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A lifetime of meeting needs around the world and in our own backyard: Sister Patty Fillenwarth

On a picnic in Arequipa, Peru, in the early 1970s. Sister Patty Fillenwarth at right. Pictured front Father John Foley, SJ., back left to right, Sisters Florence Norton and Betty Smigla, Michael O’Malley (Peace Corps)

Editor’s note: Sister Patty Fillenwarth died Jan. 7, 2020 at the age of 79. She is greatly missed.

When Patty Fillenwarth (formerly Sister Joseph Monica) was in fifth grade, the missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa — the White Sisters — visited her classroom at Holy Cross School in Indianapolis. Patty knew from that day on that she wanted to be a missionary. But she loved the young, friendly Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods who taught at her school. So she followed her older sister Mary (now Sister Joseph) to the Providence Juniorate, a high school for girls interested in becoming a Sister of Providence.

Called to mission

Sister Patty entered the Sisters of Providence novitiate in 1959. One day the novices were asked if they would be interested in serving in the Chinese mission. Patty added her name eagerly. But when the time came for being assigned to a mission, she was sent to teach junior high for five years in Linton, Indiana, then three years in Washington D.C. Sister Patty did not give her dreams of being a missionary a second thought.

“I discovered I loved teaching. I was sure I would be happy doing this the rest of my life.

Then one day Mother Mary Pius visited and asked Sister Patty if she was still interested in serving in China. Patty was dubious about teaching in the college in Taiwan, but she made a valiant effort to learn the Chinese language. Finally she had to admit that she would never master Chinese nor was she prepared to teach in a college. When she reported this to Mother Mary Pius, she responded, “How about our mission in South America?”

Struggling with yet another language, Patty plowed through four months of Spanish classes in Lima, Peru. At the end of the course, although she claims she still couldn’t speak Spanish and understood only 20 percent of what was said, she earned her certificate.

To get initiated into teaching in Spanish, Sister Patty taught religion in public schools with Sister Betty Smigla. “Somehow,” she says, “the kids got the point and I lived through it.” She then began, not without difficulty, teaching 40 fourth-grade boys in the school at Arequipa, Peru. She continued to bone up on her Spanish, she says, “by watching a soap opera at night on the one channel we had in the city.”

Needs at home

Sister Patty, left, leads a parenting class in 2001 at Providence Family Services in Chicago

Eventually government restrictions and personal reasons made it more and more difficult for the Sisters of Providence to continue to minister in Peru, and they decided to leave. Sister Patty went in search of a new direction in life, hopefully one in which she could keep using the Spanish she had struggled so hard to learn. Her provincial in Indianapolis said that would possibly mean working in Chicago, where there was a large Hispanic population. To a girl born and bred in Indiana, Chicago was missionary territory.

Sister Patty soon found herself teaching and then serving as principal in the near-north side of Chicago at Maternity BVM, a school where many of the parents could not speak English. As she worked with these parents, she saw a need. She heard their stories of abuse, of problems with their children, of anxiety about their immigration status. Many of them needed professional counseling, but this was almost impossible for poor families who had no insurance and were struggling with English.

Serving neighbors

Sister Patty, right, at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods with Sister Dorothy Gartland in July

Sister Patty came to see that her greatest missionary opportunity now was not in Africa, Peru or Taiwan, but in her own backyard. After two years of study of family and community counseling, and a year interning at Catholic Charities, she became a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor. Finally, in 1998, she was able to open Providence Family Services using the front of the sisters’ convent, offering counseling in English or Spanish for free or on a very low sliding scale. The program expanded as one thing led to another — computer classes, parenting classes, English classes and after school homework programs. Students returned to volunteer as tutors. Parents who had sought help as they began their families brought their children for counseling.

“I could not have planned it.” Sister Patty says, “And I could not have done it without the support of the sisters.”

Eventually, in 2018, Sister Patty was ready to retire to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. Providence Family Services was renamed Providence House by Pastor Gary Graf who plans to use the facility to provide social justice service. At Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Sister Patty has had to deal with unexpected health issues. But she still finds a way to use her hard-earned Spanish, preaching monthly at Saint Margaret Mary Church in Terre Haute. She has once again discovered that sometimes the greatest needs are in your own backyard.

(Originally published in the Winter 2020 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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Sister Janet Gilligan

Sister Janet Gilligan is a volunteer in the Sisters of Providence Archives. A retired English professor, she enjoys her role as an archivist — answering queries, writing grants, and learning how to digitize collections.

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