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Loving, listening and governance

Sisters and associates participate in the first days of General Chapter. From front left, Providence Associate Paul Salstrom, Sister Marian Brady, Providence Associate Father Dan Hopcus, Sisters Marianne Ridgell, and Lucy Nolan.

Sisters and associates participate in the first days of General Chapter. From front left, Providence Associate Paul Salstrom, Sister Marian Brady, Providence Associate Father Dan Hopcus, Sisters Marianne Ridgell, and Lucy Nolan.

One of my favorite accounts from our early history is our Saint Mother Theodore Guerin’s “take” on comments offered by Father Pere Gleizal, SJ, after he had given the annual retreat for the sisters at Saint Mary’s in August of 1854.

She wrote to her dear friend Bishop Bouvier: “He found us having an excellent spirit at Saint Mary’s. He said so publicly. He was above all edified by our union. He thinks there is not another Community in the United States where the members love one another as they do at Saint Mary’s.”

Like any mother or father being told you have a wonderful and loving family, Mother Theodore is understandably proud. She names the source of this union: “All the good that is done here is due to the wisdom of the Rule. . . which would make saints of us if it were faithfully observed.”

We didn’t have a written “rule” in the family in which I grew up, but I certainly knew what was expected of me by my parents, by my aunts and uncles and certainly by my “Polish Busia” (grandmother).

“Big Picture” Conversation

At our recent General Chapter, we Sisters of Providence spent significant time talking about our expectations of one another as “sisters,” as members of a Congregation who live “in community.” Called a “Big Picture” conversation because of its importance and potential impact, this exchange confirmed in us our profound gratitude for and acceptance of each other. It also affirmed our desire to strengthen our connections with one another in new and significant ways.

We do not want to lose our presence to each other nor our sense of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods as home.

Although we have decidedly seen community in service to our ministry, we determined that we want to be intentional about the fact that community can be ministerial in itself. Like our families of origin who shaped who we have become, Sister of Providence community life provides the sustenance and encouragement needed to become Providence in and for our world.

Sister Janice Smith, left, and Sister Patty Fillenwarth during table discussion at Chapter.

Sister Janice Smith, left, and Sister Patty Fillenwarth during table discussion at Chapter.

In light of Mother Theodore’s declaration that it is the wisdom of the Rule that leads to saintly living, we Sisters of Providence also decided at the Chapter that we will consider a revision of our current Rule or Constitutions, along with its accompanying Complementary Document.

Most recently revised and approved by the Congregation for the Institute of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life in Rome in 1997, our Constitutions have been evolving ever since our foundation here in 1840. Their importance to our life is perhaps underlined by Mother Theodore’s insistence with the Bishop of Indiana that the Sisters of Providence be able to live the Rule they had brought with them from France, an assertion for which she paid dearly.

A focal point in our revisions will be to assess our government structures and decision-making processes. Our Constitutions provide a beautiful description of religious government: “a series of relationships uniting the members of the Congregation in their efforts to proclaim the reign of God.”

Strengthening our mission

Currently, we meet in Local Government Units (LGU), gathering three times a year to engage Congregational “business” and to discern together the choices and actions necessary to strengthen our mission and our life together. These small group meetings, which also include prayer and community sharing time, ensure that each sister’s voice be heard. Typically the general officers and/or members of a Congregation committee prepare these materials in order to gather the wisdom of the sisters about a topic. For example, all the work of preparation for the recent General Chapter, which is our highest decision-making body, happened through these LGU meetings. Although these processes are very collaborative, we want to make sure they continue to meet our needs and strengthen our ability to really listen to the diversity among us.

From left, Sisters Marikay Duffy, Therese Guerin Sullivan, and Helen Therese Conway participate in conversation at their table.

From left, Sisters Marikay Duffy, Therese Guerin Sullivan, and Helen Therese Conway participate in conversation at their table.

Under the umbrella

All of this community work— encouraging one another, revising our Constitutions, assessing our governance processes — is to happen under the umbrella: Fostering contemplative conversations. (See Sister Rosemary Nudd’s article for more on contemplation)

This kind of conversation is marked by periods of quiet, allowing for each person to “go inside,” as it were, to really think about what is being said rather than just reacting. Hopefully, in the quiet we begin to let go of some of those reactions, thus enabling real hearing of what another is saying without judgment. This kind of conversation was a great gift to us during our General Chapter and enabled us, with our facilitator’s encouragement, to attempt to move ourselves from I to We to One, in an effort to become Cor Unum — one heart.

I suspect this is what Father Glezial saw in our early sisters — one heart. Recently, we received affirmation of this in ourselves. In the final report from the Apostolic Visitation of our Congregation, it said: “The on-site visitors noted that the sisters genuinely love each other.”

May this always be so of us, of all of us, of all of you who claim the charism of Providence and call our Mother Theodore Guerin your guiding saint. The world needs us for this.

(Originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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Sister Dawn Tomaszewski

Sister Dawn Tomaszewski was elected General Superior of the Sisters of Providence in 2016. She has been a Sister of Providence since 1975. Previously she ministered as a teacher, as communication and development director for the sisters and their ministries and as a member of elected leadership on the general council of the Sisters of Providence.

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