, very hard-won agreement,not the result of the argument of a single person.

When we gather each July for our annual meeting we pray deeply together, we discuss our evolving understanding of Providence spirituality, we explore how we can be faithful in these times to the life and mission that Saint Mother Theodore articulated so well for us more than a century-and-a half ago. Finally, we agree on our common priorities.

While we realize our decisions will not always be popular ones and sometimes even will be in conflict with the expectations of those we love, we strive to understand what God is calling us to at this time. We hope our choices will always be rooted in our undying love for and belief in Jesus and that the only thing that will really change is the way we express that love. Determining how best to do that, we believe, is what keeps faith vibrantly alive in a continuingly changing and challenging world.

One recommendation I might make is to read the book, “Love, Mercy and Justice: A Book of Practices of the Sisters of Providence,” available through our Web site (www.ProvCenter.org) or in The Gift Shop. The book may give you a much more expansive understanding of the fundamental beliefs upon which our contemporary practices are based. The Gift Shop may be contacted at giftshop@spsmw.org or 812-535-2947.

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Sister Jeanne Knoerle

Sister Jeanne Knoerle was a Sister of Providence for 64 years. She taught for many years at schools in Illinois, Indiana, and Washington, D.C. and was the president of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College from 1968 to 1983. Sister Jeanne passed away in June 2013. Read Sister Jeanne’s Obituary here.

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