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Sister Kathleen Dede: Reaching out in love right where you are

Sister Kathleen Dede, left, visits with and offers a gift of presence to Betty Mason, a fellow resident of Providence Health Care at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

It was in the late 1960s, after Vatican II, that Sister Kathleen Dede asked then General Superior Mother Mary Pius if she could pursue a master’s degree in social work. She had been a classroom teacher and school administrator for many years. Now she felt the call of Vatican II for religious to “respond to the needs of the times according to the talents of the sisters,” as she put it.

Need for social workers

This was immediately after the civil rights riots, and Sister Kathleen saw a compelling need for social workers. Although Mother Mary Pius thought it would be a wonderful ministry, she was reluctant to give permission because the Congregation lacked the finances to fund it. So, she granted permission, if Sister Kathleen could find funding for her study. After doing some research, Sister Kathleen discovered that Easter Seals would completely fund her study if she would commit to at least two years of work at Easter Seals (with full salary) upon completion of her degree.

After completing her Master’s of Social Work at St. Louis University in 1971, Sister Kathleen worked at Easter Seals for about 10 years. The work energized her immensely.

While she did some of the usual work required of social workers, such as accessing wheelchairs for clients and making referrals, she also loved to greet the children as they came for daycare. Over time, she realized that the children being served were getting excellent care. However, there were few supportive services for the parents of these children, many of whom were terminally ill. Thus, Sister Kathleen set up support networks and programs to tend to the needs of the parents.

From there Sister Kathleen went to Misericordia in Chicago. She loved her work at Misericordia, a continuum of care for those with mild to profound developmental disabilities, many of whom are also physically challenged. Unfortunately, she could stay there only a year, for her father had passed away and it was her turn to try to provide help for her mother.

Serving where you are

After her mother’s passing and a 30-day retreat, Sister Kathleen moved to California and served in college campus ministry. Thereafter she used her skills as a pastoral minister in Mississippi and in Florida. Eventually, she and her two biological Sister of Providence sisters moved to Indianapolis and then to Terre Haute, where Sister Kathleen did “informal social work.”

Now Sister Kathleen finds herself living in the Sisters of Providence health care facility. Admittedly, she was very resistant to the request that she move into Providence Health Care. “Although I didn’t realize it at the time, that’s where Providence called and led me,” she said. At age 84, Sister Kathleen continues to “do social work informally.” Sister Kathleen took it upon herself to distribute the Day by Day information sheet to the sisters — at which time she could also engage them in conversation and curb loneliness.

Sister Kathleen shares a message friends sent to the
residents of Providence Health Care.

Finding the need

When people are just sitting still in their wheelchairs, Sister Kathleen tries to find a way to engage them. She noted, “I somehow seem to find the people who need the love. When people are sitting there dejected, “I talk to them and try to make them laugh.” She mentioned one resident who often just stares into space, whom Sister Kathleen had never heard speak. She went up and began speaking to her. After a while, the resident actually spoke back!

Another sister said of Sister Kathleen, “She finds the people who need her most. If someone is looking lonely, she will stop and talk with them for a little while and then say, ‘Come on, friend. Let’s go down and play a little Bingo.’” Clearly, Sister Kathleen’s social work skills are as sharp as ever!

Sister Kathleen admits, “The restrictions on healthcare facilities due to coronavirus are really difficult for me, for I see people who need a visit, and I can’t do it. Hopefully, the smiles and waves from afar let people know I care.”

Yes, our sisters minister wherever they are, long after they pass retirement age. Somehow, Providence leads them to critical unmet needs to which they can respond. For Sister Kathleen, it’s being a face of Providence in healthcare. And she’s right where she needs to be. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a ministry that I have loved more,” she said.

(Originally published in the Summer 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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