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Former Sisters of Providence a gift to the Church and society

In volume 4 of the history of the Sisters of Providence, the late Sister Maureen Abbott, SP, writes of profound changes to community life in the 1960s which led a number of women to choose to leave the Congregation. Of these women she notes: “Many of those who left continued to be motivated by the ideals that had been nurtured and developed in their lives as Sisters of Providence, and they put to good use the education and training they had received with the Congregation in service to the Church and society.”

Unexpected gifts

Former sisters are living evidence of the unexpected gifts those who have been immersed in the Providence Community take with them wherever they go.

Donna Watzke, formerly Sister Marie Carmelita, is one example. She became a Sister of Providence in 1955 and left in 1989. Mary Jo Thomas-Day, formerly Sister Joan Catherine, who entered in 1960 and left in 1974, is another, as is Judy Houghton, formerly Sister Judith Ann, who joined the Sisters of Providence in 1968 and left in 1985. All of them speak eloquently of how their years as a Sister of Providence shaped their personal and professional lives.

Donna says, “For me, being a Sister of Providence was a transformative experience … I was steeped in Providence Spirituality.”

Mary Jo says the structured lifestyle and prayer schedule of the community taught her to value daily prayer and times of silence. “The values they instilled in me will always remain part of me.”

Judy recalls that “discipline from the Sisters of Providence especially helped me to grow and mature.” She remembers her 30-day retreat as a life-changing event and is now “busy talking to God all day.”

Educated to serve

All three are grateful that the education and professional opportunities they received as Sisters of Providence have enabled them to continue serving in meaningful and life-giving roles. As a Sister of Providence, Donna was a teacher, principal, vicar of religious and director of pastoral planning. “During these years I was blessed with educational opportunities that supported the work I was doing.” After leaving she used her skills as an educator, administrator and counselor and as a consultant to human resources at St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis.

Mary Jo says: “I was a teacher while in the community from 1965-1974.When I left the community I continued to teach in Catholic schools. In 1977 I became the director of religious education at St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis, a very large intercultural parish.” Mary Jo continues in that role today and recently received the archdiocese’s Legacy Award — an award that recognizes outstanding contributions to living and sharing the faith.

Judy taught fifth and eighth grade at Lady Isle in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, as a Sister of Providence. She got much needed help from experienced sister teachers. She then studied social work at Boston College and became a licensed clinical social worker. Judy continued to serve in an outpatient therapy clinic in Indianapolis after she left the Sisters of Providence. When her father became ill, she moved to New Hampshire and served there for 21 years as a therapist and psychiatric social worker in out-patient settings.

Still connected

A lesson Mary Jo took with her is “the importance and the support of having a community. Our band of 1960 continues to support, pray and connect with each other.” Her connection to the Sisters of Providence continued when she returned to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in 1985 to enroll in their master’s degree program in pastoral theology.

Donna said, “Throughout this journey I learned the meaning of living in right relationship with our sisters and with the larger world community.” She maintains close connections with the community as a Providence Associate and by serving on the Mission Advisory Board for the Sisters of Providence for 12 years and joining the sisters in their prison ministry in Terre Haute.

“As a Providence Associate my life continues to be enriched with opportunities to serve within our Providence Circle and at the Woods.”

Judy, too, continued to remain in touch with the community, visiting the Woods often. Her sense of connection with the Sisters of Providence community led her to move back to Terre Haute after she retired so she could volunteer at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. Her experience as a social worker is especially valuable as she works with sisters in health care, using her skills to support in any way that helps.

Loving Mother Theodore

All three of these women continue to have a deep devotion to Saint Mother Theodore. Mary Jo says, “Saint Mother Guerin continues to watch over all of her sisters, in and out of the community. I have her statue in our dining room to always remind me what a blessing it was to be part of her community.”

Judy says she “never stopped loving Mother Theodore and the place, the people, the sisters who believed in me. . . I am very happy, very at peace and walk through the cemetery regularly to talk to those who helped me along the way.”

These three women, who as sisters received unexpected gifts, became themselves gifts to the Church and to society.

Originally published in the summer 2023 issue of HOPE magazine.

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Sister Janet Gilligan

Sister Janet Gilligan

Sister Janet Gilligan is a volunteer in the Sisters of Providence Archives. A retired English professor, she enjoys her role as an archivist — answering queries, writing grants, and learning how to digitize collections.

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