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Sister Joseph Ellen Keitzer: Blessed by the African American Catholic Community

When Sister Joseph Ellen Keitzer, SP, was assigned as a music teacher to St. Angela School on Chicago’s west side in 1976, she had no idea how much her experience there was going to enrich her life. When she first arrived, there were five priests serving the mostly white parish.

Sister Joseph Ellen Keitzer, center, loves the parish family from Chicago’s west side that she has been a part of for more than 40 years. Here she poses at St. Martin de Porres Parish with her friends and Providence Associates, from left: Deacon William Pouncy, Adrienne Curtis-Davis, Marvin McCurry and Barbara Cottrell.

In less than ten years’ time, so much was changing. The parish was down to one priest. He asked Sister Joseph Ellen to take on a parish ministry role. The parish makeup was also changing.

Witness to systemic racism

Sister Joseph Ellen tells of how she experienced first-hand the white flight from Chicago’s Austin neighborhood in the 1980s. African American residents, wanting a nice life that the area afforded, began to move in. So, the white residents moved out in droves.

Sister Joseph Ellen saw systemic racism played out. She saw insurance companies and banks redlining. City services were shut down. Businesses, from banking to grocery stores to health care providers, moved out. They left empty buildings and residents with no access to needed services. The quality of education and access to jobs plummeted.

“The folks moving into the community wanted the same quality as those moving out, especially the schools. That was their ticket to a better life. They all wanted a safe place to live,” Sister Joseph Ellen said.

But with all the obstacles stacked against them, it was much harder for the black families to have that. St. Angela School continued to serve and the parish with it.

Living white privilege

“I kept getting more and more involved. And being in pastoral ministry, there was quite a variety of different opportunities.”

Some may deny white privilege exists, but not Sister Joseph Ellen. “It was at that time that I realized the white privilege that I had. Because I certainly have used my white privilege for other people.”

She would see her parishioners getting the runaround, denied services they needed. “All I had to do was go to the office and say, ‘I’m Sister Joseph Ellen from St. Angela School,’ and it was no problem.”

What did Sister Joseph Ellen find in the new residents? “They were really good families.”

Sister Joseph Ellen with Providence Associate Adrienne Curtis-Davis

Blessed by the African American community

So good, in fact, that she never left them. In the more than 40 years since she has served the African-American church community on Chicago’s west side, Sister Joseph Ellen has found great love and respect for the community. In fact, she has become a part of the community.

“The biggest compliment I could receive: so many, especially the older parishioners say, ‘Sister you’re part of our family,” she said.

 “I’ve always felt very blessed by the African American community. The community has certainly blessed my life with their strong faith, their courage, their grace of perseverance, their belief that God makes a way out of no way. They have a strong, strong belief in the Providence of God,” Sister Joseph Ellen said.

More difficulties came their way. The Archdiocese closed St. Angela Parish in 2005, merging several other parishes into St. Martin de Porres Parish.

“St. Angela was a family. Their church is a family in the African American community. They share everything: their joys, their hopes. Everybody knows everybody else. It’s their social life. It was hard during that time.”

Relationship is key

Though the parish closed, Sister Joseph Ellen has stayed on ministering in the community.

“It’s been a wonderful journey. I love the people. I’ve been so blessed by the African American community. Having shared their story, their faith, their dependence on God, my own journey as a Sister of Providence has been really transformed,” she said.

Sister Joseph Ellen says invitation and relationship is one step in healing the racial divide in this country.

“If you had contact with the African American community, you’d see the person and you’d see that they are the same. The color is different but they are the same. They are people with a head and a heart the same as white people. People would stop seeing them as being something bad or seeing themselves as better than.”

“I think we need to invite people of color to the Woods more.”

“We have Providence Associates who are African American. [Many from her Chicago family] And they feel very welcome at the Woods. They do feel welcome when they come home. They notice the whiteness, but they feel very welcome by the sisters and the community.”

Sister Joseph Ellen hopes diverse communities, especially African Americans, are intentionally invited to the community.

“I’ve been blessed. I’ve been very blessed. I just wish everybody had the opportunity to be with the black community,” she said.

Originally published in the summer 2022 issue of HOPE magazine.

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Amy Miranda

Amy Miranda is a Providence Associate of the Sisters of Providence and a staff member in their Mission Advancement office. Amy is a 1998 graduate of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. She currently manages the SP publication HOPE and works on marketing support for Providence Associates, new membership and Saint Mother Theodore Guerin.

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