A journey of Providence on Chicago’s westside
In sharing my experience in pastoral ministry, I would first like to say that this journey has not been so much my personal story. More so it has been the experience of God’s Presence and of how God has led me and the people of St. Angela Parish on Chicago’s west side through the varied phases of these years and our ministry together. It has been a journey of Providence. And God has always provided what was needed and then some. For me, pastoral ministry is an answer to a call to serve, to be present to people in a caring way and to help guide them on their own journey towards God.
Evolving into pastoral ministry
My role in pastoral ministry was one that gradually evolved. I never had the opportunity nor took the occasion to apply for a particular ministry position. Rather I tried to answer God’s call in the needs as they presented themselves. Even though I have been on the west side so long, things have been constantly changing all through this time — my ministry, my residence, the surrounding culture, the neighborhood and the needs of the residents.
In 1976, my religious community, the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the Woods, assigned me to teach music in St. Angela School, my first ministry there. I also taught in the religious education program on weekends.
In 1985, our pastor, Fr. James Flynn, asked me to assume the role of director of religious education as an added responsibility. At this time there were five priests in residence. A year later we lost an associate pastor. I was asked expand my involvement to coordinate the Eucharistic Ministers and then the Ministers of Care. As the parish continued losing priests, I was presented with and assumed more parish responsibilities. As I acquired different ministries, I took advantage of opportunities for education and training in them. During a span of 20 years, the parish went from having five priests down to one non-resident pastor. And so my involvement continued expanding in number and variety.
As parish responsibilities increased, my music ministry decreased so I could concentrate fully on pastoral associate work. Having one foot in school was an advantage because it allowed coordination of programs as one parish family. This meant no distinction between parishioners with children in the Catholic school and those with children in the religious education classes.
This arrangement also created an opportunity for evangelization. More and more non-Catholic students were attending the school, so Fr. Flynn, our pastor, and I went to the classrooms and invited children to join a group to learn more about the Catholic Church. Through the children and parent religion classes, many adults and children came into the Church. During this time too I had the opportunity to welcome new members into the Church through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program. Sharing faith gave me a perfect opening to call forth the gifts of individuals. As a result, many have since assumed leadership roles in the parish and in the archdiocese.
Transformation and challenge
Because we could foresee that the parish was becoming African American, Fr. Flynn encouraged me to attend a certification program at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans and to seek certification as a Pastoral Associate in the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1994. My experience at Xavier was a very transforming one for me personally and provided valuable insights toward understanding the African–American culture.
After Fr. Flynn was assigned to another parish in 1994, we were without a pastor for a year. During this time, it was a challenge to find substitute priests to celebrate Mass. Then Fr. Dennis Riley arrived but had times of fragile health. Fr. Riley had a stroke in 2000, and St. Angela was again without a pastor.
Eventually a non-resident priest came to serve the parish. Since he was a dean and pastor of two other parishes, he was overextended. In order to fill in for Masses, arrangements were made for resident priests to come to our parish from Africa.
In 1998, the parish decided to rent out the convent to an inner city teaching corps. These were young men and women who had graduated from college and were doing their graduate work. They wanted the use of the whole building, so we five Sisters of Providence living in the convent at the time had to find other residences.
Because I was full time parish associate with one priest and there was still some “white flight,” from the area, I wanted to stay in the vicinity. So I moved into an apartment which was a few blocks from St. Angela. The residence was multicultural at the time and now is almost entirely African- American.
Mercy and justice
Besides the regular pastoral responsibilities, my journey in ministry has taken me into places that I would never have imagined. During these years I had the opportunity to become involved with the Northwest Austin Council (NAC), a community organization, in their fight against drug houses, housing discrimination, violence and other peace and justice issues. I went to court with NAC to close prostitution and drug houses, joined them on a “smoke out,” (which is to gather on a corner where drug dealers were selling drugs and cook hot dogs) and a prayer march when someone was shot. I became involved with prison ministry, drug rehab and prevention of substance abuse, domestic violence situations, public aid, department of human services and many other needs. Though all this was a real responsibility and sometimes almost overwhelming, I found myself highly energized in doing these corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
During the 1980s and 90s, the years when “white flight” began, I witnessed the struggles of a community of believers, and I also experienced the racism that existed then and still exists today. As “white flight” continued, city services diminished. There were problems with housing, real estate managers, banks red-lining, lack of health care, and decreased quality of public education. Jobs, businesses, grocery stores, factories and many other resources moved from the community. People coming into the neighborhood wanted the same quality of life as those moving out but had great difficulty in finding it. Definitely all were looking for a safe place to live.
“White flight” also affected St. Angela School as parents naturally took their children out of school when they moved. The school enrollment went down, yet it remains open with significantly diminished numbers. In 1976, there were more than 1,000 students. Now, there are fewer than 400.
Merging the parish
In May 2005, St. Angela was one of the ten black West Side parishes merged into just four, so its individual identity was modified. However, as Christ became present to the parish community which remained through people of different races and cultures, their strong faith, courage, and grace of perseverance were soon recognized as gifts. The African-American people have a common saying, “Our God makes a way out of no way.”
St. Angela was more than a church building in which to worship God. For most parishioners, it is their family, social life, and a place where the blessing of relationships in Christ has been formed. The church is a sign of stability, a beacon of faith and hope in the midst of the struggles of inner-city life. When creating new models of church and pastoral leadership, it is very important to be culturally sensitive to the worship, culture and lifestyle of the people. The inner city has specific needs and a culture all its own. There is also a richness and giftedness in the African-American community that needs to be shared with the entire church.
I hope and pray that we may one day be one church with racial equality, that the richness of the cultures will be shared with the entire church. My journey in pastoral ministry has been very transforming for me. I have had the privilege and opportunity of stepping inside another race, culture and hearts. I am truly blessed. The African-American community has enriched my life with their giftedness, spirituality, deep faith, trust, friendship and love. Together, we have had the opportunity to be a sign of God’s love and Providence to others.”
Read more about Sister Joseph and her ministry in the summer 2022 issue of HOPE magazine.
What a rich and wonderful life you are leading Sister Joseph Ellen! Thank you for sharing.
What it says about the loss of priests from the US is another stark display of racism.
Sister Joseph Ellen Keitzer
Thank you for sharing your sacred experiences rooted in community, prayer and ministry.
I’m inspired by your commitment to living out our vows trusting always in Providence.
Thank you for your witness 🙏 ❤️
Thank yo for your wonderful work. Thank you also for sharing this experience with all of us. Thank you for bringing the spirit of our Congregation to all those whom yo serve.
Thanks Sister Joseph Ellen for your inspiring ministry. You showed me the way to continue to support the faith community of a parish as significant changes , closures, and mergers occur.
You are such a wonderful witness of God’s faithful Providence! Thank you!
What a gift you are to the people of St. Angela’s, to the Archdiocese of Chicago, and to the Sisters of Providence! Your dedication to the People of God, strong commitment to justice issues, and engaging presence in the West Side of Chicago is an Easter witness to all as we look for signs of hope and transformation in our very midst. Thank you for all you are doing, for all you have been, and for your complete trust in Providence!
Thank you for your dedication and your wonderful example of answering God’s call. You will be in my prayers as I will also be praying for vocations. You are certainly carrying on the work of St.Mother Theodore.
Sister Joseph Ellen, you have been an inspiration to me for many, many years! Thank you so much for sharing this incredible journey of Love, Mercy, Justice, GENEROSITY IN SERVICE, using your abundant gifts from Providence in very meaningful ways, relationships, compassion, caring, stretching, etc.
Thank you for your witness all these decades as Sister Of Providence!
What a treasure Sister Joseph Ellen is to all of us! I was a teacher at St. Angela’s when S. Joseph Ellen was teaching music. Though I didn’t know her well, I am happy to say I have been blessed to be in her presence with the Providence Associate relationship. Her grace and humility are examples of her grounded faith and joy in her faith. I cannot say enough about the goodness she shares with all whom she meets. All I can say is, Thank you, Sister!
Thank you, Joseph Ellen, for your ongoing commitment to the community of St. Angela’s. You have been an inspiration to me over the years with your faithfulness and trust in Providence. Your story is rich in treasuring all people and their stories! Thank you for modeling what we are all called to do.