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A beautiful time

Left to right, Sisters Kathleen Therese O’Connor (RIP), Monica Withem (RIP) (Sister Patricia Ann) and Agnes Veronica Hester (RIP) prepare to leave for Peru in March 1963.

This article first appeared in the winter 2012 issue of HOPE.

They left Indiana in a snowstorm. A day later, Sisters Kathleen Therese O’Connor (RIP), Monica Withem (RIP) (formerly Sister Patricia Ann) and Agnes Veronica Hester (RIP) arrived in a sunny city a hemisphere away. It was March 1963, and the three missionary Sisters of Providence had landed in Arequipa, Peru.

These first three adventurers were sent in response to a Papal call. In September 1960, Mother Rose Angela Horan (RIP) had learned that all United States religious congregations were asked by the Holy Father to take missions in Latin America beginning as soon as possible. The Vatican requested that by 1970 at least 10 percent of the U.S. religious personnel were to be engaged in this work.

Despite running an already busy Congregation, Mother Rose Angela began establishing Latin American connections, including a visit to Peru in December 1961. It was decided that the sisters would minister in Arequipa, a city in the Andes Mountains of southern Peru with Incan roots and a Spanish colonial past. The Sisters of Providence community buzzed with excitement.

Once they were selected, this first group of sisters set to work diligently learning the Spanish language, reading up on the country’s culture, getting vaccinations and visas in order, and developing a special gray habit to accommodate the dusty climate. After a special missionary blessing from then-Archbishop Paul Schulte, they were off.

Sister Florence Norton

Over the next 12 years, 12 sisters in total would minister at the all-boys Colegio de San José, running the elementary school and teaching the primary grades. They worked in collaboration with priests from the Chicago Province of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), who had founded the Arequipa mission.

One of these sister-missionaries was Sister Florence Norton (formerly Sister Thomas Ann). As a child, Sister Florence was taught in Sisters of Providence schools and grew up reading vibrant stories in the SP missionary publication “The Bugle Call.” When, years later, Sister Florence herself landed to minister in a foreign land, she found herself surrounded by new animals (alpacas and vicuñas), a new climate (“It was sunny every day!”), and people with big hearts, big hugs, and nothing but love for their Hermana (Sister).

Sister Florence, who taught second grade in Arequipa from 1969 to 1975, was there during a dynamic time in both the Church and Latin America. Religious communities were restructuring and rediscovering themselves in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965. Peru was in flux as well, with economic upheaval and surges of communist movements inspired by the Cuban Revolution. In 1968, a military coup led by General Juan Velasco Alvarado took over the country’s government. Internal political struggles and increasingly nationalistic policies continued for decades, including regulations on education that made running private schools exceedingly difficult.

Left to right, Sisters Patty Fillenwarth, Betty Smigla and Florence Norton pose for a photo on their last day in Arequipa on Jan. 26, 1976.

In the midst of this change, the Sisters of Providence began to evaluate their presence in Peru. After much discussion, painful decisions, and a spirit of doing “only that which we can do,” the sisters decided to withdraw from Arequipa after the 1975 school year. Sister Florence was in the last group of sisters to leave that December, along with Sisters Betty Smigla (formerly Sister Ann Martin) and Patty Fillenwarth (formerly Sister Joseph Monica). In the SP Newsletter of March 1976, these sisters reflected on their experience, saying, “Our whole feeling is this: Because we have been gifted with this experience in Peru (a gift is always something you appreciate and share), what can we do now with that gift, and where can we best use it for the needs of the Church right here and in our own Community?”

They didn’t know it at that time, but these sisters would go on to meet the needs of the Church splendidly. Many of the sisters who served in Peru went to Latin American-related ministries, from teaching English as a Second Language to assisting immigrants with paperwork to running Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) programs for Spanish-speaking candidates. Says Sister Florence, “It’s taking the missionary spirit and bringing it back to our own country.”

Though leaving Peru was bittersweet, the “end of a beautiful time,” the Sisters of Providence continue to be blessed by this gift they were given: growth earned from a decade of wonderful collaboration, a new skillset and language for the sisters to carry forward, and a spirit of simplicity and community from the people of Arequipa.

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Christina Blust

Christina worked as the digital media and website manager for Sisters of Providence for 9 years and now serves as the website's designer and consultant through her company, Blustery Day Design. She's a musician, reader, writer and generally curious person.

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