January 14, 2005

2005 Religious Vocations Supplement

Providence sisters work for justice in varied ministries

By Dave Cox
Special to The Criterion

Justice starts somewhere.

Providence Sister Ann Sullivan of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods says it starts with all creation.

Our surroundings, our Earth, our environment are the foundation for everything else around us.

Mistreat our resources and we mistreat the balance of everything—that’s the message that Sister Ann shares with visitors.

In her role as director of the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, she is able to live out her call of being a woman religious, living in community and fulfilling her desire to work for “natural” justice, the root of all justice.

“I like being able to live out my deepest commitments to life,” Sister Ann said. “It is the most life-giving ministry or job you could have. It is an opportunity to put beliefs into action in a community setting.

“Also, as another sister once said, as a Sister of Providence, we have a megaphone,” Sister Ann said. “We have the ability to do what individuals may not be able to do through the voice of community.”

The White Violet Center for Eco-Justice, a ministry of the Sisters of Prov­i­dence at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, is grounded in an understanding of Provi­dence spirituality as hope and healing, and it offers leadership and education in the preservation, restoration and reverent use of all natural resources.

At the White Violet Center, visitors will find a straw-bale house, a herd of alpacas, nearly 400 acres of state-certified organic farmland, beehives, a large composting site, a berry patch, a Community Supported Agriculture ( CSA ) program, a reflection garden, a bluebird trail, a classified forest, organic gardens, and orchards full of apple, pear, peach, cherry and plum trees.

The White Violet Center also offers a variety of educational services throughout the year.

“We’re not doing it as a good deed,” Sister Ann said. “Our way of life depends on it. We can pretend that what we do doesn’t matter. As [eco-­theologian and Passionist Father] Thomas Berry said, ‘Earth keeps perfect score.’ That means whatever we do has an impact on everything else. Everything is interconnected, interdependent. Once we lose that connection to Earth, our foundation, it is deadly to our spirit.”

The spirit of justice lives in many ways through the Sisters of Providence. Its roots spread to the congregation’s earliest years, encouraged and strengthened by its foundress, Blessed Mother Theodore Guérin.

“I think back to the time of Mother Theodore and all of the ways she responded to the needs of the people,” said Providence Sister Ann Margaret O’Hara, general superior. “She was involved with some real justice issues. Women had been denied education. Orphans had no one caring for them.

“Religious life by its very nature is called to be prophetic, not by telling the future, but in saying what shouldn’t be,” Sister Ann Margaret said. “We can raise our voices about something that is a systemic injustice. It’s our responsibility.”

Providence Sister Rita Clare Gerardot is among the many sisters who have raised their voices about justice issues.

Sister Rita Clare has ministered to prisoners on Death Row. She volunteers in a clinic that offers free medical care to those without health insurance.

She participates in the annual non-violent protest vigil at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation at Fort Benning, Ga. She has protested against the war in Iraq.

Sister Rita Clare also is a member of several groups that work to alleviate hunger, push for prison reform, search for peace and offer support to those in need.

“We’re always trying to look at issues,” Sister Rita Clare said. “We try to do the right, moral things for whatever the issue might be. If something is wrong, then we try to see what we can do to make it better or right, or to appeal to those who have the power to change the situation, or to join a group to further the issue. It really boils down to being in relationship with people and organizations that promote justice [issues].

“As an individual, I don’t think I can change systems,” she said. “But being part of a group or an organization, I think I can help to change systems. I think that is the big thing in our world today. There has to be systemic change for issues to be resolved for the good of people.”

But times have changed for the Sisters of Provi­dence along with society’s needs, even though ministering for justice has been part of the congregation’s mission since its beginning in 1840.

“When I entered the congregation sixty years ago, we were never involved in the social arena at all,” Sister Rita Clare said. “We didn’t even get a newspaper. When President [Franklin Delano] Roose­velt died, a notice was put up on the bulletin board. When the war was over, a note was put on the bulletin board. Now we are able to voice our opinions and be active in social issues.”

But Sister Rita Clare also is mindful of the congregation’s historical commitment to justice.

“From [Blessed] Mother Theodore’s time on [as general superior from 1840-56], we have visited prisons,” she said. “We have visited people who are poor. We had sisters who went to southern states in the civil rights era to register people to vote.”

Sister Ann Margaret has served the congregation for 21 years in an administrative capacity. That ministry has given her a unique perspective on how the sisters work for justice.

“The very nature of Providence spirituality is that we are called to be co-creators with God,” Sister Ann Margaret said. “We don’t sit around and wait for God to take care of things or wait for something to happen. We respond to the signs of our times and the needs of people. We can’t necessarily keep evil from happening, but we believe it’s our responsibility to diminish the effect.

“My sense is that where the sisters are in ministry, if there’s something that is not just in their scene, in their parish, in their classroom, in their ministry, they will raise the question,” Sister Ann Margaret said. “I don’t think the sisters would even say that is what they are doing, but that’s what I see. Even the meekest of us will become involved.”

As a congregation, the Sisters of Providence have taken a position against capital punishment, addressed the issue of an unjust war, established an anti-racism team and stated a commitment to work for a non-violent world.

(Dave Cox is the media relations manager for the congregation of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.)


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