Sister Patricia Fillenwarth (formerly Sister Joseph Monica)
A reading from the Book of Psalms – Psalm 139 (vs. 1-6; 13-14)
“O God, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up: you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O God, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me … For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are all your works; that I know very well.”
We gather today to celebrate the life of Sister Patricia Fillenwarth, a woman who exuded confidence that she — and everyone else—– were “fearfully and wonderfully made.” In her enthusiastic way, she witnessed to the wonderful works of Providence. There was no doubt that Patty’s positive spirit, her humor, her ability to bear suffering and convey joy were all rooted in her steadfast faith that God’s guiding hand was upon her, said Sister Denise Wilkinson in her commentary for Sister Patricia Fillenwarth, formerly Sister Joseph Monica, who passed away on Tuesday, January 7, 2020, at Gibson Family Center for Hospice Care in Union Hospital, Terre Haute, Indiana. Sister Patricia was 79 years old and had been a Sister of Providence for 62 years.
Sister Denise continued: Here are some facts that describe the path Providence searched out for Patty. Each of them played a part in creating the Patty we have known. Patty’s openness to life events, family, friends and strangers, to her vowed life allowed Providence to continue to form her “inward parts,” continued to “knit together” the self she was continually becoming.
Patricia Marie Fillenwarth was born in Indianapolis, on September 1, 1940, to Henry J. and Catherine Mary Dierkers Fillenwarth. Patty was one of eight children.
Her Sister of Providence sister, Sister Joseph, and brother Johnny survive, while Jeannine, Bernard, Jim, Barbara Ann and Ann Therese preceded Patty in death. Her sister Barbara Ann died at the age of 11; Ann Therese when she was only 3 days old. Patty often spoke of how she admired her mother who spoke often of the two young daughters the family lost to death. In this way, Mrs. Fillenwarth took away any fear of death Patty had and replaced it with the firm conviction that “life is not ended, but changed.” Over recent months, many of us here at the motherhouse heard Patty say repeatedly, “I’ve lived a good life, so much happiness. I am not afraid to die.”
Patty attended grade school at Holy Cross in Indianapolis. It was at Holy Cross that Patty announced to her class that she intended to be a cowboy when she grew up. Evidently, that didn’t work out.
Instead, Patty attended high school, Providence Aspirancy, here at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. Our Sister Kay Manley was a classmate of Patty’s at the Aspirancy. Both Patty and Kay lived in Indianapolis at that time, but a distance from each other. Kay told me that when the two wanted to get together with each other over vacation breaks, one would say to the other, “meet you at the women’s prison.” Perhaps this meeting place subtly began to create in Patty an awareness of the least and the lost.
Patty entered the Sisters of Providence as a postulant on Jan. 6, 1958, and later received her religious name, Sister Joseph Monica.
She professed first vows in 1960, and made her perpetual profession of vows in 1965.
Prior to her perpetual vows, she earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and later, a master’s degree in elementary education from Indiana State University.
Patty began her teaching career at St. Peter’s in Linton, Indiana, and also served in Washington, D.C., New Albany (in Indiana), and at Chicago’s Maternity Blessed Virgin Mary School (affectionately known as Maternity BVM), briefly as teacher there and as principal for 16 years from 1976 to 1992.
Sister Dorothy Gartland, who worked with Patty for many years, described Patty’s way of being a principal in this way: Organized and an organizer; someone who related to teachers in ways that led to their success.
Early on in her years at Maternity BVM, Patty recognized that students needed support outside of school time. She began the After School Club. Willing students stayed after school and received help with homework and benefited by learning in a more casual atmosphere than a classroom and by one-on-one time with a teacher. Snacks probably made the After School Club even more attractive. Patty persuaded local businesses to provide the treats.
Evidently the normal duties of a principal and the After School Club didn’t keep Patty busy enough so, during her last five years as principal, Patty also served as Provincial Councilor of St. Joseph Province.
In the early 60s, some of our sisters responded to an invitation to volunteer to minister in Peru — in South America — not Indiana. Patty’s language study began at Indiana State University and continued in Peru. Patty, like all of our other sisters there, became fluent in Spanish by what we now call “immersion in the culture.” As did all other sisters who served in Peru, Patty left Peru and its people with a heavy heart. Like all other sisters who volunteered in Peru, Patty’s fluency in Spanish led to ministries she could not have imagined when she first volunteered for mission in South America.
After leaving Peru and while still serving as principal at Maternity BVM in 1992, Patty had a dream — to establish Providence Family Services to serve the needs of the Hispanic population on the near north side of Chicago.
The Peru experience provided her with the language skills to establish and maintain her ministry desire; but she needed other academic preparation. To that end, she earned a master’s degree in community and family counseling at Northeastern Illinois University. There, she attended night classes, worked full time and earned her second master’s degree — this time in counseling.
In October 1994, Patty realized her ministerial dream. Providence Family Services opened its doors. She spent the next 24 years as director, as a counselor, as coordinator of the many services provided beyond counseling — computer classes, ESL (English as a Second Language), tutoring, and citizenship classes among those offered.
No matter what the ministry, Patty was always a teacher first and foremost. She created a series of courses best called “Life Lessons.”
Courses in this Patty-designed curriculum included: If You Say You’re Going To Do Something — Do It; Life Is Equal Parts Laughter and Tears — Deal with It; Build A Dream by Working Hard, Praying Hard and Finding Great Ministry Partners; Start Everything and Anything by Answering the Question ‘Who Is My Neighbor?’ Then Go From There.
Patty moved to the motherhouse at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in November 2018. So many times she expressed her delight at being Home. She eagerly sought ministry duties and became a driver — taking sisters to appointments in Terre Haute or in Indianapolis.
To no one’s surprise, she worked at Providence Food Pantry with her sister, Sister Joseph, as her boss.
To her delight, the priest at St. Margaret Mary’s Parish here in Terre Haute sought her out to minister with the Hispanic community of that parish. Because she preached the homily every Sunday, she had yet another opportunity to teach her course — Life Lessons.
Stories of Patty abound — of her goodness, her dedication to mission, her determination bordering on stubbornness sometimes, her playful spirit, her joie de vivre (sorry for using a French expression, Patty).
One thing about Patty, she told us funny stories we now tell about her because she possessed the rare ability to laugh at herself, to tell on herself.
One of my favorites of the many incidents shared with me over the past few days is this one from Sister Donna Butler: “When Patty’s band became canonical novices, Patty was so excited about her first employment. She was assigned to Sister Marita Therese, the head housekeeper. Patty was picturing herself running the big floor polishing machines. What a shock it was when her first assignment in housekeeping was to hem the dust cloths.”
Several times, I heard Patty tell a story on herself that always led to shrieks of laughter, laughter so hardy that it led to tears. The main characters of the story were Patty and her local superior. The location of the incident was on the train platform at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods station. The action was Patty walking behind the superior as they prepared to board the train and Patty’s good intention to remove a piece of string from the hem of the superior’s habit. The props for this true story were a corset and Patty’s shoe. Enough said. If interested in further details, see me later. But I could never tell it as Patty did.
Random memories of Patty are these: When Patty had a glass of wine, she said her elbows got weak. Patty insisted she had perfect feet because a doctor had told her she did. When watching a football game, if the score was close, Patty had to leave the room because she got so nervous. Patty lost her wallet every day – even multiple times a day. She always prayed to her mother to help her find it and her mother always came through. Her mom must be so happy to be relieved of that responsibility.
In the same vein, Patty and Joseph often visited their brother, Johnny. When the two left his home, Johnny would say, “Well, Patty left; I wonder what she left for us.”
After Patty’s death, I did a very random, unscientific survey. In the dining room, at my ministry, or stopping staff or sisters in the hallway, I asked, “What one word would you use to describe Patty?” (An aside, almost every time a person gave me a word, she or he would tell me a story about why that particular word or phrase). These words, or words like them, were repeated and repeated: Loyal, joyful presence, very funny, compassionate, positive outlook, brave.
I imagine every person in this Church has a Patty story, a Patty memory. Sharing those with one another over lunch may lead to both laughter and tears — a fitting tribute to her.
Patty, once again, you are being knit together in the womb of Life, of Providence. Once again, you proclaim “I am fearfully and wonderfully made … Wonderful are all your works. That I know very well.” What we know very well is that your “fearfully and wonderfully made” self has been, is and will be sheer gift to us.
Funeral services for Sister Patricia took place on Friday, January 10, and Saturday, January 11, at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana.
We welcome you to share your memories of Sister Patricia in the comment section below.
Memorial contributions in Sister Patty’s honor may be made to the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
Sister Patricia Fillenwarth (formerly Sister Joseph Monica)
In Indiana: Teacher, St. Peter, Linton (1962-67); Teacher, Holy Family, New Albany (1976); Residential Service/Driver, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (2019).
In Washington, D.C.: Teacher, St. Ann (1967-70).
In Country of Peru: Teacher, Colegio San Jose, Arequipa, Peru (1971-76).
In Illinois: Teacher, Maternity BVM School, Chicago (1976-77); Principal, Maternity BVM School, Chicago (1977-92); Providence Councilor, St. Joseph Province, Chicago (1987-92); Counselor, Maternity BVM Center, Chicago (1993-94); Counselor, Providence Family Services, Chicago (1994-2018); Counselor, Chicago (2018-19).
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