Sister Marsha Speth
Years in the Congregation: 46 years
My best friend says: If you’re around her at all, you know she has an inner strength about her; go camping and backpacking with her and you’ll find she’s a tough lady in that world as well.
With the Sisters of Providence as my teachers in both grade and high school you could say that I sort of imbibed the spirit or charism of the Congregation without ever knowing it. But that alone does not explain why I am here today. It is both a graced mystery and series of many choices.
I grew up in a small Indiana town, the oldest of four children. My father wanted us to attend the same Catholic school he had attended. My mother, a convert from Methodism, provided a healthy balance to my father’s more Jansanistic Catholicism. Though we faithfully attended Mass on Sundays and some extra services during Lent, I wouldn’t say we were heavily “religious” for that time. Traditional grace before meals and bedtime prayers for us children were the extent of faith expressions at home. When I was old enough to get my homework done and stay up until 11 p.m. I would sometimes accompany my father to his “holy hour” at church. We prayed the rosary together and then spent the rest of the time in quiet prayer and spiritual reading. I loved this shared time with my father and God!
My SP teachers often brought up the idea of a religious vocation to us, but it wasn’t until eighth grade that a sister actually invited me personally to consider it. The idea continued to haunt me throughout high school. Of course like many other young women of that age, I also wanted to study for a profession, meet prince charming and be a wife and mother. At the same time, I was attracted to the spiritual life, to God. I wanted to give my life in service to others.
I knew myself well enough to know that if I had a community to support and challenge me I’d more likely be faithful to that dream. I consulted my parents and a sister at my high school. On some level I probably hoped they would tell me it was a good idea or a bad one. But no one did. They offered me support for whatever choice I made. So after graduation I decided I had to find out about religious life or I would not have peace in my heart.
My early years in the Sisters of Providence were both exciting and difficult. I loved our classes and instructions in scripture, theology, liturgy, prayer, and psycho/ spiritual development. It was the 1960s and 70s, a time of “fresh air” in the church and of tumultuous change in society. When I entered the sisters were in full habit and living a rather cloistered lifestyle. Following the directives of Pope Paul VI to reclaim the original charism and the spirit of our foundress, the Congregation embarked upon an era of education and change. During my first year of teaching, I asked permission to discontinue wearing the veil. It was a big step for me. The children I taught hardly batted an eye!
The sorrow of those years was watching so many of my peers move on to other lifestyles. Each time one left I had to ask myself, “What is your choice, Marsha? Where is God calling you?” I continued to ask the question throughout my years of initial formation. Though I always wished for a clear and definitive answer, God never sent one. Instead the question God seemed to ask me each time was: “Are you happy in this life? Have you been able to give and receive love?” My answer was always “yes” and God’s response was, “then TRUST me.” A spiritual guide once said to me that she thought perhaps I became a Sister of Providence because that is what I most needed to learn, to trust Providence. At the time of my profession of perpetual vows, I asked only for God’s love. As I look back over the past 46 years certainly God has provided!
After perpetual vows I continued teaching primary grade children. It was not a ministry I would have ever chosen had I not joined the Sisters of Providence. However, it stretched and gifted me in ways for which I am forever grateful. Teaching allowed me to use the summers for exploration of other ministries and eventually to complete a master’s degree in religious education. My desire to work with adults in a faith based ministry was realized when I began my first experience of full-time pastoral work. Though it was filled with new challenges, I loved being a pastoral, Providence presence when people sought God through Church. I loved connecting people with one another and helping to strengthen the bonds of community. And I could put my teaching skills to use in religious formation. At the suggestion of one of the priests in the parish, I took a preaching class and began to share the Word in a way that stretched the shy introverted “Marsha.” I both feared and loved doing it!
Eventually the Congregation asked me to bring my gifts and skills, along with my limitations, to the ministry of Congregation leadership. Here, too, I have been challenged, stretched, and gifted in new ways. It has tested and taught me more than any other ministry. It is humbling to be among so many generous and talented women. It is awe inspiring to see, with all our individual human limitations, amazing works of love, mercy, and justice being done. In this ministry I am privileged to rejoice with my sisters in times of success, to support them in times of difficulty, and to challenge in times of doubt or denial.
Throughout these years God has most certainly provided the love I needed, some days like manna in the desert, just enough to get through. At other times I know, without a doubt, I am provided an undeserved abundance. There have been times of deep questioning about myself, God, and religious life. And there have been significant times when I knew with certainty that I’m in the right place and it is good. Indeed God has provided the love I asked for at the time of perpetual vows. It came through my sisters, friends, spiritual guides, parishioners, children, a sunset, a bubbling creek, a word, a thought … all is Providence. Though I will probably always have a tendency to worry and doubt, God continues to say, “Trust me and my gift of love this day.”
So, what would I say to a woman considering life as a woman religious today?
Well, if you are asking the question, explore it. Certainly there are many options for women today and it is sometimes difficult to sort out the many voices in one’s own heart.
Prayer and the companionship of a spiritual guide are essential. It also helps to get to know some women religious. Spend time with them in service, prayer, social settings, and at a “Come and See” weekend. Ask lots of questions. Listen and test out the call with those who have lived religious life.
In my experience God seldom reveals a full, clear answer all at once. Rather, as Mother Theodore says, “we grope along slowly…” It is a process of discernment in which I humbly seek to know the next step asking for the courage to follow the attraction of the God who calls me to love and service.
Favoritesquote: Confidence in God, peace in God’s arms, no fretting…and you will find happiness. —Saint Mother Theodore Guerin
food: Peanut butter; it is so versatile!
comic strip: Baby Blues
TV show: Masterpiece Theater
vacation spot: any place by water
recreation: anything outside
hobby: baking or soup-making
pizza toppings: spinach and feta cheese
dessert: Italian crème cake
time of day: morning
author: Barbara Kingsolver
saint: Saint Mother Theodore Guerin
outdoor activity: walking, hiking
least favorite course in school: math
least favorite food: sardines