SP mission: alive with the times
My grandparents were immigrants from Italy and brought with them many great traditions, most of them centering around holidays and of course, food! The one custom that made the most impact on me was the Christmas Eve meal. According to my grandmother (I’ve learned since that there are many variations of the tradition), 12 dishes were to be prepared. These 12 were to honor and remember the 12 apostles. But here was the kicker — of the 12 dishes, seven had to be fish dishes! Seven honored the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. So, the table was laden with bacala (salted cod fish), pasta with anchovies, fried smelts, stuffed calamari and various other unidentified fish! Grandma, my aunts and mom worked all day preparing this feast — all, according to grandma, to help us keep watch with Mary as she prepared to give birth.
Times change as do families. So, when my parents, brother and I (at 13) moved from Pennsylvania to California, the tradition altered … fewer dishes (although Mom stuck with at least seven), and no more bacala (none of us really liked it). But what remained the same was the story. We recalled it every Christmas Eve. And, until my mom’s death, there was never a Christmas Eve meal without fish.
My niece and nephew know the tradition and the symbolism behind it. They know about keeping vigil with Mary. The next generations may alter the custom again, but the story remains unchanged.
This same reality is true with the Sisters of Providence: our mission continues on as it has since 1840. The “story” we tell remains the same. Yet the expression of that story changes and evolves with the times in which we live.
What is our mission? Our purpose? Our Constitutions express it in these words: “The purpose of this Congregation is to honor Divine Providence and to further God’s loving plans by devoting itself to works of love, mercy and justice in service among God’s people.”
The SP story
It couldn’t be clearer. We come together to honor the Divine, to make Providence known, to bring love into this world. And, how do we do it? By giving ourselves fully to works of love, mercy and justice.
In 1840 Saint Mother Theodore and her companion sisters had the same mission — to honor the Divine Provident God. And the way they did it was through their work. They responded to the needs of the time and the people. In the Indiana wilderness of the mid-1800s there were so few schools and practically no health care services, so their ministerial works focused on education and tending to the sick poor in the surrounding area.
The nineteenth century was the story of immigration. The Catholic population in the United States suddenly transformed from a small group of landowning, educated citizens into an incredibly diverse mass of urban and rural immigrants who came from many different countries, spoke different languages, held different social statuses. Once again, we Sisters of Providence gave ourselves over to the service of this immigrant Catholic community. The way was through education in the growing number of parish schools built to serve the various ethnic populations of the country.
What of today? Our story remains the same. Like that of our earliest sisters — we honor Divine Providence through works of love, mercy and justice. In the 1990s we determined that our ways of service would be:
- Educating for human development and against ignorance wherever it is found
- Developing in ourselves and assisting others to develop in their lives meaningful worship and prayer
- Working to develop an attitude of social justice in whatever ministry we serve
- Working to establish the reality of social justice on every level: Congregational, Church-related and civic
- Working to relieve the oppression of women and to enhance their development; being supportive of women in their struggle to exercise their God-given rights in the Church and in society
- Assisting persons to cope with the realities of life, such as sickness, aging, injustice, tyranny and other experiences of powerlessness.
What does this look like today? Our sisters serve today’s recent immigrants by teaching English as a new language or providing bilingual counseling. We offer free tutoring in economically distressed areas and reunification homes for children whose families are struggling with serious hurdles. We offer education and internships focused on care of Earth and all creation through White Violet Center for Eco-Justice. We offer compassionate, holistic care to an aging US population. Our college and schools prepare strong justice-oriented women and men to meet the future head-on. We serve in parishes and retreat centers, helping people step back from frenzied lives and connect with God. We serve in social justice ministry, offering a voice for those not heard.
Reading the need
And every five years we continue to gather at a General Chapter meeting to try to read the needs of the time and to set the direction for our lives of ministry. At our most recent meeting in 2011, we reminded ourselves of what our Saint Mother Theodore once said, “We are not called upon to do all the good possible, but only that which we can do.” She was a wise woman indeed! We named as critical issues those which impact women and Earth. We decided to assess our ministries for their sustainability and effectiveness, to create new forms of collaboration, and to develop a Land Ethic to guide our decision-making on our use of all our lands now and into the future.
From 1840 to 2013 our mission has remained unchanged. The expression of that mission, the way we live it out has evolved so that we can continue to serve people facing the pressing needs of the times.
Like Saint Mother Theodore, we Sisters of Providence throughout our history and today strive to be strong, effective women of the Church serving the very real needs of the people in our time and place.
(This story originally appeared in the Fall 2013 edition of HOPE magazine.)