Oral history: Sister Patricia Geis, a life of adventures and little ones
“I wanted to learn better how to serve God and this was the way I thought I could do it.”
Sister Patricia Geis chose the beautiful sun porch at the Woods for our interview on May 13, 2022. Her good-natured personality and vibrant spirit were obvious from the moment we sat down.
Patricia Jane Geis was born in 1934 in Chicago, to Henry and Alice Cieszykowski Geis. She is the middle of three daughters and exhibits many traits attributed to middle children: peacemaker, independent and self-motivated, easygoing, innovative, successful, a seeker of fairness, balance and justice. Both sets of her grandparents were first-generation Americans. Her paternal grandparents had come to America from Germany and her mother’s parents from Poland. Sister Patty Geis’s last name is German, although as a child she wanted to have her mother’s Polish maiden name: Cieszykowski.
Young Patty grew up in a household of women. Her parents separated when she was very young, and she lost contact with her father. Her mother worked outside the home. Patty and her sisters lived with their Polish grandmother and one of their aunts, in a household where the matriarch spoke Polish, a language Patty understood but never completely achieved fluency in. Her mother had six siblings — Uncle Stanley was Patty’s favorite, and like a father to her and her sisters.
Both of Patty’s sisters are still living. Her younger sister lives in Arizona. Her older sister Mary, who has three daughters, is living at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods with her. Mary had rheumatic fever as a young child and missed months of school. As a result Mary and Patty were in first grade through high school together in spite of the 18-month age difference. Mary has now been with Patty for a year at the Woods.
“We were Catholic all the way through.”
Sister Patty was raised Catholic in a very devout home. Before she began school she knew about God, knew her prayers, and could make the sign of the cross. She lived at home in Chicago and attended school there until she entered the Sisters of Providence at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
“There is no place like Ireland!”
Irish nuns and priests filled the schools she attended in Chicago. Her childhood was filled with these religious talking of Ireland and singing Irish songs. And with an Irish name like Patricia, the Irish influence took. She is a huge Notre Dame fan, and her grandniece is a student there. She has traveled to Ireland twice. Sister Patty has kissed the Blarney Stone on both of her trips, describing with her delightful laugh how one must bend over backwards while someone else holds onto your legs so you don’t fall. She was told by the gentleman who held her legs, “You kiss like a nun!” That amused her to no end, and she replied, “That’s because I am one!”
Sister Patty loved her stay at the Bed & Breakfast lodgings in Ireland because it gave her the opportunity to be with the Irish people in town, whom she cherishes as charming and hospitable. Listening to her talk about Ireland left no doubt that Ireland just might be her second favorite place on this earth.
“This is the path traced by Providence. And I follow it.”Saint Mother Theodore Guerin
Drawn to the sisters
“I wanted to learn better how to serve God and that was the way I thought I could do it.”
From fourth through eighth grades she attended St. Mark Catholic School taught by the Sisters of Providence. She became very attached to these sisters and began to envision becoming a teacher and working with children. In high school Patty was exposed to another order, the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She also admired them. Sister Patty affirmed all of the religious orders she has encountered to be very considerate and gracious.
When Patty was a student at Mundelein Cathedral High School, she was aware that Monsignor Hayes’ own sister was a Sister of Providence. Patty relayed the following conversation she had had with a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the high school her junior year:
“What are you going to do after high school?” the sister asked.
“I was always drawn to the Sisters. We would go help the nuns at the convent … They were always kind and wonderful. I took to them very much.” In St. Bernard School in Chicago her first four years of elementary school were with the Sisters of Loretto, and it is there she began her journey with religious.
Patty replied, “I’m going to go to college to be a teacher.”
Sister said, “You’re not going to be a teacher, you’re going to be a nun!” And she directed Patty to go back and talk to her eighth grade teacher. She went.
Later, the BVM Sister asked her, “Did you talk to your eighth grade teacher?”
Patty replied, “Yes.”
Sister asked, “When are you going to enter our community?”
Patty said, “July 22.”
Sister said, “We don’t have an entry date in July.”
To which Patty replied, “I’m not entering your community. I’m entering Sisters of Providence.”
“Put yourself gently into the hands of Providence.”Saint Mother Theodore Guerin
Entering religious life
“It’s something, to know what you want to do when you’re 17.”
It was time. In her heart Patricia Jane Geis knew it was time to enter a religious community. Patty’s beloved Uncle Stanley drove her to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods on July 21, 1952. Her sister and a cousin accompanied them to the Woods, a place none of them had ever been. Uncle Stanley was reluctant to leave her, she found out later. But she immediately fell in love with the beauty of the Woods.
“I thought things would be tougher than they were. The glove fit!”
After three months of postulancy, Patty chose her grandmothers’ names, Anne and Mary, and became known as Sister Anna Marie. Following first profession of vows on Jan. 23, 1955, her assigned ministry was Immaculate Conception School in Norwood Park, Chicago, where she was a first-grade teacher. She arrived there the next day. She was 20 years old and still working on her teaching degree, which she would work on every summer until it was completed.
There were 65 students in that first-grade classroom. Her only prior experience in the classroom had been student teaching at the small St. Mary’s Village School. So of course, after a childhood free of the typical childhood illnesses, she contracted measles from her students! But she felt privileged to be near her family, especially since for the first two-and-a-half years at the Woods there had been no family visits, only written correspondence. She taught at Immaculate Conception School three-and-a-half years and loved it!
Sister Patricia professed final vows on Jan. 23, 1960. She tells how years ago, all the sisters would return to the Woods at the end of each school year and continue working on their education degrees at the college until they were completed. She has a bachelor’s degree in education from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and a master’s in education administration from Northern Illinois University. On Aug. 15 each summer, as the sisters were still in retreat at the Woods, after services in the Chapel the Archbishop would read everyone’s assignments for the coming year.
Little kids and service to others
“I loved Kindergarten and preschool.”
Most of Sister Patty’s career in education has been spent as a teacher, principal, director and tutor. She has with a particular penchant and love for Pre-School and Kindergarten students.
“I decided I wanted to work with Native American Indians.”
This Sister of Providence has an adventurous and service-to-others intent. Sister Patty spent three years teaching and working with Native Americans at Fort Yates, North Dakota, headquarters of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. She was immersed into a culture of people of great faith, and whose church reflected their culture — built of brick and resembling a wigwam. She learned much about their environmental concerns, their spirituality, the stars and planets, nature and Mother Earth. Also, she learned that cars had to be plugged in during the harsh winters when the temperature could get to 84 degrees below zero in North Dakota. Sister Patty lived with the Benedictine Sisters while there and once again — following the path of her experiences — found the community enriching.
Change for the better
“I thought I would be wearing the habit the rest of my life.”
That was sister’s first response to what has surprised her in life as a religious. When Vatican II happened, she was slow to take to the changes that it encompassed. Transitional habits, shorter skirts, non-uniform kinds of clothing: these took a little longer to get used to. She returned to her baptismal name. Driving a car became commonplace when the habit was modified so as not to block the sister’s view and be a danger to the sister driving and to others.
“Although our lives have changed for the better, I never would have imagined that we’d be down from 1,500 religious when I entered the community to a little over 200 now. But people can choose other ways to serve God, other ways to fulfill their vocation and their hopes and dreams for their lives.”
For anyone considering a vocation as a Sister of Providence, she has these words of practical and hopeful encouragement: “Look to the future. Look ahead. Be open to change, because it’s going to take place no matter what you think about it. Change is inevitable in any situation.”
Changes in the church in her lifetime? “Of course the church is different today. And thank God it is. We’ve tried to move along with the times since Vatican II. We’re becoming more attuned to what people need now in their lives. We don’t take on that punishing aspect like we did before. There is leeway for people to live their lives. We can’t condemn people like we used to. We know God is kind and just and merciful. The church is more inclusive.”
Was there any experience that caused Sister Patty to re-evaluate her vocation?
“No. None. It fit like a glove. I’ve always been happy. I have a disposition that’s positive, and that helps.” This truth was evident throughout our interview.
“Reflect seriously on what you desire to do. Above all pray much that our dear Lord may make known to you what He wishes you to do.”Saint Mother Theodore Guerin
Summer ministry adventures
Sister Patty’s dedication, vows and sense of adventure in service has taken her in many directions since that day 70 years ago when she entered Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. In addition to her other experiences, she sought a summer ministry in New York at a women’s prison where she supervised children’s visits with their mothers. She met and befriended the infamous Jean Harris, imprisoned for murdering Dr. Herman Tarnower. She found Ms. Harris to be quite lovely. Sister Patty also ministered at Mount St. Joseph, a home for intellectually and developmentally disabled women. After she retired, she did English as a second language tutoring in Illinois mostly with Hispanic people, whom she loved.
Sister Patty’s most rewarding ministries have been teaching the youngest students in school. She enjoyed being Director at St. Columbkille Day Care in Chicago.
One of her most enjoyable years was her sabbatical year, when she audited classes at Boston College and Harvard University, and was able to mingle with priests and religious from many countries. She loved the east coast, the cultural and historical wonders of that region, frequently walking Walden Pond where she could spend time in prayer and meditation.
Spirituality and retirement
“The Eucharist is the most important spiritual practice for me. The bonding of Jesus with me in that special way.”
Having communion daily and watching the Mass on closed circuit television is an important aspect in her everyday prayer life.
Sister Patty has been back at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods for two years. Her health problems following knee surgeries necessitated being at the Woods to receive the physical therapy and assisted care that she needed.
“It’s good to be here. These grounds. These surroundings. Our spiritual life. And I have time to really step aside and enjoy everything around me.”
Sister Patty’s love for the Woods was crystal clear in our conversation, beginning with the beautiful sunroom where she chose to meet. These hallowed grounds are her favorite place on Earth. When Saint Mother Theodore Guerin was canonized on Oct. 15, 2006, in Rome, Sister Patty chose to stay at the Woods, a place where she knew Mother Theodore had walked, the very grounds she herself now walked.
What delights Sister Patty?
“To me, being a Sister of Providence means to be in the most wonderful vocation that I could have ever followed. I can’t think of any other way of living that I would’ve wanted to do other than this. Even after all these years, it’s been the most rewarding, the most faithful and beautiful that I could’ve imagined.”
“I wanted to learn better how to serve God.”
It’s why Sister Patty came to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. It’s what she has accomplished as a Sister of Providence. It has been her passion. Her service and dedication have been the end result of a vocation that fit like a glove, and it filled my heart to listen to her talk of her vocation with such complete and enduring love.