Congregation marks 150 years of ministry in the Springfield Diocese
Sisters of Providence mark 150 years of service in the Springfield Diocese
—BY REBECCA DRAKE
Note: Printed with permission granted by the Catholic Communications Ministry of the RC Diocese of Springfield, MA. The article appeared in The Catholic Mirror, Fall 2023.
HOLYOKE — When Sister of Providence Kathleen Popko speaks about her community, one thing is clear: The faith that brought four Sisters of Charity of Providence from Canada to Holyoke in 1873 has remained steadfast since that time.
“I think the aspect of our lives together that has been sustained over 150 years relates to our common charism of trust in the Providence of God. Somehow that charism touched the hearts of the women who gathered here,” said Sister Popko, who presently serves as president of the congregation. “And we have operationalized that charism into responding to bringing hope and healing to those in need, particularly those who are poor and oppressed. And that charism, I think, has held us together in good times and bad.
”Those first four sisters, who came to Holyoke from Canada at the request of Father Patrick J. Harkins, pastor of St. Jerome Parish, found a city teeming with immigrants, working in mills and living in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions; orphans wandering the streets alone; and residents suffering from disease, especially typhoid fever. The sisters soon opened the House of Providence to care for orphans, the sick and infirm. They also cared for the sick poor in their homes, comforted the dying, and prepared the dead for burial.
At the request of Father Harkins, the sisters, already called “Sisters of Providence,” also accepted the task of teaching boys in 1875. Among the two sisters and four novices who came to fulfill this mission was Sister Mary of Providence, Catherine Horan, who in 1892 would become the foundress and first superior general of the Sisters of Providence of Holyoke in the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts.
“Mother Mary of Providence was known for her dynamic energy and vision,” Sister Popko said. “Within the first 15 years of her leadership, the Sisters of Providence established 20 works of charity. And these were not small things; these were hospitals, nursing homes, homes for working girls, and orphanages.”
Building a legacy
As the sisters worked to realize the vision of their foundress, the House of Providence became Providence Hospital, the first Catholic hospital in western Massachusetts and the House of Mercy became Mercy Hospital (now Mercy Medical Center) in Springfield. As the years went on, they established St. Luke’s Home in Springfield; Farren Memorial Hospital (now Farren Care Center) in Montague City; the Beaven Kelly Home, Holy Family Institute at Brightside, an orphanage for boys, and Mount St. Vincent, an orphanage for girls, all in Holyoke; St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Mass.; and St. Luke’s Hospital in Pittsfield. The sisters toiled and ministered without a motherhouse until 1932 when they moved to the new Providence Mother House, situated on a hill in Holyoke, with a golden dome and cross visible from nearby Interstate 91. And their work continued.
Their ministries reached as far as North Carolina, where in the 1950s they opened a small, rural hospital in Murphy and St. Joseph of the Pines Hospital in Southern Pines. Back in the Springfield Diocese, in the 1960s and 70s, the sisters’ work expanded to include drug programs, a Spanish Apostolate, working with disabled children, prison ministry, assisting in youth programs, teaching in community colleges and catechetical work, among other ministries.
In more recent years, the early health care facilities were joined to form the Sisters of Providence Health and Human Service System, Inc.; and eventually joined with two other Catholic health systems in the U.S. to form Catholic Health East, which later merged with the larger Trinity Health. And additional ministries were formed, including Providence Ministries for the Needy in Holyoke and Genesis Spiritual Life and Conference Center in Westfield.
In the late 1990s, with a smaller number of sisters remaining in Providence Mother House, the facility, with a central courtyard and stunning Byzantine-style chapel, was transformed into Providence Place at Ingleside, an independent living community with 119 units for those over age 55. Most recently, the congregation established the Mary’s Meadow care facility in Holyoke and Hillside Residence in West Springfield.
A time to celebrate the past, look ahead
As today’s Sisters of Providence gathered for an anniversary Mass with more than 280 guests at Our Mother of Sorrows Chapel at Providence Place on June 11, Springfield Bishop William D. Byrne, principal celebrant, said, “When we celebrate today, we celebrate not just the hospitals and the work, the number of people they’ve served, transformed lives and stood up for the planet, stood up for women — we thank them and honor their being Providence for us.”
“They have not only been the loving arms of Christ, but, in reality, they’ve also been the brains and the brawn of the whole operation,” Bishop Byrne said during his homily. “They built and designed each and every institute, raising the money themselves, from the ground up. They maintained these works of God, they did whatever they had to do to help the neediest among us.”
Several of the sisters, interviewed just prior to the June 11 Mass, wanted to acknowledge the laypeople and associates of the congregation who have supported them in their ministries throughout the years.
“It is a day to celebrate, and people talk about the lives we’ve touched, but these are the people who touched our lives, helped us in our journey. We’ve not done this alone,” said Sister Mary Caritas Geary, who turned 100 in August and is vice president of the congregation.
Sister Margaret McCleary, founder of Providence Ministries for the Needy, acknowledged the work of the more the 750 Sisters of Providence who came before her, as well as the staff and volunteers who have worked, and are working, beside them. “And as we stood on their shoulders, I’ve also been thinking of the profound gratitude I have for the men and women who are now standing on our shoulders. I see them every day, working here so diligently and with our spirit and a real sense of our legacy.
Sister Elizabeth Oleksak, a founder of Genesis Spiritual Life Center, offered her thoughts for the future of the congregation’s mission. “And now it’s a new day and our hope is, my prayer is, that it will continue with the energy and the intent that we Sisters of Providence have for it,” she said. “And I think that’s the best we could ask.
”Faced with the possibility that there may one day be no Sisters of Providence living and working in the diocese, Sister Popko has confidence in the laypeople who are now administrators and board members to carry on “God’s mission of being Providence in the world.”
And, never forgotten, are the people in every corner of the diocese who are served through the congregation’s many ministries — the people Sister McCleary calls “the heroes.”
“I learned compassion from them, I learned presence from them, I learned generosity from them. They had nothing and they would give everything, whatever they had, to someone,” she said. “And those are the things I come away with. They made me who I am today.”
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