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Coming of age with Vatican II

Sister Denise Wilkinson in various stages of formation with the Sisters of Providence. From left, entering the congregation, as a postulant and as a novice

Sister Denise Wilkinson in various stages of formation with the Sisters of Providence. From left, entering the congregation, as a postulant and as a novice

Sister Denise Wilkinson today

Sister Denise Wilkinson today

On Sept. 12, 1963, the Sisters of Providence welcomed 58 of us as postulants. We arrived with a small black suitcase and a foot locker filled with a variety of personal supplies, regulation nightgowns, black stockings, nun shoes, men’s white handkerchiefs, black postulant skirts, black under blouses and black capes. We signed in the official record book and thus was determined our “band order.” (A band is synonym for a class.)

When we entered, I know we believed we’d be living the same life we had seen modeled by the sisters we had known in grade and high school. All but four of our band had entered the fall following our high school graduations. So life experience was rather limited (not that we thought so then). How wrong we were!

We observed a strict “horarium”: a schedule of prayer, work, study and recreation. We learned how to serve at table, read during silent meals, chant the hours of the Divine Office and clean — did we ever learn how to clean!

We attended college classes at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and sat in the back rows of the classrooms. We were not to socialize with the “college girls.” We walked to and from classes in silence; and talked only at recreation, at meals that weren’t silent and on occasions of “necessity, politeness or charity.”

Sister Denise Wilkinson hugs her cousin Mary on the day when Sister Denise, as a young professed sister, graduated from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.

Sister Denise Wilkinson hugs her cousin Mary on the day when Sister Denise, as a young professed sister, graduated from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.

And, for the most part we loved it. Why? For one important reason — we had been entrusted into the hands of a remarkable group of Sisters of Providence. These women appointed as our postulant and novice directors, our theology teachers and as our mentors shepherded us through (what must have seemed to them) the chaotic times during and immediately after Vatican Council II.

Since we 100-plus postulants and novices living in Owens Hall at the time didn’t know “beans with the bag open” regarding the customs and practices of the Sisters of Providence, we were the proverbial blank slates waiting to be formed. And form us these women did — with care and love and a remarkable ability to trust their instincts and their shared sense of what the church was asking of women religious at the time.

A guiding principle learned as postulants was “freedom with responsibility.” Each was free to make choices regarding how she would engage various practices, spiritual exercises or assignments as long as she took responsibility for the choice. As always, taking responsibility meant shouldering the consequences.

This principle has stayed with me through my years of teaching high school, interacting with Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College students, relating as a formation director myself with our new members and now serving in elected leadership. I both apply the principle to my personal choices and use “freedom with responsibility” as a lens to understand the choices others make.

We had extraordinary theology and philosophy teachers. Classes in Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Scriptures were taught by SPs who conveyed the energy and excitement of the way God reveals God’s self through the ages. These scholars taught us to pray the Scriptures, to read them with understanding and appreciation. Sisters Ruth Eileen Dwyer, Rita (Joseph Angela) Faucher and Teresa Aloyse Mount taught us in ways that challenged our preconceptions and deepened our understanding and prayer.

Our postulant and novice directors were Sisters Barbara (Vincent Ferrer) Doherty and Bernice (Ann Bernice) Kuper. Responsible for daily “instructions,” these two women taught us about the lifestyle we had chosen, instructed us in the theology and meaning of the three vows we would profess and shaped our burgeoning adult spirituality. They did this by sharing themselves, their questions, and their love of our Congregation. They allowed themselves to be completely transparent with us.

In addition, we lived with what we then called “novitiate sisters.” These professed sisters took on a variety of duties and were lighthearted and wonderful models of how to live: Sisters Mary Dominica Adamson, Mary Alma Murphy, Jean Margaret Kaindl and our sainted cooks Sisters Catherine Eleanor Thomas and Cathy (Joseph Norine) Buster!

After professing first vows, we became “junior sisters.” We received that black veil and looked like a “real” Sister of Providence. Sister Alexa Suelzer was our director. A Scripture scholar herself, she continued the instruction begun in the novitiate. Sister Mary Leo (Marym) Gootee was Sister Alexa’s assistant. I can still feel her tolerance of our rather cocky selves.

Only years later, in conversations with these very significant women in our Congregation’s history, did I understand how they “made the path by walking it.” Willing to trust their sense of what was being asked by the church, what the signs of the times were calling for in terms of lifestyle changes, they stepped outside the familiar and the “approved” way of living, praying and ministering and trusted the Providence of God to form the women in their care for what the loving plan of Providence required.

I believe that I was singularly blessed to have come of age in the church and in the Congregation during Vatican II. Called to adapt and renew, the Sisters of Providence have faithfully lived out that request for the past 50 years. Entrusted with the mission of Providence by our loving God, we rejoice in who we have become and who we will be called to become — called always by God’s Providence.

About the author: Currently Sister Denise is serving a second five-year term as general superior of the Congregation. Her prior ministries have included general councilor, formation director, counselor, director of advancement, administrative staff member at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and a high school teacher of English and religion.

(Originally published in the Winter 2013 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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Sister Denise Wilkinson

Sister Denise was the general superior of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods from 2006-2016. She previously served as a high school teacher, college administrator, postulant/novice director and director of advancement and communications for the Congregation. Currently, Sister Denise serves the Congregation in various volunteer positions.

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  1. Dana Territo on August 9, 2014 at 6:55 pm

    I was wondering if you have any history of Sr. Miriam Loretta, a member of your congregation, who was my first grade teacher at St. John School in Robstown, Texas in 1965. Thanks.

    • Christina Blust on August 12, 2014 at 10:18 am

      Dana, I sent your question along to the sisters in Archives. 🙂

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