Jeannie Smith: living an authentic faith
“You can’t imagine the joy I felt when the Providence Associate Relationship was finally launched, and I was one of the first to sign up,” said Jeannie Smith, a Providence Associate and former Sister of Providence from Solana Beach, Calif.
Jeannie’s roots with the Congregation are very deep. She and her older brother and sister attended St. Charles Borromeo School in Bloomington, Ind. “I always loved the sisters and was one of those little girls who stayed after the school year was over to clean up classrooms and came back early to help get them ready in September,” said Jeannie.
When her father, Donald Smith, died when Jeannie was finishing sixth grade, that bond with the Sisters of Providence became even stronger. Her mother, Mary Virginia (RIP), began working as a registered nurse at Indiana University after the sudden death of her husband. These major life changes, Jeannie’s love of the sisters and her strong desire for community led her in 1959 to the Aspirancy, a high school for girls interested in religious life that was once located at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
In September 1963, Jeannie entered the Congregation and received the religious name Sister Donna Mary. As a young novice, Jeannie studied art at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College with the ultimate goal of teaching high school. However, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the a-changin’ times of that decade modified Jeannie’s life plans.
“I left [as a junior sister] just before my temporary vows expired,” shared Jeannie. “Our wonderful leaders in initial formation — Sisters Barbara Doherty, Bernice Kuper, Alexa Suelzer and Ruth Eileen Dwyer — talked a lot about being authentic in faith. By that, I understood them to mean that one must actively choose to live a faithful life. I saw myself as a person who could so easily ‘go with the flow’ and let the superiors tell me everything I must do. And at that time, it seemed to me that would be easy to do. So I chose to leave the community and put myself in a position where I had to guide my own life. It was perhaps the most difficult thing I ever did. I can’t say I regret it, but I do say it caused me much grief over many years.”
With great inner strength Jeannie left the Congregation and returned to Bloomington. She enrolled at Indiana University and majored in biology. This detour led her to a new life and new career. Upon graduating from IU, Jeannie packed her bags and headed for California where she had several research jobs in genetics, immunology and lipid chemistry. Then she was employed by Scripps Institution of Oceanography as a technician aboard the Glomar Challenger, a research ship in the waters of the Antarctic.
“A rather momentous effect of this adventure was meeting my husband, George Schneider, who was a third mate on that ship when I first met him,” said Jeannie. The couple has been married 27 years.
Eventually Jeannie left Scripps, earned a degree in computer science and spent 15 years developing software for medical and scientific purposes. George spent most of his career at sea, making “for an unusual marriage, but a comfortable one for us,” said Jeannie, who is now retired and volunteers by teaching art classes at several Alzheimer’s facilities.
Even through all of these adventures on land and sea, Jeannie’s love for the Congregation never diminished. She continued to keep in contact with various sisters and made visits to the Woods. In 1990, she was one of the founders of Women in Providence, (WIP) a group of former Sisters of Providence who desired to reconnect with the Congregation.
It was the Providence Associate Relationship that truly healed Jeannie. “For so many years it always just wrenched my heart every time I drove out those gates after a visit And now all that grief is gone, and I rest happily in that relationship spoken aloud and acknowledged by both myself and the Congregation. As a bonus, I have two dear associate-friends — Linda McMahon and Pat Ruck — who live within 50 miles of my home, and we get together as often as we can,” continued Jeannie.
Another “bonus” is when the three associates meet with Sisters Mary Concetta Bañez, Carol Nolan and Loretta Picucci who minister at Providence in the Desert in Coachella, Calif. Jeannie also returns to the Woods about twice a year for retreats, meetings and/or Rites of Commitment for Providence Associates.
Jeannie continued, “I can’t separate who I’ve come to be from the formation I received from Sisters of Providence from grade school through my years in the community and my continuing connection through WIP and Providence Associates. The values and traditions that are the core of my being all come from the Sisters of Providence. The story of Mother Theodore and the lives and works of the sisters past and present, these examples are ingrained so deep in me that if there were a way to excise those influences, there would be little left of Jeannie!”
(Reprinted from the fall 2010 issue of HOPE)