Sister Mary Ann Stewart
Years in the Congregation: 43 years
Someday, I’d like to … visit Perthshire, Scotland where my ancestors came from.
A well-substantiated belief among Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the- Woods is that women who have had good, personal relationships with individual members of the Congregation are good candidates to devote their lives to serving God.
Of course, there are other essentials that call an individual to a life of service in ministry, but the personal relationship is a healthy start.
Sister Mary Ann Stewart is a good example.
She grew up in Terre Haute, Ind., about five miles from the Sisters of Providence motherhouse. She enjoyed having sisters as teachers all through her school years. She even kept in touch with sisters during the summer months, often taking a bus with others to visit Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
“I can’t remember when I didn’t want to be a Sister of Providence, even from the time I was a very young girl,” Sister Mary Ann said.
As a history teacher, Sister Mary Ann might be expected to have a good grasp of the past, but she had a pretty firm grip on her future as well.
“My family settled in Terre Haute about 1820, according to the census. I think they were actually there in 1816 (the year Terre Haute was platted). They were not Catholic. My grandmother, when she married my grandfather, was German Catholic and she pretty much single-handedly converted the Stewart side of the family. My mother’s father came from England when he was a young boy and I think they were probably Anglican. They ended up being Catholic,” Sister Mary Ann said.
The Stewart family resided in Sacred Heart Parish, the northern-most parish in Terre Haute.
“We were very, very much into the church and the Sisters of Providence. My Grandmother Stewart was taught by the Sisters of Providence in German at St. Benedict School. My neighbors were the Gibsons when I was growing up and they had three daughters who joined the Congregation. Sister Jane Gibson is still in the community,” Sister Mary Ann said.
“I had sisters as teachers all through grade school and high school and really admired them. I was always into teaching and I admired the way they taught and their lifestyle,” Sister Mary Ann recalled.
She joined the Congregation in 1965 about the time the Second Vatican Council was finished making dramatic changes in the way members of the Catholic Church practiced their faith. It also was a time of upheaval in society because of the Civil Rights movement and a younger generation’s challenges to authority. Changes also were coming rapidly for the Sisters of Providence.
Sister Mary Ann said times were difficult when many women joined the Congregation in the 1960s, then decided to leave.
“It was an interesting time in the community, in the world, and everywhere,” Sister Mary Ann recalled. “It was difficult to see people that you admired leaving, but I still wanted to continue on, not really knowing where everything was going. The changes were much needed. I’ve never had a problem with any of the changes in the church. You saw, kind of first hand, how necessary they were.”
Having good teachers made that career choice a natural fit for Sister Mary Ann.
“I made the decision to go into elementary education because I liked the way sisters lived in a parish convent and were part of the whole parish. I also come from a family of teachers. My brother, my sister-in-law, my niece, my grand niece and my brother-in-law teach at different levels. I eventually decided I wanted to teach history and I changed over to secondary education,” she said.
Current events in the 1960s encouraged her interest in history: the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. She likes to share her personal experiences.
When students start talking about the urban riots, Sister Mary Ann remembers hearing sisters say “things were OK because the National Guard was in their back yard.”
“I try to bring in my own experience and try to get them interested in their own family’s role in history and how much it is really their story and not just about other people,” Sister Mary Ann said. “I always tell my students that whatever happens in history never really ends, it just kind of ripples out. I try to get them to understand that the reason we study history is to understand the way we are today.”
Sister Mary Ann teaches at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis where she has been since 1980.
“I’m lucky. I have mostly honors level students. I find the kids very cooperative. We pray at the beginning of each class. I ask the kids who they would like to pray for. We always have five, six or seven requests for grandparents, friends; everything from that it won’t rain on our track meet to a grandparent who was just diagnosed with cancer,” she said.
Prayer is also central to Sister Mary Ann’s life.
“Especially the Eucharist,” she said. “The Eucharist is pretty much the center of my prayer life. I really miss it when I don’t get to do it. I think I really got that growing up with the Sisters of Providence. It’s a challenge to have time for personal prayer as a secondary teacher. Generally, my personal prayer time is before I go to bed.”
Community living within the Congregation also is important for Sister Mary Ann.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to live in a pretty supportive local community most of my religious life. I enjoy the relationships you form with people who have the same ideals and share prayer life. Some of us go to Mass together on Saturday night, then out to dinner together, and we just share our ministries, the hard things and the good things,” she said. “We also share prayer together after supper most evenings.”
Sister Mary Ann feels fulfilled with her Sisters of Providence life.
“Yes, it has been good for me. Yes, I would do it again. No, it was not what I expected,” she said. “I have hope for the future that religious life is going to continue. The high point of my life in the Congregation was the canonization (of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin), and before that, the beatification of Mother Theodore. We need young women who are willing to be Mother Theodores all over again. Her spirit is still very much alive in the Congregation.
Favoritespizza toppings: mushrooms, green peppers, onions
quote: “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” -Edmund Burke
author: David Halberstam
hero/heroine: Saint Mother Theodore Guerin
comic strip: “Mutts”
actor/actress: Dame Judi Dench
web site: www.familysearch.org
book: The Brother Cadfael mystery series by Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter)
movie: “Meet the Parents”
tv show: Extreme Makeover Home Edition
vacation spot: Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina
music: anything by the Celtic Woman group