It’s confession time (no pun intended). When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a nun.
Most people who know me find this astonishing. Why would I want to be a nun?
The reason is role models. I have two aunts who are Sisters of Providence (in Indiana, not to be confused with the order in Seattle). When I was barely five years old, they were permitted to cast off their restrictive black habits. For most of my life, I’ve known them as empowered women, women who did meaningful work.
Initially, they were school teachers. That and nursing were the careers open to them. But over the years, the world and the church changed. They received advanced degrees. Sister Mary Pat became the liturgical director for a huge Catholic parish in Chicago. They marched in protests and conducted letter-writing campaigns to elected officials. They worked for peace and social justice.
In the 1970’s, they were allowed to travel on vacation, so they visited family members in places like New York, Florida, and Las Vegas. They had an audience with Pope John Paul in Rome and took a cruise to Alaska.
Sister Mary Pat and Sister Mary Julia are in their 80’s now, retired to the “motherhouse” at St. Mary of the Woods, Indiana. I’ve visited the campus many times, with its tree-lined avenues and 19th-century buildings. Located in the backwoods of Indiana, outside Terre Haute, it has a church that is as awe-inspiring as any big city cathedral.
The sisters there have a role model, too. In 1840, Mother Theodore Guerin was about my age. She left civilized France and traveled to the wilderness, which at that time was Indiana. With five companions, she started the Sisters of Providence and opened a school for girls in the woods.
The school became St. Mary of the Woods College, the first liberal arts college for women in the United States. The sisters also expanded their work, opening schools and orphanages across the U.S. and the world.
Mother Theodore was a strong, empowered woman, but she was also very religious. In the years since her death, many people, including my family, prayed to her for intercession. Some of those prayers were answered: On October 15th, she will be canonized as a saint, partly because of two miracles attributed to her.
But the real miracles are not curing cancer or blindness, they are the millions of students who have been educated through Sisters of Providence. They are the foster children who have had a home, and the elderly (including my own grandparents) who have been nursed by the sisters. The miracles are the disenfranchised who have been not only served, but recognized.
Mother Theodore’s mission has been flexible enough to change with the times. Today, the order has a host of forward-thinking projects, such as the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice, teaching about environmental issues and giving children the message that all creation is connected. In 1973, the college launched the Women’s External Degree program, one of the first distance-learning programs in the nation. It was intended to make a college degree possible for women with families. Today, it’s been renamed the Woods External Degree program, and it’s open to men as well. They’ve recently opened Providence Cristo Rey High School, a college-preparatory program that allows economically-disadvantaged students to earn their tuition while gaining job skills at local companies. And they run countless smaller projects, like food banks. adult education, day cares, medical clinics, and services to migrant families.
It’s unbelievable to see what a small group of people, such as Mother Theodore, soon to be “Saint Mother Theodore,” and her five companions, can begin. They had no idea how widely the ripples they created would spread love, justice, and mercy around the world.
I’ve seen it happen, firsthand.
Ten years ago, two women in Brazil, Rita Conceição and Margaret Willson, decided to start a project to break cycles of poverty in the shantytowns. I met Margaret shortly afterwards. Through luck or fate, I was destined to be one of those initial companions.
We started Bahia Street with one student and almost no money. Today, it is a thriving school program for 50 girls in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, giving them education and hope for their families. It links a worldwide community of hundreds.
We had no idea how widely our ripples would spread, either.
Of all the things I’ve done in life, I’m most proud of Bahia Street. And now I see the connection to my own roots. Through the Sisters of Providence, I have been inspired by strong women with a commitment to social justice. My mother, who considered joining the Sisters of Providence in the 1940’s, decided instead to raise a family and become an artist. She told me I could be anything I wanted, that my gender would not stand in the way.
Now it is my turn to inspire young women to make a difference in the world. All it takes is one small pebble, and the ripples can go on forever.