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Volunteers help the Woods run smoothly

Volunteer Carl Bender, above, portrays Joseph Thralls, a neighbor who welcomed Saint Mother Theodore and her companions in 1840, for a group of pilgrims to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

Volunteers with the Sisters of Providence are oil that keeps the engine of the Sisters of Providence running smoothly.

Relationships with the Sisters of Providence are a primary reason volunteers give for serving, to give back in whatever ways they can.

Terre Haute, Indiana, residents Carl Bender and Peggy Balensuela are two such volunteers.


Peggy, who is also a Providence Associate, started volunteering with the sisters in order to get to know the Congregation better. She also wanted to learn more about the legacy of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin.

“I have a passion for history and a career as a teacher, so it seemed natural for me to start volunteering,” Peggy said. “As time passed, I began to grab any opportunity to be of service to these women, whom I’ve come to love so dearly.”

Peggy has volunteered with the sisters since 2008. She said her relationship with the sisters has blossomed as a result.

“With every minute I’ve spent at the Woods, I’ve received so much more than I’ve given,” Peggy said. “The relationships I’ve developed with sisters, staff and other volunteers are probably the most significant and positive in my life. I have found a new family, who love me unconditionally and with whom I share a spirituality, which has deepened and broadened among them.”


Carl’s relationship with the sisters began as a child, but it deepened after he married his wife, Judge Barbara Bruneaux, who is a 1970 graduate of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.

“Although I’d visited the Woods as a child — and have fuzzy recollections of going down to the crypt — my formal introduction was instilled by my wife,” Carl said. “After we married, she began working for the college in several capacities, and she continues with those ties as a member of its board of trustees.

Volunteer and Providence Associate Peggy Balensuela leads a tour in the shrine of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin.

“When the Pope called Mother Theodore to sainthood (in 2006), I traveled with several of the sisters – and others, of course, to Rome and Vatican City.”

It was at that time that Carl was asked to serve on a committee which was instructed to develop plans for a permanent shrine for Saint Mother Theodore.

“That evolved into becoming a church docent and culminated in my present role as guide for the shrine,” he said.

Peggy also volunteers as a guide for the shrine, but she is more than happy to volunteer in other capacities.

“I’ve continued to volunteer as a docent as I can and have simply gotten into the habit of saying, ‘Yes. Sure!’” she said. “I’ve subbed at both reception/phone desks, been cashier at the book sales, helped out at Family Day and Christmas Fun at the Woods, been a caller and/or clerk for the annual phonathon, and mapped out the donor bricks in front of the main church.

“I was also asked to help decorate the Providence Center Lobby for Christmas this past December. It was a lot of fun!”

Carl said he enjoys volunteering particularly as a way of giving back to the sisters, who helped foster his early childhood education.

Why volunteer?

“I happily volunteer to honor the sisters who were instrumental in my education,” Carl said. “It all began as summer was rapidly drawing to a close in early September 1952. I walked into Saint Benedict School, where Sister Imelda taught me the basics in first and second grade. Indeed, it was from Sister Imelda I recall a great compliment. I was barely 6 at the time!

“In her memory, in the memory of Sister Agnes Anna, Sister Marie Celeste, my high school teachers Sister Marie Carmel, Sister Joseph Andre, with whom I had many pleasant visits at the Woods after she retired and reverted to Sister Margaret Ann Sullivan, and others, I honor them with my service at the Woods.”

Volunteer handy man

Sister Rose Ann Eaton tells of another volunteer, who wishes to remain anonymous. She said he has always been more than willing to take on little requests, as well as major time-consuming projects.

“He installed Plexiglas on the windows in the second north hall by the Church of the Immaculate Conception,” Sister Rose Ann said. “This saved us from having to install new windows in that area to keep out the draft and cold weather. He has also done several projects in O’Shaughnessy Dining Room — including installing wheels on all the tables — repaired and painted columns and more.

Portraying some of the first inhabitants of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods are, from left, Sisters Rosemary Nudd and Ann Casper, Volunteer Carl Bender, Sister Rita Clare Gerardot, Providence Associate Chuck Fisher and Sister Martha Wessel.

“Every summer, he has stained all the decks at the hermitages, sealed the log cabin roof, and stained the gazebos and benches. He repaired the stone work and kneeler at Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto. These are the major projects that he has done for us and he is always willing and capable of doing any smaller project. When I told him that he would be welcome any time because we love having him, he responded that he loves coming here.”

Both Peggy and Carl said they hope to continue volunteering for the sisters regularly.

“If you’ve been considering volunteering with the sisters, don’t hesitate. When the sisters say, ‘All are welcome,’ they mean it,” Peggy said. “I am one of the many non-Catholics who passionately support their mission and the charism of Saint Mother Theodore.”

(Originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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Jason Moon

Jason Moon serves as media relations manager for the Sisters of Providence. Previously, he spent more than 16 years in the newspaper industry.

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