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Advent 2019: All are welcome or How do we make room in the inn?

Note: This Advent letter was recently sent from General Superior Sister Dawn Tomaszewski to all Sisters of Providence and Providence Associates. We’d like to share this information in this blog, with our friends and supporters. Enjoy and happy Advent!

Dear friends,

The “All are welcome” sign in front of the Church of the Immaculate Conception has haunted me ever since we placed it on our grounds at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods several years ago.

We make a bold statement by proclaiming that “All are welcome.” Will we, can we, be true to this promise?

The vision of this sign came to mind as I began to reflect on the Advent season. This Advent time, if we truly welcome it, is meant to remind us to be prepared for the coming of Christ however and whenever the Christ comes. Advent tells us to stop and make room for the reality that God’s love, incarnated in Jesus, now needs to be incarnated in us, especially in response to those most in need of welcome.

During this past year, I have experienced the Providence Community doing just that – opening our hearts to others, sharing our time and resources, being radical* in the welcome of the other.

  • I think about the many sisters, especially those in the Woodland Inn, who welcomed Sisters Lan Luu and Hang Tran, the newest Dominican Sisters of Tam Hiep, Vietnam, to study at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College about the same time that the Dominicans in St. Louis opened their home to Sisters Janice Smith and Jessica Vitente to form a new intercommunity novitiate there. It seems all do feel welcome,
  • I think about Deb Tezlaff, mother of Providence Associate Heather Tezlaff Smith, standing at the site of the columbarium wall (shown above) in the new Providence Community Cemetery, tears flowing down her cheeks as the urn containing her daughter’s cremains was placed in one of the niches by her husband. She turned to the many Sisters of Providence and Providence Associates gathered in support and said thank you over and over again for “welcoming Heather home,”
  • Every time I open Facebook, I see yet another picture provided by Sister Joni Luna showing the happy faces of those who have been welcomed into the warmth of Miracle Place in Indianapolis where Joni now ministers with Sisters Barbara McClelland and Rita Wade. And those faces not only include kids from the neighborhood but other Sisters of Providence and many associates who seem to favor this ministry and these young people with their presence,
  • There is Sister Tracey Horan at the U.S.-Mexico border helping to provide a place of support and encounter, certainly a place of hospitality for those recently deported, while deep in the heart of Kentucky, Sister Ellen Kehoe spends her energy helping students at the University of Kentucky feel at home in the church. Two different realities with the same goal of radical welcome,
  • Then, there are those faithful sisters and associates who have come to the aid of various Sisters of Providence who needed to relocate but were unable to accomplish the packing and moving without the help of others. God bless them, and
  • One of the toughest yet most poignant moments of radical welcome for me was the presence of Sister Marceline Mattingly’s nieces following the sudden heart attack of their mother, Marceline’s sister, while she and her daughters were visiting with Marceline at the Woods. While they waited in hope for the miracle that did not come, they were held in love and support by a Providence Community that names hospitality part of our legacy.

I know stories like these are happening wherever we are. Might I suggest an Advent practice that would include bringing stories and images like this to mind? When did you extend a radical welcome? When did you provide sacred refuge for someone? When did you step out of your own comfort zone for the sake of another?

Sister Tracey Horan assists people at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Of course, Advent is also a good time to examine when welcoming the stranger was a challenge, when greater inclusivity was demanded but we were unable to move our hearts into a more open and inclusive space.

An Advent reflection written by Ron Rolheiser, OMI, offers some insights about making room for others. “I have always been struck, reading the Christmas story, at the seemingly unbelievable act of the innkeeper. Who could turn away someone pregnant with Christ? The story doesn’t suggest that the innkeeper was malicious or inhospitable. It says only that ‘there was no room in the inn.’ In short, the man was booked up, full, there was no room for further guests, he already had all he could handle.”

I resonated with Rolheiser as he continued: “No room! No place for more guests! Booked up! No space for hospitality!”

Sister Joni Luna ministers with other sisters at Miracle Place in Indianapolis.

What is filling our inn right now and leaving no place for Christ?

What if Mary had said she had no room for this child in her life? What if Joseph had made good on his decision to divorce Mary quietly, once he learned that she was pregnant? Where did they find the strength to overcome their fears, to take the risk to trust in the promises of God, to make their way to a stable because there was no room at the inn?

The answer? I offer a term that has newly crossed my path – sacred receptivity.

In a book about prayer, Carmelite Nun Ruth Burrows, explains, “If the heart of Christianity is the God who gives nothing less than God’s own Self, it follows, as a logical conclusion, that the fundamental stance a Christian must take is that of receiving (God). First and foremost we must accept to be loved, allow God to love us, let God be the doer, the giver, let God be God to us.”

Sister Jessica Vitente (right) with Sister Marceline Mattingly.

“What really matters,” Ruth concludes, “is our decision to be open to God’s love; whether we feel anything on the emotional level or not, the truth is there is no holding God back when (God) sees receptivity to (God’s) love.”

So, let’s let God be God to us and in us. Mary did it, so did Joseph. And a whole host of angels and shepherds and wise ones showed up to celebrate that fact. Their radical welcome enabled God to be Emmanuel – God with us.

In a season where we sometimes can get really focused on what we are going to give, let’s become gracious receivers of God’s hospitality, receptors of the sacred.

I am on the receiving end of so much graciousness. I think again about the recent and final Providence High School Reunion in Chicago, a banquet room packed with almost 500 women acting like they had never left high school. I received a check for $90,000 for our retirement fund in recognition of all they had received in their lives from the likes of us.

Earlier this fall, I participated in the blessing of a statue of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin installed in Immaculate Conception Church in Mattoon, Illinois. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College graduates banded together to have a statue made for their parish church. A place where Mother Theodore never visited nor we have ever served is now graced by her presence. I am humbled by their generosity and devotion.

I will spend most of the first week of Advent in Taiwan. Invited by Providence University to participate in the blessing of their new Our Lady of Providence Chapel, it will be another opportunity to be the recipient of the gracious hospitality of our sisters and our ministry partners at the university. In an email from the representative of the university who will pick me up at the airport, he says, “Sister (Celeste) Tsai offered to be the first person from PU you see at the airport on Dec. 4.”

Celeste will certainly be a welcome sight to a weary traveler. May we always be that for each other. May we always have room for each other in the inn of our hearts. And with one heart, we will have the courage and strength to extend a radical welcome to those most in need. That is my Advent prayer for each of us.

Lovingly in Providence,

Sister Dawn Tomaszewski, SP

*The term “radical welcome” was used by Anthony Gittens, CSSp, in the article from his book on interculturality that we read in preparation for our Annual Meeting this past June.

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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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