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Wisdom and the future of religious life

“You don’t have anyone coming in, do you?” “Pretty soon there won’t be any nuns, right?” Each Sister of Providence has heard these questions countless times.

We Sisters of Providence don’t believe religious life is dead. Our lifestyle has changed over three centuries. None of us doubts it will continue to change. None of us doubts that what emerges as religious life may well be radically different from what it is now. That we cannot see how religious life will be lived in the future doesn’t keep us from believing that it will.

Wisdom and change

Our Congregation has wisdom figures adept in the art of change. Many Sisters of Providence experienced the whirlwind of change that Vatican Council II created. How did they weather the changes, even embrace them? What can we learn from them? Two sisters share their experiences of living into drastic change.

“They were hard days. I prayed and prayed; then it dawned on me I didn’t have to change all at once. I could change as I was ready. So step by step I changed,” Sister Mary Ann Lechner shared.

Sister Marilyn Herber didn’t realize she was embracing the changes until she was asked to serve as a formation director. Mother Mary Pius (general superior from 1966-1976) gave as her reason for asking Sister Marilyn that she “seemed to be handling the changes so well.” Learning from her own experience, Formation Director Sister Marilyn cautioned the novices to remember, “The Congregation you are entering will not be the same forever. Changes will come. You need to be ready for that.” Sound advice. Her words prove true even today.

Women who have joined us in more recent years, born after Vatican Council II, share the same passion for ministry, love of the Congregation and belief in its future as did sisters of previous generations. Their own words describe their hopes for the future of religious life.

Hopes for the future

Sister Su-Hsin Huang remembers reading an ad in a Catholic paper in Taiwan. The words that touched her heart were these: “The God of love, mercy and justice … is inviting you to create the mystery of love between people and God.” Wanting to be part of creating that love, she left Taiwan for the United States to become a Sister of Providence. For the past 15 years, she has lived through many changes. For her, “The changes give more opportunities, open new possibilities to serve those on the margins of society.” She sees the Congregation’s efforts to become a more intercultural community as a positive step. “Inclusivity of all is a Gospel call critical for our times.”

Sister Patty Wallace notices that her hope for the future of religious life has evolved over her 16 years as a Sister of Providence. “Now is a difficult time because we are losing so many older sisters. But I believe I carry their wisdom and guidance with me. I want to support the sisters who are following me in religious life — life that ministers with others to create peace and compassion in these times.”

Work to do

Sisters of Providence Vocation Director Sister Editha Ben passionately believes in the future of religious life. “As women religious, we can respond to the priorities of care for Earth and promote the dignity of our sisters and brothers by addressing issues of human trafficking, labor exploitation and violence against women and children. Religious life will definitely survive as long as there are women and men who proclaim the Gospel imperatives and risk being agents of change in our divided world.”

Sixteen years a Sister of Providence, Sister Laura Parker’s reflections seem to sum up hope for the future of religious life. “Religious life will evolve as it always has – meeting people where they are and assisting them to be the best they can be. The Spirit calls me to a future I cannot see. I feel I can be faithful to this call and will be directed to where I need to be. The support of my sisters helps me to say ‘yes’ when I want to shout ‘no.’ Yet I cannot think of anywhere else I’d rather be.”

General Superior Sister Dawn Tomaszewski and Director of Postulants Sister Marsha Speth applaud Sister Jessica Vitente after she received her novice’s cross and is accepted as a novice of the Sisters of Providence in August.

(Originally published in the Fall 2019 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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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 Congregation. Currently, Sister Denise serves as Donor Relations volunteer in Mission Advancement office.

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