Home » Features » Ask Sister Dina: Why is the general superior no longer called “Mother”?

Ask Sister Dina: Why is the general superior no longer called “Mother”?

Dear Sister Dina,

I’m just curious as to how the Superior General, formerly addressed as “Mother,” changed from “Mother” to General Superior and why?
– From Judy Copeland, via the Sisters of Providence website

Dear Judy,

Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, foundress of the Sisters of Providence

Thank you for your question. As you may know, the superior general or general superior is the leader of a religious order. Such titles first emerged in the 13th century as religious orders of men evolved and formed centralized government structures. Women religious congregations, however, due to certain Vatican restrictions, were not permitted to organize with their own superior general until the 19th century.

Sister St. Theodore Guerin, with her five companions, founded the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in 1840. Bishop Celestine de la Hailandiere, bishop of Vincennes, encouraged her to use the title “mother,” as founder of this new Congregation. Congregation members continued to address superior generals as “mother” moving forward.

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Superior General Mother Mary Pius Regnier, center, and her council in 1971. (Left to right, seated) Sister Alexa Suelzer, Mother Mary Pius; Sisters Edwardine McNulty. (Standing) Ann Kathleen Brawley and Margaret Kern.

Taking a new look

A shift occurred after Vatican Council II (1962-1965). Religious institutes began looking into their histories to make changes that brought them back to their founders’ intentions for their communities. While studying our foundational documents, Mother Mary Pius (superior general from 1966-1976) noticed that Mother Theodore never signed letters or other documents as “Mother” Theodore. She’d sign her letters as Sister St. Theodore. In Mother Mary Pius’ 1969 Letter Circular to all Sisters of Providence, she noted this finding. She thus found it appropriate to drop the title “Mother” when signing letters and other documents. Superior generals after followed suit. From that point on, all superior generals also ceased to be called “mother.”

Another shift

This 2016 photo shows all the living current and former Sisters of Providence general superiors: from left, Sister Denise Wilkinson, Sister Ann Margaret O’Hara, Sister Dawn Tomaszewski and Sister Nancy Nolan.

When the shift occurred from “superior general” to “general superior” cannot be verified in our Archives. Because our Congregation had grown so large, the Vatican advised we form provinces. Each province elected a provincial superior with all the authority of a superior general, but only within her own province. It may have been at this time that the parallel term of “general superior,” began to be used. When eventually we returned to our original form of government (having grown much smaller), we kept the title general superior for the leader of the entire Congregation. The 1981 General Chapter delegates voted to officially change the title of our Congregational leader from “superior general” to “general superior.”

I hope this answers your question, Judy. Thank you for asking. Please know that I hold you in prayer.

Peace and blessings,

Sister Dina Bato, SP

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Sister Dina Bato

Sister Dina Bato has been a Sister of Providence since 2008. She currently ministers as mission and ministry coordinator at Resurrection University in Chicago. Prior to that she served in the Office of Accounting Services for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. She has a master's degree in pastoral theology and a bachelor's degree in accounting. She enjoys reading, cooking, and playing music.

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4 Comments

  1. Marsha Speth, SP on August 13, 2020 at 8:46 am

    Thank you! While I lived through the time of some of these changes, it was good to learn more specifically how the changes took place.

  2. Judy Copeland on August 13, 2020 at 12:27 pm

    Thank you for this information. I guess I’m “old school” having been more familiar with the congregation way back in the forties and fifties.

  3. Anne Therese Falkenstein, S.P. on August 17, 2020 at 12:38 am

    Thanks, Dina, I appreciate the information that you have presented. Thanks to you too, Judy, for asking the question that prompted Sr. Dina’s response.

  4. Lorrie Heber on August 20, 2020 at 1:25 pm

    I loved this explanation and it gave me a chuckle as I recalled S. Denise Wilkinson once stating that she was “generally superior.” Haha!

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