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The two friends have shared so much through the years, especially the belief that God will always lead them to the right place at the right moment for the right purpose. Still, they figure that God must be showing a touch of mischievous Irish humor with his plans for them for March 17.
On that day, Providence Sisters Barbara McClelland and Rita Ann Wade will be honored as the 2011 Irish Citizens of the Year in Indianapolis—an honor that includes riding in a convertible, and waving continuously to a crowd of green during the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
Being the center of attention is not exactly—by any stretch of the imagination—the preferred path of life for the sisters. But it is part of the bargain that comes this time as the longtime friends are being honored for two special reasons.
First, for the past 11 years, they have led Miracle Place, a neighborhood ministry on the near-eastside of Indianapolis that provides numerous services for low-income residents, with a special emphasis on children and senior citizens.
Under the direction of Sister Rita, who is 80, and Sister Barbara, who is 62, Miracle Place offers after-school music and summer academic programs for children, special meals and events for senior citizens, a vegetable garden for the community, and a safe haven for residents who need support, comfort and counseling.
“For many of our people, Miracle Place has become a spiritual center for them, a place of peace and hope,” Sister Barbara says. “Everyone who comes here gets to know each other as people. It’s not the Hispanics, the blacks, the whites or the people who have and the people who don’t have. They just come together.
“A lot of the children who come here have changed schools during their lives. One of our goals is to give them a sense of belonging. We always talk to them as being ‘Miracle Place kids’ so they feel they belong somewhere.”
That goal connects with the second reason they are being honored as the Irish Citizens of the Year—for representing their Irish heritage and the tradition of generously sharing what they have with others in need.
“It’s a real tribute to our Irish ancestors,” Sister Rita says. “My grandmother’s name was Mary Kennedy McHugh. She came to Indianapolis in the late 1800s. She really gave hospitality to so many people. She and her husband had three bedrooms in their home. Different people from Ireland came to live with them until they could get established. They weren’t wealthy, but they shared what they had.”
Sister Barbara’s life was also influenced by her Irish grandmother.
“She was the mother of seven children,” Sister Barbara says. “I admired her strength and courage when she faced adversity in her life. She turned to the Catholic Church for help at times. As a child, I stayed with my grandmother during the day. We’d go to Holy Rosary Church every morning for Mass. I attribute part of my religious vocation to her faithfulness to the Church, and the Church’s faithfulness to her.”
Those family roots have led to the desire to create a family setting at Miracle Place. That goal has also created a deep bond between the sisters.
“We wonder how we could do this if we didn’t have each other,” Sister Rita says.
Sister Barbara nods and adds, “We complement each other. We help develop each other’s gifts. I think we help each other see the goodness in situations. It’s a gift from God to share this ministry together.”
They also praise the support of their religious order, the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, and the contributions of the volunteers and donors who keep Miracle Place open and thriving.
“They’re people who are putting their faith in action,” Sister Barbara notes. “From the beginning, this place has been dedicated to Mother Theodore. Our reliance on Providence time and again has reinforced [God’s] presence through the hard times and the good times. There have been times when we didn’t know if we’d have enough to get through the next month, and the money has been there.”
Volunteers and supporters give all the credit to the sisters.
“They’re saintly,” says Shiela Mooney, a longtime volunteer at Miracle Place. “Their devotion to their work stands out. They provide a very warm atmosphere for the children whose lives aren’t always warm. They see the needs of the neighborhood, and they do something about it in a very caring way, like a parent does for a child.”
“The work they do at Miracle Place is extraordinary,” says Father Glenn O’Connor, the pastor of St. Ann and St. Joseph parishes in Indianapolis, who was the 2010 Irish Citizen of the Year in Indianapolis. “They not only promote the Catholic faith but service. It’s amazing what they do for young people and senior citizens in an area that needs help. They deserve this honor.”
The sisters are even warming up to the idea of being celebrities in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
For Sister Barbara, the parade recalls memories of her time as the principal of Holy Cross Central School in Indianapolis from 1981 to 1996.
During those years, she would lead the students as they marched in the parade. Her mom, Helena, would be right there with her.
Sister Barbara thinks of her mother, and knows she would be proud and excited for her and Sister Rita.
Both sisters also think of their Irish grandmothers—and the immigrants who come to the United States today with their dreams of a better life.
“We’re inspired by them,” Sister Barbara says. “It’s an opportunity for us to reflect on what it means to be an immigrant, to reflect on how hard they worked and the faith they had to make a new life possible for their families.”
It’s also an opportunity to reflect on the descendants of those immigrants, and the way they work to create a better life for others.
That spirit lives on at Miracle Place. It’s reason enough to cheer for and wave back at two sisters riding in a convertible in a parade. †