Home » Blog » Language barriers, smiles and unexpected gifts: Sister Denise Wilkinson reflects from France

Language barriers, smiles and unexpected gifts: Sister Denise Wilkinson reflects from France

Sister Denise Wilkinson

I have been in France for two months living at la Commnauté de la Providence in Ruillé sur Loir.

It was here that Saint Mother Theodore Guerin completed her formation as a vowed member of les Soeurs de la Providence.

It was from here that she was sent to teach in various schools in France.

Perhaps most importantly for those of us who love her, it was from Ruillé that she traveled to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, to continue her ministry as an excellent educator and to share her practical, wise and loving way of living the gospel.

I first visited the motherhouse of Ruillé several years ago. From that moment on, my mantra became “someday I am going to work in the gardens at Ruillé.” Understand that the main garden of Ruillé is their entire “front yard.” Their front yard is at least a block long. (I still measure distances the Chicago way.)


When the opportunity to go to Ruillé presented itself, Sister Martine, general superior of the Sisters of Providence of Ruillé, welcomed me very graciously – even though I had asked to stay for four months. Now that’s hospitality!

The gardens at the motherhouse of the Sisters of Providence congregation in France, where former general superior of the Saint Mary-of-the-Woods Sisters of Providence is spending sabbatical time right now.

I had never tried to explain to myself or anyone else why I felt such a strong desire to be in Ruillé; but I had to fill in something on my sabbatical request form. I wrote something like wanting to absorb some of Mother Theodore’s spirit by spending time in the place that had so shaped who she was, who she became and who she is to so many today. As often happens with me, it is through writing that I come to hidden insights.

I did want to come to Ruillé to absorb Mother Theodore’s spirit as influenced by this place of beauty, this place of living faith shaping two centuries of religious life and ministry. But I didn’t expect the time here to be what I didn’t expect.

Language barriers

The first morning the unexpected asserted itself. Who knew I’d be drinking hot coffee out of a bowl? Who knew I’d be so discombobulated as everything each person said sounded like one long word? Who knew I’d go to liturgy and feel (day after day) it was my first time? What part of the Mass were we on?

The first couple of weeks I was thinking and feeling that I had made a big mistake. Mostly it was the language. It was and is so frustrating not to be able to ask the simplest question, say the most common of greetings, or get to know the stories of the sisters with whom I am living. Oh, and the history here of the earliest days of the congregation who founded ours … I am so curious.

After a time, I decided that I’d never know what my longing to be here was all about until I just waded into the water that seemed so deep.

Just speak French, Denise, (or your version of it) and see what happens. As I did expect, the sisters here are gracious, sympathetic and very patient. We do communicate by speaking slowly, repeating, and lots of sign language – a cross cultural game of charades. My expectations that only perfect French or perfect English would insure effective communication has been dashed, thank God.

Unexpected gifts

The motherhouse of the Sisters of Providence in Ruillé, France, where Saint Mother Theodore was formed as a sister and from which she was sent with five other missionary sisters to travel to the United States and found a new community at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana.

Did I expect I would spend hours in Holy Family Chapel – the chapel where Sister St. Theodore professed her vows and from which she and her companions took their first steps toward Indiana?

While sitting in the chapel, did I expect to spend time wondering where the altar had been when she was here; how the chairs had been arranged; what liturgical art decorated the walls when Mother Theodore worshipped here?

Could I ever have expected that every time I am in this chapel, I would ask the floor’s marble tiles to free the energy of all the faithful who prayed and pray here? I so want that mighty, holy energy to renew me.

Did I expect my almost daily walks on the motherhouse grounds to delight me? I think so. Did I expect to feel so at home because of the honoring of Earth, the spacious grounds, the surprises of home tucked in every crook and cranny? (Ste. Anne’s chapel looks just like ours! Well, probably ours looks just like theirs.)

Did I expect that these otherwise wonderful women don’t have the custom of celebrating St Patrick’s Day? What? No shamrocks? No Irish soda bread? No wearin’ of the green? Nope! And they are as interested in why we do as I am in why they don’t.

Now I know that having waded into the water, I am enjoying whatever each day brings.

Smiles as comfort

I am getting to know each sister by paying attention to her expressions, her voice, her walk, her greeting of others. I notice her desire to communicate with me and her frustration at not knowing English.

Most of all I notice smiles. I didn’t expect smiles as comfort, joy, wordless compassion. Right now that’s what they are for me and I hope for the sisters I encounter.

In retrospect, I expected some new, spectacular and spiritual connection to be forged with Mother Theodore the saint, the “woman for all times.”

In the now of this moment, not a day goes by that I am not aware of her as an immigrant. Of what must have been her frustrations, her hesitancy, her ignorance of how to do anything that came so easily to the people she had come to serve.

Between now and the end of May, I hope I am given the gift of knowing our Mother Theodore on the way to becoming who she was – a saint of God. I am asking for that gift; but I’m not expecting it. I’m content to receive the unexpected gift.

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Sister Denise Wilkinson

Sister Denise Wilkinson

Sister Denise was the general superior of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods from 2006-2016. She previously served as a high school teacher, college administrator, postulant/novice director and director of advancement and communications for the Congregation. Currently, Sister Denise serves the Congregation in various volunteer positions.

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  1. Avatar Donna Butler on April 13, 2017 at 6:32 am

    Thank you so much, Denise, for this sharing that illumines the experience of immigrants and of MTG and the surprises and blessings of your sabbatical year.

    May this country learn to extend the kind of welcome and graciousness you have experienced. These immigrants are so much more vulnerable, having left everything with no assurance of a safe place to shelter them.

    I am so grateful for God’s Provident care for you and so look forward to your coming home.

  2. Avatar Jean Brown on April 13, 2017 at 9:22 am

    “I’m content to receive the unexpected gift.” beautiful sentiment….

    Thank you, Sr. Denise, for your words that seem to transport me to where you are…..physically, but more importantly, spiritually. I have no doubt that your beautiful smile speaks volumes to everyone you meet.

  3. Avatar Gillian Murphy on April 13, 2017 at 1:24 pm

    Denise, thank you for these wonderful insights. It was great to hear your thoughts first hand. So much that I can relate to. I know that your courage, simplicity and openness will bear fruit, not only for you but for our two congregations rooted in the Little Providence at the top of the hill!! Bon Courage and happy hunting. Ruille is truly Holy Ground!

  4. Avatar Mavourneen Kelly on April 13, 2017 at 1:51 pm

    Dear Denise, What a wonderful reflection! Hope your sabbatical continues to bring you more “expected” and “unexpected” gifts. Communication is so much more than words, as you so beautifully express. I think of you often. When you return from France would love to hear about your experiences. Take good care of yourself…and keep smiling. Much love, Mavourneen

  5. Avatar Mary Tomlinson SP on April 13, 2017 at 2:28 pm

    Denise. What a beautiful reflection. I am so happy your time in Ruille has been meaningful and poignant. Sounds like you have much to experience. Love every moment. We will be so happy to hear of your journey when you return. Happy Easter. Love, Mary

  6. Avatar Theresa Tighe on April 13, 2017 at 7:52 pm

    Thank you for your reflection. I could feel the love and the grace and I am sure the Ruille sisters can feel it too.
    In the l967-68 school year an elderly nun from Ruille came to St. Mary-of-Woods. She taught Freshman French. Her name escapes me but I remember her love and grace. The years had distilled her into a font of sweetness. She didn’t speak much English. But she spoke love and shed affection on us her juene filles. A homesick freshman I found warmth and comfort in her class. I just said a prayer to her to bless your journey. I can still see her in my mind.
    (I know about commas my keyboard doesn’t.)

  7. Avatar Ellen Cunningham on April 14, 2017 at 11:38 am

    Dear Denise,

    Great article. Now we remember why we miss you so much.

    Happy Easter! (what’s more unexpected than the Resurrection?



  8. Avatar Mary J Taggart on April 14, 2017 at 1:02 pm

    So happy that you are enjoying your sabbatical in Ruille..every day is a day in paradise…Something always to be learned.
    Remember the fragrances of the earth, and flowers.

    Love, Mary Taggart

  9. Avatar Mary Carroll Blocher on April 14, 2017 at 2:34 pm

    Merci, Denise, for sharing your thoughts. We are with you in spirit.
    Enjoy the garden, the smiles of the sisters and know we send our love.
    Mary Carroll Blocher

  10. Avatar Rita Clare Gerardot on April 15, 2017 at 1:39 pm

    Happy Easter, Denise! I’m sure your winning smile is one great way in which you are communicating with our French sisters. Continue to enjoy immersing yourself in all our French sisters have to offer. We miss you! Love and prayers, Rita Clare Gerardot

  11. Avatar Jeanie Reime Heller on April 27, 2017 at 11:00 am

    Five years ago, I was at Ruille with you when our SMWC France tour spent a day at the Motherhouse. It is such a wonderful experience – and one can see that SMWC was patterned after it. Enjoy your sabbatical…..an experience of a lifetime.

  12. Avatar Jeanie Reime Heller on April 27, 2017 at 11:00 am

    Five years ago, I was at Ruille with you when our SMWC France tour spent a day at the Motherhouse. It is such a wonderful experience – and one can see that SMWC was patterned after it. Enjoy your sabbatical…..an experience of a lifetime.

  13. Avatar Phyllis on April 29, 2017 at 8:19 pm

    Denise, because of your insightful reflection and aware of this wonderful paradox of life, I sit before our generous and gracious Divinity with tears in my eyes of overwhelming mystery and awe and a smile of joy on my face as I with all SPs continue to pray for and with you in daily experience and communion of unexpected gifts.
    Take CARE with Blessings,

  14. Avatar Madonna Buchanan on May 28, 2017 at 10:43 am

    Holy Cow! You are in or where in France. What an opportunity!

  15. Avatar Ann Stumpf Clem on May 29, 2017 at 5:49 pm

    Thank you for your insightful sharing of your experiences in Ruille. Look what immigration brought us. Language barriers are difficult to deal with, but we convey who we are by our presence. Sometimes, that reaching out to another doesn’t even have language as a barrier to overcome. I will always appreciate my time as a part of the SP’s.

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