Leaning and leading like Saint Mother Theodore
“The leader looks reality in the face and communicates hope.”
—attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte
Shortly after beginning her leadership ministry, Sister Lisa Stallings, SP, stumbled onto this quote that she copied and slid under the glass on her desk. For the past five years, the current Sisters of Providence leadership team has looked reality in the face and communicated hope for the Providence community and the world. Sisters of Providence Dawn Tomaszewski, general superior, Lisa Stallings, vicar, and Jeanne Hagelskamp, Jenny Howard and Mary Beth Klingel, general councilors, have all carried out the leadership role for the Sisters of Providence just as Saint Mother Theodore did before them.
Looking back on the challenges they faced, we see many of the same challenges Saint Mother Theodore and the founding sisters faced, including financial and health issues. Our founders faced cholera epidemics; this General Council battles the ongoing dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mother Theodore went to benefactors when arsonists destroyed the Congregation’s food supply. This administration asked for help in caring for an aging Congregation and moving the mission into the future.
Lean on Providence
Saint Mother Theodore’s legacy continues.
“People who know us say that we Sisters of Providence act like Mother Theodore is still walking among us! Truly, all of us who share in her legacy are meant to carry on her spirit, and to demonstrate her unfailing trust in God’s Providence and dedication to mission,” said General Superior Sister Dawn. “To serve as an elected leader at this time in the community’s history with a particular responsibility on behalf of our mission has so challenged me to ‘lean on Providence,’ that I know I will never be the same. It has been a grace-filled time for me, during which I have been challenged beyond measure to ‘give the Holy Spirit free access to my mind and heart.’ I am grateful to my sisters and all who journey with us for their love and support.”
Evolution of leadership style
There are some definite differences in leadership today than in Mother Theodore’s time.
“Mother Theodore and her councilors often received advice from the bishop. That does not generally happen with congregations these days,” explains Sister Jeanne. “Within our Congregation, decision-making was also much more hierarchical in the past, even until the last quarter of the 20th Century.”
Sister Mary Beth adds, “The Second Vatican Council called women religious to renewal and we took it seriously. An important aspect of renewal was changing the process for making decisions. We have embraced consensus. Whenever major decisions are to be made, the entire membership is engaged in the process.”
Sister Lisa says, “We have come to value collaboration more and more over the years, but it is also true that some leaders and leadership teams have been more collaborative than others. It is also true that some situations have called for more top-down decision making from even the most collaborative of leaders and leadership teams.”
Responding to needs
In 1840, our founders were breaking new ground. These present-day leaders have continued a 180+year tradition of entrepreneurial spirit. They have partnered with developers and other organizations to build affordable housing in our community, supported a new health clinic in West Terre Haute, sold land for Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College’s expansion and reimagined the use of Owens Hall for senior living at the Woods.
The benefits of technology have also expanded opportunities over the years. Emailing and conference calling help today’s leaders consider options and make quicker and more collaborative decisions. Sisters today receive information digitally before meetings. They FaceTime or participate in Zoom meetings and, after discussion, provide input by online survey.
“Though I know we would have preferred to gather in person, a perfect example for me is our recent Annual Meeting in preparation for our Chapter. The creative ideas, and the collaborative energy of the Providence Community was palpable across ‘Zoomland.’ What a wonderful sense of hope for the future mission of Providence,” said Sister Jenny.
What has it meant for today’s council, whose term ends this December, to carry on Mother Theodore’s leadership role for the Sisters of Providence?
“Saint Mother Theodore was a woman of prayer who applied her God-given gifts in the circumstances of life. She was the epitome of love, mercy and justice. In all encounters with others these virtues were evident. Every Sister of Providence is called to emulate our foundress. Hopefully these practices have marked my leadership style,” Sister Mary Beth said.
Sister Jeanne added, “It has been a humbling and graced experience to serve the Congregation as one of the councilors. Every day I pray for the grace to do whatever it is that the Congregation as a whole and the individual sisters need of me. And I pray that, like Mother Theodore, we might be mission and ministry driven, no matter what, trusting that Providence will not fail us.”