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Providence Family Services: support and welcome for the neighbor

Sister Patty Fillenwarth has welcomed her neighbors and helped serve their needs for the past 20 years as a counselor at and director of the Providence Family Services ministry in Chicago. (Submitted photo.)

Sister Patty Fillenwarth has welcomed her neighbors and helped serve their needs for the past 20 years as a counselor at and director of the Providence Family Services ministry in Chicago.

“Is it OK if we don’t use my real name? There are some people who still think I have it all together,” she says with a laugh.

“Delores” was in her early 30s when she first sought help from Sister Patty Fillenwarth, a counselor at Providence Family Services (PFS) in Chicago.

Delores lives in the Humboldt Park neighborhood in Chicago and attends Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish there.

“In the beginning, I kind of shied away. I thought, a nun, are you kidding? But I was really, really sad. So I went. And I just kept coming back,” she said.

Delores jokes about being the longest returning client. She said she has sought help from Sister Patty at Providence Family Services, a ministry of the Sisters of Providence, regularly over the past 18 or 19 years.

Sister Patty has given me personally so much love and acceptance.” She chokes up. “I’m going to cry. When you are sad you feel like you aren’t worthy of anything good. She made me realize I had worth.”

Sister Patty has been a part of the Humboldt Park neighborhood in Chicago for 38 years. She came to Maternity BVM School in 1976 as a teacher and then a principal.

The Indianapolis native had recently returned from missionary work teaching in the country of Peru. She had learned Spanish there and didn’t want to lose it, so she began ministry in the largely Hispanic Chicago neighborhood.

After 17 years in the school, Sister Patty was ready for a change. In her time as principal, she had noticed an unmet need. She knew that many of the problems her students and their families were experiencing could be eased with counseling. But affordable, bilingual counseling was hard to come by. In fact, it was next to impossible to find for her neighbors who were undocumented.

Sister Patty decided, with the help of her Congregation of sisters and the parish there, to make affordable, bilingual counseling available to anyone in the area who needed it. She returned to school and received her counseling degree. Then, 20 years ago this year, she and another sister began the ministry at Providence Family Services. They offered counseling on a sliding scale fee. Still today nobody is turned away for inability to pay.

“Sister Patty gives me strength to go on. Life is hard and we all need each other.”

The Providence Family Services ministry has grown over the years. In addition to counseling, PFS now offers English-language classes, citizenship classes, computer classes and an after-school homework club.

Sister Patty continues to serve as the director and one of the counselors. She’s welcomed many neighbors in this neighborhood ministry. Some new to the country. Some separated from family. All with personal or family struggles.

Delores, who is of Mexican heritage, has lived in the neighborhood her whole life. She says her family background was turbulent. There was lots of verbal and even physical abuse. In the Hispanic community that kind of thing stays behind closed doors, she said.

“In the beginning [of counseling] you need someone to tell you that you are valuable and worthy,” she said. “But then you can accept responsibility for your own actions. I don’t think my parents thought they were hurting me. But they did. With Sister Patty I saw that I was also that way. I was failing my four children.”

The most important thing she learned?

“I learned to love myself and to forgive myself and to be kind to myself.”

“I’m so glad that Sister Patty invested so much time in me. If it wasn’t for her, I don’t know where I’d be.”

Delores says the love and acceptance she received from Sister Patty was a starting point. It helped her to love herself first and then to more fully accept and love those around her.

“Sister Patty has become more than a counselor. I now consider her a very good friend. She is family to me.”

Building friendship and trust

Their differing cultural backgrounds has been a valuable asset, Delores said.

“To be helped by somebody who is so strong like that and from a different culture, it empowers you.”

“I was brought up not to trust the white people. I don’t even remember the reasons. Many I know still have that kind of mentality — if they are white, you can’t trust them. But not Sister Patty. I would trust her with my life,” she said.

The neighborhood ministry in Humboldt Park is bringing healing on many different levels.

And Sister Patty loves it.

“I absolutely love every day that I work here. It is just a privilege to share the stories that people have,” Sister Patty said. “It’s wonderful to think maybe somebody’s life is going to be a little better.”

Sister Patty says she continues because she loves it, and because “there’s still work to be done.”

The recent immigrants and descendants of recent immigrants served by the ministry often have difficult lives, Sister Patty said. They suffer and sacrifice because they love their children and they want a better life for them.

“My work is helping to alleviate some of their pain maybe and help them move along a little better or faster and more easily.”

Sister Patty said it does not matter to her at all if those she serves are here legally or not.

“I think all of us need to forget about protecting our own space and go out of ourselves and try to make people feel more comfortable,” said Sister Patty. (Read more from Sister Patty here.)

Her ministry at PFS has helped Dolores be more comfortable, even with herself.

“Sister Patty gives me strength to go on. Life is hard and we all need each other,” she said.

(Originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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Amy Miranda

Amy Miranda is a Providence Associate of the Sisters of Providence and a staff member in their Mission Advancement office. Amy is a 1998 graduate of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. She currently manages the SP publication HOPE and works on marketing support for Providence Associates, new membership and Saint Mother Theodore Guerin.

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