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Helen Flavin: “What was I thinking? Do I belong here?”

Helen currently works as a teacher and says she loves her time with students. She talks about the many questions she had about her journey thus far to become a Providence Associate and how those questions were answered. She also mentions how an “ice-breaker” on her first evening at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, helped her solve her personal “puzzle.”

Please share a little bit about your life history and experiences.

I am a Catholic scientist, educator and writer.

Do you have a special connection to the Sisters of Providence?

Helen Flavin, left, with her friend Sister Claire Dumont, SSCC.

Helen Flavin, left, with her friend Sister Claire Dumont, SSCC.

How did I hear about the Sisters of Providence Associates Program? Well, that is really thanks to the Holy Spirit, Sister Claire Dumont, SSCC, who is an 84-year-old retired nun and Rachel Andrepont, who was a colleague at the high school. Rachel had volunteered with the SPs. Then, she moved on to teaching. We were colleagues who had a common study coverage in the school library.

Sister Claire and I served as Extraordinary Eucharistic Ministers at the Nursing Home in Fall River, Mass. Since 2006, I had helped take care of Sister Claire. During Spring 2012, Sister Claire moved to assisted-care living. Rachel helped me in hanging the curtains and pictures for Sister Claire’s new home. Then, Rachel continued to occasionally visit with Sister Claire. On those days, the three of us would pray the rosary together. Rachel is 28 and deciding her vocation. One day as we left Sister Claire’s to head to our respective cars, Rachel announced to me she had decided that she was going to be a nun. It was a surprise to me and also my mind jumped back to my Yale days when my application to the Dominican order was rejected (Ph.D.s were said to have difficulties with the vow of obedience). Rachel had been watching me to see my reaction to her announcement as I guess she had not yet told anyone else. She asked me why I was looking at her in such a strange way. When I smiled and explained, Rachel said that her order (SP) would never do such a thing! Before I could say anything, she whipped out her cell phone and called her contact (Sister Editha Ben, SP). Not knowing what to say and not wanting to dampen her spirit about the religious life, I let her make the call. I left it all in God’s hands.

A few days later, Rachel triumphantly announced to me that “her order” did not immediately disqualify Ph.D.s. In addition, she gave me Sister Editha’s contact information. I had some reflecting to do. I finally decided to contact Sister Editha. Although the SPs do not immediately disqualify Ph.D.s, I am now too old to become a nun! However, Sister Editha suggested the associates relationship.

Why did you seek to become a Providence Associate?

Although I teach at a Catholic high school, I still felt that God has more for me to do and also I feel that I wanted to be part of something bigger than just our diocese. I decided to explore the opportunity of being an associate for the Sisters of Providence. I really liked the SP challenge of my having to decide to find my own way to more faithfully serve God as an associate.

Please describe your relationship with your companion. How often do you meet?

My companion is Sister Jane Iannaccone. We started by exchanging telephone calls and emails. During Summer 2012, I had plenty of time to read and wanted to explore. I found it so frustrating to have to wait until November. Sister Jane, one day, had had enough of me. She told me, “Enough already, the Sisters of Providence are not secret spy stuff. Finding out is a long process that you will start in November.” Although I had not mentioned secret spy ideas, that analogy had crossed my mind. We shared a laugh. From that day, I realized I had a friend as well as mentor in my sister companion.

When we got to the first of the spiritual discussion units, Sister Jane invited me to visit for discussions on Saturday, then with a sleepover Saturday night. After our work was done, we ate supper. Sister Jane and I then watched an episode of “Call the Midwife” (on PBS). When she first gave me the title of the series I thought, “Did Sister say midwives?” As an educator who has taught anatomy and physiology, I wondered what about that show might appeal to her. However, the show’s focus is partly on the midwives, but partly on the nuns who, as one of their ministries, run a midwife service. It is set in the 1950s. Have you seen it? I did my crocheting as we watched the show.

Can you believe that my contemplative reflection for the following morning was on “Finding God in the Company of Our Life’s Best Friends” and the analogy was midwives? The idea: True friends are like midwives, who draw forth what is waiting to be born. I like the analogy and shared it with Sister. Sister was a bit happier discussing analogies after she had had her morning coffee.

Has being a Candidate-Associate enriched your life in any way?

I understand these questions to essentially seek to explore the essential question “have I grown spiritually during the Candidate-Associate discernment process?” My answer is yes. However, I have to qualify that as perhaps God had already started that process with me and part of its culmination was my trip to Indiana for the Candidate-Associate meetings in October 2012.

So far, my favorite Spiritual Integration Unit is the one on prayer. It got me thinking about my spiritual history and development. I started writing it all down. I wondered also what the future would bring.

I chose to explore the SP Candidate-Associate relationship, as one possible way for me to continue to deepen my relationship with God. I had thought that such growth would be an individual work in progress. However, in reflecting upon where my spiritual development is taking me and may continue to take me, I realized that I have entered a phase of my life where one way that I appear to be growing closer to God is by sharing my relationship with God with others.

This past year I have become a columnist for the Catholic Newspaper in my town. The process started years ago with the school principal who first asked me to write a reflection to be read for morning prayer. I found that I enjoyed that writing. The more I seek to deeply read and reflect in prayer, the more I seem to wish to share my reflections.

What do you want to gain through your relationship with the Sisters of Providence?

I guess essentially I started my quest with the idea of expanding my horizons. I do greatly enjoy teaching. However, some days our little school seems such a small place in God’s vineyard. Through the SPs, I was hoping to feel more a part of God’s plan for the entire world. Also, as the year continues and then (hopefully) as an associate, I wanted to remain open to God’s ideas and suggestions of how to better serve God in a larger community.

What advice would you give to someone who might be thinking about becoming a Providence Associate?

I’d like to borrow a phrase either from TV and Project Runway, “Make it happen” or from sports and Nike’s, “Just do it.” Go out to visit officially and start the discernment process. It really is the only way for you to begin to find your answers to the questions you have inside. Even better, you finally realize that you really are not alone on that journey.

Have you ever heard the John Denver song Rocky Mountain High? If so, do you remember the line, “coming home to a place he’d never been before?” That is what it felt like that first weekend; a feeling of finding or coming home. At prayer, especially, there was a feeling of standing together before Our Lord. Whether it was a small prayer group or all of us together at Mass, I felt comfortable, welcomed and part of the community.

What do you like best about Saint Mary-of-the-Woods?

The Church of the Immaculate Conception and the Way of the Cross Walkway.

The church is beautiful. However, it was special to me when I visited in 2012 because back home my parish church had been Immaculate Conception Church and it had just closed during the summer of 2012. In addition, I had served on the task force that had worked to combine the two parishes. Although I knew intellectually that God’s church is the members and not the buildings, a part of me still felt as if I had let my parish down since the other church’s facilities were chosen for the new church. I felt peace and healing at ICC.

The Way of the Cross Walkway is peaceful and stunning. It is a short walkway. One goes along for ½ the stations then reverses direction to continue back and along the other side for the rest of the stations. As you approach the end, just down behind the walkway, you see the gravestones of all the sisters who walked with Our Lord, died with God and await God’s final coming. It is awe inspiring.

Anything else you would like to share?

I remember three parts of my first weekend at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. First, as I had to take a personal day from work in order to travel from Massachusetts to Indiana, I arrived early Friday afternoon. I was the first Candidate Associate guest to arrive. The Sisters were welcoming. At dinner, their conversation was open enough, but I found myself feeling a bit out of place. I thought, “Dear God, what have I done flying out all this way? What was I thinking? What am I doing here? I don’t know any of these people. They don’t know me. Do I belong here?”

Less than a minute later, someone brought up jigsaw puzzles. I mentioned the religious puzzles that my friend Sister Claire and I have completed together and which now reside in my classroom at the high school. It broke the ice. Someone asked me my name. Sister Agnes Maureen Badura, SP, and I then spoke a bit about the religious puzzles. I felt at home with the sisters. Within a couple of minutes, those at table with me and I were talking as if we had all known one another for years. There was a genuineness to the conversations that is so often lacking in the secular world.

Saturday and Sunday there were meetings and discussions. Half a year later, my memories of most of these are rather blended. The Saturday morning introductory session, however, stands out in my mind. This was the start of the official program. My sister companion (Sister Jane) could not come out to Indiana as she was needed in her parish in Massachusetts. One sister companion, who had not met me until that very moment, was asked to look after me for the weekend. I honestly think she felt a bit overwhelmed. When I looked into her eyes I think I saw a mixture of fear and determination to give it a try. I thought again, “Lord, am I really supposed to be here?”

Then, after prayer, each of us had to introduce ourselves. The microphone started on the other side of the room. I marveled at how I could teach a room full of adolescents; an auditorium full of college students; have passed my Ph.D. oral exam (and thesis defense), yet feel insecure at having to stand up and tell a room full of nuns and fellow SP Candidate Associates my name, where I was from and my connection to SP. I heard candidate after candidate say how for years they felt so at home with the Sisters of Providence; how they had known SPs for years; and how peaceful and special it was to get through the gates at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. I thought again, “Lord is this really where you wish me to be?”

Immediately, I remembered my arrival the night before. There was construction and a detour. I had stopped at a store to ask for directions. A mother and daughter said they would drive up by Saint Mary-of-the-Woods grounds. I was to follow so I would not get lost. We stopped just outside those gates. I knew Indiana was different from the large cities of the Northeast when that kind mother got out of the car to make sure I knew we had arrived and that I was to continue through the gates. Following their lead, I got out of my car to thank them for their kindness. Had I not done so, I might not have really even noticed the gates!

As I entered through the gates, I told myself, “This looks like a college campus where you know you feel at home. So try to focus on the spiritual stuff to make sure you feel at home with that and not the college campus atmosphere.” Then I told God, “Thank you for that woman’s kindness and for letting me get here before dark.” Then, my entire focus was on the world opening in front of me.

My memories from the night before faded and as I continued to listen to candidate after candidate talk about their histories with SP and the “special gates,” I was certain that I had made a mistake and that I had better head home ASAP. I thought, “OK Lord, I know that you helped me through so many professional talks and lectures. I realize that my talks today and tomorrow cannot be any harder than that. I’ll make it through this; then go home tomorrow. What was I thinking to come here?”

Someone handed me the microphone. I gave my name, that I flew out from Massachusetts and that I had only learned of the existence of the SPs about 6 months earlier. I mentioned that I was sorry, but that I must have either entered by a different gate or been oblivious the night before. There were a few laughs and I felt calmer.

However, the room fell silent as one Sister at the back of the room said, “Are you really telling me you flew all this distance to meet with us after such a short time? What is your name? How did you decide this?” I responded that I hoped it was the Holy Spirit in action. That silenced the room. Many eyes were now on me. I thought, “OK Lord, it is your turn now as I really am messing this up. I came with the idea of staying in the background; listening; and quietly finding out about things. Things are not going according to my plans. Please give me something to say.” I spoke about how the night before I felt God’s love and also felt watched over when I was lost and that mother and daughter so kindly drove me to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. Next, I explained how I first found out about the order. (See question No. 1).

I ended with a lame, “so here I am to find out about things.” I passed the microphone to the next candidate who stood up and said, “Just my luck to have to speak after that!” We all laughed. I believe that she voiced what each of us was thinking as we were handed that microphone. After that, together as a group we all started forward on the journey to becoming associates.

The final part that I remember distinctly from the weekend was visiting with Sister Mary Louise O’Connor, SP. She and I were born in the same city. Sunday, before Mass, one of the sisters came to ask me if it were true that I was from Massachusetts. She pointed out Sister Mary Louise. I waved. Later, before heading back to the airport, I visited with Sister Mary Louise. Knowing there was someone with the SPs who “also came all that way” made me feel even more a part of the group.

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Dave Cox

Dave Cox was media relations manager for the Sisters of Providence for many years. Prior to his work with the sisters, he spent over 30 years in newspaper newsrooms.

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