Oral history: Sister Cathy Campbell the storyteller
After I spent an afternoon interviewing Sister of Providence Cathy Campbell, formerly Sister Christian, I concluded that Providence has been at play for a long time in her life.
A native of Washington, D.C., Sister Cathy originally had some ideas about exploring a career in politics. Then, she took the entrance exam for Immaculata High School. There she found herself on the path that Providence wanted to trace out for her.
“From the Sisters there, l learned about Saint Mary-of- the-Woods College and its journalism program. At a college night, I met Mary Ann Lovenstein, an editor at U.S. News and World Report. I had envisioned myself going to a larger university. But Miss Lovenstein, an SMWC graduate, sold me on the benefits of getting a degree from a smaller college. Also, I learned about scholarships available to graduates of Sister of Providence high schools,” said Sister Cathy.
Raised and educated
Sister Cathy is the middle child of five — three girls and two boys. All are living except her younger sister who died of cancer. She was raised by two loving parents. Both were very supportive of each child finding his or her own path in life.
At Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC), Cathy found an environment in which teachers encouraged each student in her own particular area of interest.
When Cathy finished college in 1965, she envisioned going to work for the United States Information Agency, in a US embassy, or as an alternative perhaps, working as a sportswriter for a major newspaper.
Again, Providence intervened. About a month prior to her graduation, while acting as a tour guide for SMWC, Cathy escorted Indianapolis Star Feature Writer Philip Clifford as he developed a story about the college’s 125th anniversary. At the end of the day, Clifford gave Cathy his card. He encouraged her to give him a call if she became more interested in working for a newspaper than for the US government.
A strong woman
After some thought and the encouragement of her elder sister, (and maybe even the whisper of Providence), Cathy sent a note to Phil Clifford asking if he was still interested in opening the door to a career for a young journalist.
Clifford responded that the newspaper was looking for an editor for its Teen Section, a weekly report of activities in the various high schools of Indianapolis. Within days, Indianapolis Star City Editor, Lawrence (Bo) Connor contacted Cathy for an interview. She was in Waco, Texas, and he asked her to fly to Indianapolis to talk about the position. Cathy boldly told Connor that she was interested in the job. But she did not have money to fly in for the interview unless he was going to offer her the job.
As she hung up, Cathy admits she questioned her own sanity. But Bo Connor appreciated strong women on his staff. Soon thereafter, Cathy received a “start” date to begin as Teen Star Editor.
She did the job for a year. And again, Providence took hold. Even though Cathy loved the Teen Star job, she felt a restlessness gnawing at her. Should she be a professional journalist or did Providence have other plans for her?
“Once I got to know the Sisters of Providence, it was a one-way trip in this direction.”
It was not the first time a religious vocation had been hinted at. Teachers had challenged, encouraged and empowered her when Cathy was growing up. Several friends and teachers suggested that God may be calling her to be a sister. However, she was very resistant to the notion even when tempted with Milky Way bars by one of her SP teachers.
“Was God asking me to give another path further thought?”
Answering a call
As Cathy neared the end of the summer of her year as editor of the Teen Star, she became aware of a strong feeling drawing her toward religious life. She spoke with three Sisters of Providence in the Journalism department with whom she identified for various reasons: Sister Jeanne Knoerle — a free spirit for whom the path of Providence seemed full of joy; Sister Norbert (aka Carol Reuss) a strong person who challenged others when needed and Sister Thomas Jeanne (aka Maggie) Doriot, a creative poet and editor. Sister Cathy says she figured that if these three women could be happy as Sisters of Providence, so could she. All encouraged her to test religious life as a viable path for herself.
As the end of the summer neared, Cathy told her co-workers that she was resigning as Teen Star Editor. Her colleagues suggested a “farewell” party for which they gathered on her last night. At that party at Pat’s Bar, she told them she was entering the Sisters of Providence. They were a bit hysterical! But since several of them had sisters who were SPs, they offered her their support.
“Providence has provided myriad opportunities to me at every turn in my life,” says Sister Cathy.
“My first mission was as a high school English/Journalism teacher at Mother Theodore Guerin High School in River Grove, Illinois.” During that mission, Sister Cathy also served on several educational committees in the City of Chicago and in the Archdiocese of Chicago.
“Everything I did or have had the opportunity to do, I have learned stuff I never expected to learn. All have made me a better person. I would characterize the journey in this way: I have gotten some wonderful invitations in which the grace of Providence has always spurred me to see the possibility and provided me with resources to take advantage of,” says Sister Cathy.
Trained to serve
In addition to her undergraduate degree from Saint Mary-of- the Woods, Sister Cathy has a master’s of science in communications from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a master’s in pastoral studies degree from Loyola University/Chicago and a Doctor of Ministry Degree from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.
In addition to being a secondary school teacher, Sister Cathy in her years of ministry produced programs for Catholic Television Network in Chicago, edited the Catholic New World archdiocesan Catholic Newspaper for Chicago — (now known as Chicago Catholic), served the archdiocese of Chicago as a justice consultant and served on a variety of advisory committees.
She also ministered as the communications director for the Chicago Province of the Society of the Divine Word, an international missionary Congregation of men.
While editor of the New World, Sister Cathy joined in an ecumenical group of religious editors formed to be “fact finders” to travel to the Holy Land to learn more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the early 1990s.
“It was an amazing trip. We met with small groups of rabbis, Muslim Imans, leaders of the Palestinian Leadership Organization (PLO), Christian leaders and ordinary people. We interviewed members of each group and wrote articles that we brought back and published in our particular publications. The goal was to bring some fresh perspectives to our readers as a way of fostering peace,” Sister Cathy recalls.
In her final years of ministry, she served as president of Mother Theodore Guerin High School, as campus minister for one year at Christ the King High School in Antigua, West Indies, as a charter member of the faculty of Providence Cristo Rey High School in Indianapolis when the Sisters of Providence agreed to sponsor that ministry, and as coordinator of the Circle of Grace ministry in Indianapolis. Just before she retired to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, she had also served as a volunteer pastoral minister at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Indianapolis.
Spirituality and community
Sister Cathy’s most important spiritual practice happens as she starts the day. She spends time with the Scriptures of the day. “Each day as I go through the day, I am asking myself how am I being the person I am supposed to be as God wants me to be as this day unfolds.”
What has surprised her being a Sister of Providence? Not much. Throughout our interview she remarked on the amazing Sisters who influenced her starting with Sister Jeanne Knoerle and other teachers like Sisters Barbara Doherty, Alexa Suelzer and others from her college days. As well as Sister Adelaide Ortegel, who challenged her to be an artist, clown and puppeteer and Sister Mary Catherine Keene who opened the world of music to her and to countless others.
“There have been a lot of great women who have been around me. So nothing truly surprised me because I figured someone would pull what I needed out of the hat. Not like KAZAAM — but by being open to the Spirit and courageous enough to follow what the Spirit was asking of us at the time.”
“I am a storyteller.”
Sister Cathy has written for myriad publications most recently HOPE magazine and the SP blog website. For a number of years she wrote Working Word,a weekly scripture reflection for the parish bulletin at St. Celestine Parish in Elmwood Park, Illinois. “I tried to let it speak to the folks in the pews. It was practical theology and it was fun to do.” Sister Cathy said.
I found and read many of Sister Cathy Campbell’s writings on the Sisters of Providence website. I was so taken with them. A few excerpts from her writings:
“…those of us still alive on Earth are known as the church militant … still striving to live our faith as we meet the challenges of each day, relying on the Grace of God … We are joined in this mystical union with those who have gone before us … We are united with those called the church triumphant.” From ‘November: A month for remembering’, 11-2-2022
“Fill me with creative energy and vision to discern how I might best fulfill the mission you have entrusted to me this day.” From ‘Guide Me, Oh God’, 9-8-2022
“I wanted to be adventure bound in You, O God, wherever that might lead.” From Sister Cathy Campbell: ‘What does it mean to you to be a Catholic Sister today?’ 3-15-2020
“Clearly I cannot be a bystander. I have to act for justice.” ‘Immigration injustice: what can I do?’, 1-13-2020
The prayers that Sister Cathy has shared on the Sisters of Providence website are outstanding and written from the heart. “In Time of Loss” and “Prayer Before Visiting a Loved One with Alzheimer’s” are just two examples.
What advice does Sister Cathy offer to younger generations? “Be yourself. Everyone has truth to share and it behooves us to listen. Let God take you in the path of Providence that’s been laid out and you’ll have a wonderful adventure!”
Sister Cathy’s feels that she has been fortunate and blessed. She is thankful for possibilities that have led to growing in a variety of ways as a Sister of Providence. She follows the path Providence traces out for her, figuring she is probably right where she is supposed to be.
“I am a storyteller.”
We are drawn to stories. We are hardwired to find meaning and information from stories, from birth forward. All societies have had storytellers before they had wheels or fire. The purpose of story is to help us make sense of our world. It is to give us pleasure, to share information we may need. Saint Mother Theodore Guerin was a storyteller. We still read her stories, her diary, her missals nearly 200 years later. And Sister Cathy Campbell is a storyteller. We are blessed that she followed the path Providence laid before her.
Enjoy more photos of Sister Cathy below!