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From farming to teaching to counseling to care of Earth: Sister Ann Sullivan’s story

Sister Ann Sullivan in 2003, at the time the founding director of the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice, shows off some of the organic plants growing in the greenhouse.

“We have a long way to go on the journey, and we know there’s no going back. The work of justice has transformed the consciousness of the people.” These words by Sister Marie McCarthy speak to Sister Ann Sullivan (formerly Sister John Margaret). This call to respond to the critical unmet needs of the people around us (and beyond) has been the guiding star for Sister Ann throughout the years.

After a short time ministering as a teacher of fourth and fifth graders in Oklahoma, Sister Ann was assigned in 1970 to Costa Catholic School in Galesburg, Illinois, where she had grown up. There she lived with 12 other sisters, taught in the junior high and loved every minute of it. She recalls that she often spent time not only teaching, but also working with the families of the students. The sisters recognized both the skill and the passion that Sister Ann had for this work and suggested that she go back to school to study educational psychology. And so she went to get her master’s degree at Illinois State University, not in educational psychology, but in counseling psychology, to prepare herself to minister to the needs of the time.

Finding the need

As she was finishing her studies, her planned internship fell through shortly before she was to begin. Within a day she received a phone call from Spoon River Community Mental Health Center in Illinois. As Sister Ann described it, “I didn’t find it… when there’s a need, it will find you.” And it did! As she helped children and families with difficult situations, she learned how unfair life can be for those who suffer from dysfunctional families, depression and other mental health issues. Eventually, she served as the director of the Henry County office of Spoon River Center.
While continuing her ministry, she also began working on her master’s degree in theology. She next moved on to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, where she helped build the staff in the psychology department. After then serving five years on a leadership team for the Congregation, she returned to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in a counseling role.

Meanwhile the issues of land, air and water degradation weighed heavily on her, especially the effects that were becoming more problematic on our own Sisters of Providence land.

Sister Ann Sullivan in May with alpaca cria Iggy, the first baby of alpaca Providence Sullivan, named after Sister Ann.

An unmet need: Care for creation

So what led her to create the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice? She remembers, “Originally it wasn’t really a dream of mine, rather, there was a seed in each Sister of Providence which had been planted long ago, by Mother Theodore herself. Foundress Saint Mother Theodore Guerin had a love for all the natural world and a desire to treasure and protect it. Moreover, Sister Ann grew up on a farm, much of which had originally been farmed organically. For as long as they were able, her family used horses when possible to seed fields. They even put hay in the barn (Old Molly) and a seeder rather than large farm equipment, because they wanted to be as “gentle on the land” as possible. Sister Ann is also Irish, so she knew how precious the land was to her ancestors and how they suffered when land was taken away. She also recalled the story of Genesis and the sacredness of the land and our obligation to care for God’s manifestation of love for all creation.

Over time, having seen the rampant use of chemicals for farming and their closeness to streams and creeks, Sister Ann was aware that, not only were the chemicals unhealthy for the land, but they also were penetrating the water table and air. This realization gnawed at her. So she felt called to try to involve the Sisters of Providence in: a) doing organic farming ourselves, and b) providing evidence and impetus for others to understand that organic farming IS a healthy alternative that preserves creation.

And so, once again, Sister Ann stepped up to offer herself to respond to a critical unmet need. She developed a proposal for the Sisters of Providence International Assembly which passed almost unanimously. Thereafter, the Sisters of Providence leadership created a planning committee comprised of Sisters of Providence, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College personnel, experts in organic farming and area farmers. They sought help from Purdue University, where there was some interest in organic farming. The organic gardeners in Terre Haute helped to educate White Violet staff and to get their first beehives started. Educational programs on issues of sustainability through the lens of a spirituality of hope and healing provided the framework for the Center’s planning and development in educating for a just, sustainable future.

Thinking differently

Sister Ann moved on from her ministry at White Violet Center in 2008. Today she continues to speak and to offer retreats focusing on the need to educate for a just and sustainable future — the same need that led her to form the foundation of White Violet Center for Eco-Justice in 1996.
On the journey, the Sisters of Providence have chosen to think differently, to pray differently, and to respond to the current needs of environmental justice issues. Saint Mother Theodore Guerin set the standard for love and care of all creation and for advocating for the justice issues affecting all life. We Sisters of Providence are following in her footsteps.

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

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Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp

Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp has been a Sister of Providence since 1975. She currently serves on the Congregation leadership team. Previously she ministered as a teacher and administrator at the secondary and university levels.

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