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Sister Jessica Vitente: Leading and being led to God

No one can deny Sister Jessica Vitente’s enthusiasm. She’s exuberant and offers a warm embrace to a wide variety of people and ideas. No one can miss that she loves being a woman of deep faith. That she is proud of her Filipino heritage and of her identity as a Sister of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

Sister Jessica Vitente, left, spends time with college students at the Newman Center at the University of Evansville where Sister Jessica serves as the Catholic Campus Minister.

These gifts have enabled Sister Jessica’s movement from one experience of self-awareness to another. What else but trust in Providence can explain these movements in her adult life: Managing the customer service department of a California-based distribution center. Volunteering in a young adult program at her home parish in California. Uprooting herself and moving across the country to become a Sister of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in Indiana. Choosing, as her first full-time ministry as a Sister of Providence, the position of Catholic campus minister at the University of Evansville in southern Indiana.

Moving Forward

Each forward movement included trusting the wisdom of family, friends and spiritual directors. Moving together into the future seems a hallmark of Jessica’s life.

Her official title at the University of Evansville is Catholic Campus Minister – Newman Center. Like most job titles, hers conveys none of the vitality of the Center’s mission, ministries or daily happenings. The University’s description of the Newman Center’s mission carries more energy. “Students gather here to celebrate their Faith, learn more about it, serve others and have fun.”

Gathering others, living and learning about the Catholic faith, encouraging lives of service, having fun — these activities are right up Sister Jessica’s alley. She has a knack for bringing people together, for motivating others to explore and live their faith, and, certainly for having fun.

These gifts make Sister Jessica an effective director of the Newman Center. Her role encompasses the usual responsibilities of any director. She prepares and manages the Center’s budget, supervises other staff and ensures that student activities happen. Sister Jessica’s competence assures that the words of the mission statement happen in real time. Students gather, learn their faith, serve others and have fun.

Empowering students

Sister Jessica stands outside the sign for the Catholic Student Center in Evansville, Indiana, where she serves as campus minister.

How does she do all this? She steps aside, she says. She trusts students to take the lead, to move the Center’s mission forward. She encourages. She guides. She advises. She supports students as they learn to lead. She models collaboration; she doesn’t demand it.

Let them teach you

Sister Jessica believes that the Newman Center must be student led. It must create a safe space for learning about the Catholic faith. She hopes the Newman Center provides the college students they serve with companions on the journey in service with one another, to the campus community and the community at large. Most importantly, the Center must let students know they are loved, accepted and belong to the community.

Sister Jessica shared a vivid description of how she perceives her role in fulfilling the mission of the Newman Center.

“I see myself as carrying a flashlight. The students and I move forward together on a common journey. I am in the lead. As time goes on, the student and I are walking side by side. Finally the students lead, carrying the flashlight. I follow. The flashlight is the light of Christ.”

Sister Jessica’s experiences in this ministry led her to expand Saint Mother Theodore’s philosophy of how to interact with students. “Love the children first then teach them.” To this Sister Jessica adds, “Then let them teach you.”

How better to move into the future together than to love and teach one another?

Originally published in the summer 2022 issue of HOPE magazine.

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Sister Denise Wilkinson

Sister Denise was the general superior of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods from 2006-2016. She previously served as a high school teacher, college administrator, postulant/novice director and director of advancement and communications for the Congregation. Currently, Sister Denise serves the Congregation in various volunteer positions.

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