Providence Family Services: A look back; hope for the future
For the past 23 years, countless lives have been enhanced, thanks to the steadfast volunteers and staff of Providence Family Services (PFS), serving those in the Humboldt Park community of northwest Chicago.
Youngsters receive help with their homework after school while adults learn English as a second language so they find better paying jobs. Students of all ages learn basic computer skills, and bilingual professional counseling is available for minimal – or no – fee.
However, with PFS Director Sister Patty Fillenwarth’s retirement and recycling to the Sisters of Providence Motherhouse at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana on the horizon, there is, at the present time, no other person or organization to absorb this ministry.
“People are aware that PFS is closing, and they want to know what will be happening to the services,” Sister Patty said. “Right now, we just aren’t sure how things will work out. Each day holds new hope. We are cautiously optimistic at this time.”
Due to changes in the parish structure with three Catholic parishes in this area of Chicago preparing to combine into one, there is continuing discussion regarding how to combine or modify the existing services. Maternity BVM Catholic Church is the only one of the three parishes that sponsors a school, and the school itself will remain open after PFS closes its doors at the end of August. Sister Patty is hopeful that the school can find a way to continue the homework club, possibly folding it into the school’s extended day care program.
She also feels confident that some of the students from DePaul University and Dominican University will still serve as tutors.
“I have confidence in the principal,” Sister Patty said. “She feels the homework club is a wonderful help for the kids, so I think this is something they will continue as a priority.”
Shortly after Sister Patty completed her work as principal of the Maternity BVM School, she prepared herself to provide bilingual counseling to parents and families by acquiring a master’s degree in counseling and the Licensed Clinical Professional Counseling credential. PFS began providing counseling services during the 1994-95 school year. While PFS got its start solely as a counseling service, it gradually evolved and grew to provide many other services to members of the community.
Sister Patty reached out to other sisters, community members, and agencies in the neighborhood. For instance, Sister Kathryn McNulty (RIP) started teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) classes for PFS in 1996. Later, she connected with Wilber Wright College and was able to set up a satellite location with them. By patterning with this local college, PFS gradually grew to two teachers instructing ESL classes in the mornings, and two more teaching in the evenings. Beginning in September, after PFS has completed its ministry, teachers from Wilber Wright College will continue teaching ESL classes.
PFS’s Homework Club began in 1996 when a then-Postulant of the Sisters of Providence, Martha Arizmendi from DePaul University, began the club as a project assignment. She encouraged other DePaul students to get involved as volunteer tutors, and the Homework Club has grown over the years from 15 to almost 50 students attending on any given day. Occasionally, one of today’s tutors are students who attended the Homework Club themselves years ago and now want to give back in some way.
Throughout the year, all of these services have been made available to low-income community members for minimal fees, and only if the individual or family was able to pay.
“All are welcome. Providence, with the help of our wonderful and generous donors and funds from the Sisters of Providence Ministry Fund, has continued to provide support for these services for these 23 years,” Sister Patty said. “We truly are a work of Providence.”
Another popular service provided by PFS is citizenship class. Sister Patty said it is very rewarding to help individuals prepare for the test and obtain citizenship.
“There was a lady who came up to me at church and threw her arms around me yelling, ‘I got it! I got it, sister!’ when she finally gained citizenship. That was such a great feeling,” Sister Patty recalled.
In thinking back over the last 20-plus years, Sister Patty said she feels very humbled to see the second generation come up and benefit from her ministry’s services.
“Some of the people who came to see me for counseling services back in 1994 are now bringing in their own children. It’s wonderful to see that,” she said. “When the parents call, they say how much they, themselves, were helped, and they want the same opportunity for their own children.
“As we are completing our mission here at PFS, I can tell you this: It has been a truly amazing thing,” Sister Patty added. “There is not one thing I regret in all these years. My whole dream throughout this whole process has always been that some of the services that we offered over the years will continue to some extent in the future. And that might be coming true!”
New pastor, Father Gary Graf, intends to consult with members of the parish over the summer months to determine which services provided by PFS should be continued in some way. He hopes to draw on the talents of his parishioners to fill the void left as PFS closes its doors.
PFS Advisory Board Member Maggie Martinez also realized there remains many opportunities to provide assistance to those around her.
“People in this community need the services that Providence Family Services has given over the years,” Martinez said. “We need to find a way to keep it going one way or another.”
“I’m very happy with all of this work that we have done over the years – every single part of it,” Sister Patty said. “I feel so grateful that we have been able to help people, even in little ways. But there is no way we could have done this alone. We have had so much help from the Sisters of Providence, the Maternity BVM community, and all of our wonderful donors and volunteers.
“This has been a project that happened because so many people wanted it to succeed all along. And it did succeed and will continue to do so in the future, I know it will. The Providence of God never fails!”