A legacy of hospitality
One does not have to be around the Sisters of Providence long before hearing the “founding story” of the incredible hospitality of the Thralls family. They are the pioneer couple who took in Mother Theodore Guerin, her five sister companions and four women prospects when they arrived in 1840. Their promised convent-home was not yet ready. Local farmers Sarah and Joseph Thralls managed to accommodate and feed everyone, along with their own six children still at home, in a two-room log cabin with a loft.
In more recent years, the sisters strive to practice that hospitality in reverse as part of our refounding.
Owens Hall, the former novitiate building, is now our main “farmhouse” where doors are opened to others. People come here seeking hospitality for a variety of reasons: young men and women serving as White Violet Center for Eco-Justice interns; a group here for a retreat or program of Providence Spirituality and Conference Center; relatives visiting sisters; Providence Associates here for programs or giving a few days or a week of service at the Woods.
A far cry from when I entered in 1956 and read in our Constitutions: “They shall not stop to speak to persons on the street unless through necessity.” and “The sisters shall not eat with seculars.”
Today sisters in Owens Hall mingle freely with guests whose presence energizes us. We are touched by their enthusiasm, inspired by their stories.
For several years we have offered hospitality to visitors to the Federal Penitentiary in Terre Haute, about a 15-minute drive from the Woods.
One recent guest, Jolene Brackey is from Polson, Montana. Before her first visit to a death row inmate, she heard from the inmate that he “would be much more comfortable about her coming if she arranged to stay with the sisters.” (You see, word travels even on death row!) Jolene had no previous experience with “sisters,” and so “besides the fear and uncertainty of my first visit to death row, I didn’t know what to expect staying with a bunch of nuns!
“I soon found out that staying at Owens was like having 30 moms around me. I felt so safe, so accepted and secure. They even leave things at my bedroom door: a poem I might enjoy, a fresh-baked muffin, a cup of homemade soup, a book to read. They ask about my day. Who would ask me that if I were staying at a local motel? After visiting, I love to walk the grounds. I feel such peace and a sense of calm. I delight in the space! This means so much, especially after being at the prison, going through the wearying processes to follow all the rules and regulations for visitors and being in the confined space for visiting. I am so grateful to the sisters for everything.”
Another area where we have been able to welcome others to the Woods is with our Providence Health Care (PHC) facilities. We knew when we built the east/west addition to Mother Theodore Hall and remodeled the north/south area and renovated Lourdes Hall in the early 2000s that our numbers were diminishing. We told our donors to these projects that when the sisters no longer needed the space, we would open the doors to non-sisters.
We now can accommodate as many as 20 non-sister residents in the north/south wing for short-term rehabilitation services, as well as a few long-term non-sister residents in the east/west wing. Two non-sisters are living in our assisted living area in Lourdes Hall.
This decision was also made for the sake of the mission. It provides a new source of income. This past fiscal year was the first year PHC did not need to be financially subsidized by the Congregation beyond payment for the sister residents.
It’s such fun to hear our health care residents’ connections to the Woods. For Gloria Sermersheim Morgan recuperating at Providence Health Care after knee replacement surgery, coming for rehab was like coming “home.” She had been a member of the Congregation for 27 years. “I started here, and now I’m finishing here. Well, maybe not this moment, but you get what I’m saying! I love being here.”
Resident Marianne Frey also has connections to the Woods. Her grandfather was Joseph Bisch, the first of four generations to serve as the chief plant engineer. Her father, Leo, was the mine hoisting engineer and her aunt was Sister Marion Celeste.
“The Woods was where the action was. It’s been my ‘stomping’ grounds since I was a kid. My sister and I climbed the water tower more than once, until my mother found out. That ended quickly!”
No surprise, then, that she chose PHC. “I love going to Mass daily. I feel like a sister. Being here is a privilege. For me, it’s home.”
Read sidebar article on welcoming a Thralls at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
(Originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of HOPE magazine.)