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Bridging transition and loss

Sister Joseph Ellen Keitzer, left, is currently companioning Adrienne Curtis, right, as Adrienne journeys as a candidate toward becoming a Providence Associate with the Sisters of Providence this fall.

Sister Joseph Ellen Keitzer, left, is currently companioning Adrienne Curtis, right, as Adrienne journeys as a candidate toward becoming a Providence Associate with the Sisters of Providence this fall.

Sister Joseph Ellen Keitzer serves in pastoral ministry for St. Angela Parish in Chicago — a Catholic Church that was closed 10 years ago.

No, Sister Joseph Ellen hasn’t taken leave of her senses! Her role, as she describes it, is “gathering the lost sheep.”

The closing of St. Angela’s was controversial and very painful. As a mostly African-American church, the population had shifted during the 1980s and early 1990s during the “white flight” of Chicago’s west side. Sister Joseph Ellen was uniquely situated during these decades, as she continued in ministry at the school and church before, during and after the changes in the neighborhood.

“During my time at St. Angela’s, so many things changed. They changed within the parish. They changed culturally. I changed quite a bit,” she said.

When she joined the parish in 1976, St. Angela’s had five full-time priests. During the next 20 years, that number would dwindle to one part-time, non-resident priest. Over the years, Sister Joseph Ellen took on more responsibilities, becoming a pastoral associate. She was sent to the Institute for Black African Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans to learn “valuable insights toward understanding the African-American culture.”

Gathering the flock

So, with all of this and so much more behind her, there was no way she could abandon the parishioners of St. Angela’s when the troubled changes happened in the archdiocese. Decisions were made to merge 10 African-American churches into four, which didn’t go smoothly for a number of reasons. Sister Joseph Ellen saw a possibility with the transition to continue in a role with the former St. Angela parishioners.

“They had many social and spiritual needs,” she said and not having a church home wouldn’t change that. “St. Angela’s is more than just a church building; it is a worship of God.”

The impact of Sister Joseph Ellen’s ongoing work shows in one very obvious way. Providence Associates, people in special relationship with the Sisters of Providence, have seven members who are from the former St. Angela Church. All have been connected to Providence Associates through Sister Joseph Ellen. She feels blessed to have these people with her in mission.

“The Providence Associates do what I can’t do. What I used to do, they do now,” she said.

Toward a church of racial equality

In interviewing Sister Joseph Ellen for this story, it quickly became apparent that no amount of space in this magazine could do justice to the complex and intense changes she has experienced and witnessed — all of which have led to today, as she continues to be in an active, needed ministry well into her “retirement” years. In order to give a much deeper look at this story, you can find on our website at HOPE.SistersofProvidence.org Sister Joseph Ellen’s own in-depth words regarding the history of St. Angela’s and her role over her four decades there. It’s a story we all need to hear.

“I hope and pray that we may one day be one church with racial equality, that the richness of the cultures will be shared with the entire church,” Sister Joseph Ellen said in the piece. “My journey in pastoral ministry has been very transforming for me. … I have had the privilege and opportunity of stepping inside another race, culture and hearts. I am truly blessed. The African-American community has enriched my life with their giftedness, spirituality, deep faith, trust, friendship and love. Together, we have had the opportunity to be a sign of God’s love and Providence to others.”

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

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Rosie Blankenship

Rosie Blankenship is a graduate of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. She previously served in positions for the Sisters of Providence as the web site manager and annual giving manager.

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