Steeped in tradition
As Sisters of Providence we draw from the rich legacy of spirituality left us by Saint Vincent de Paul in the Rule of Life he originally wrote for his beloved Daughters of Charity in the 17th century and which we continue to follow today. Our lives are rooted in the Gospel values of faith, hope and charity.
Our spirituality can best be explained by looking at the words of Jesus found in Luke 12 where he tells us to “Seek first the reign of God and God’s justice.” As part of the journey to becoming a Sister of Providence, each of us takes these words into our heart and subsequently makes our own personal decision and commitment to follow them.
We next look to Jesus for direction in how we can go about seeking that reign of God in a contemplative way. We find our answer in what Jesus says in Matthew, chapter 6: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”
Like Christians everywhere, we are very familiar with this example of contemplative living, as we are with the example Jesus gives when he speaks of the sparrows of the sky. In these teachings, Jesus is pointing us towards a special quality of presence, a special way of being with ourselves, with others, and, most importantly with God. He uses these examples of the wildflowers and birds to show us that other species of creation are in their lives in non-anxious, non-controlling and non-possessive ways. They are open and receptive to all of the life-giving forces, including both the sun and the rain. We hear Jesus calling us to follow their examples by accepting all that God provides.
Like the birds and the flowers spoken of in scripture, our spirituality as SPs calls us to abandon ourselves and our futures to God’s provident care. From the simplest of God’s creations we learned to abandon ourselves to the Divine Will. We know that if we are in our lives in a contemplative, open, receptive way, God can and does provide for us. And, in so doing, we cooperate with God’s providence in the building of a new and just creation.
Vincent de Paul is our patron saint. Since it is impossible to share in a few short paragraphs the influence this great yet humble saint has had on us, we offer both a personal reflection on this beloved man, from Sister Ruth McGoldrick who served as our president from 1993-2001, and a bit of history about the life of Saint Vincent:
A personal reflection on Saint Vincent de Paul
by: Sister Ruth McGoldrick, SP
This kindly man of God often met great unkindness as he went about doing good. He experienced opposition and was splashed with political mud and barbs. He was the object of the anger and hatred of special interest groups and was often openly ridiculed and insulted. Nevertheless, at his death, the known world wept and grieved at the loss of a tender and approachable saint, a man who lived and walked in the presence of God. Vincent was well aware that the peace of Christ, which he possessed, was developed through struggle and opposition and in the storms of life where Providence is always present and caring for those who seek first God and God’s Kingdom. From the furnace of God’s love and out of the midst of social upheaval, pain and poverty, Vincent’s spirit was refined and shaped into a practical wisdom and spirituality based on faith, the Christian virtues, and the sacramental life.
As Sisters of Providence, we are the heirs of this man and this tradition characterized by mysticism-in-action. Some of us in the Vincentian family are more active by temperament. But all of us are also paradoxically a wonderful mixture of both prayer and action. What we portray as individual Sisters is merely a matter of emphasis and temperament and the particular season of our personal or communal lives.
When we are more contemplative, we are often less visible and enchanting and our risk-taking and ventures are more silent. In these times, we become the welcoming “Vincentian village girls” whose lives are nourished by simplicity and lowly services and small hidden successes. We become the buffers and mediators who go about with peace and affection, making our daily rounds with dedication and fidelity. Because of our Vincentian spirit, we live out both of these ideas and seasons hardly noticing when they blend and cross-over in our personalities.
The life of Saint Vincent de Paul
Saint Vincent de Paul, our community’s patron saint, was the son of French peasants. His father wanted a different way of life for him than his family’s traditional role of tending sheep. With this parental goal in mind, he sent Vincent to study with the Franciscans at Dax, France. Later Vincent continued his studies at Saragossa and Toulouse and was ordained a priest in 1600.
A major event came to pass in Vincent’s life, when, traveling by boat, he was captured by African pirates, brought to Tunis, Africa, and sold as a slave. Over a two-year period, Vincent had three “owners” and succeeded in converting his third “master” to Christianity and together they returned to Vincent’s homeland. There Vincent became the almoner for Queen Marguerite of Valois, pastor of Clichy, and tutor to the family of Count and Countess de Gondi. In 1625, this devout couple persuaded Vincent to establish a congregation of priests. Their mission would be to perform charitable works and to preach in the towns and villages.
Vincent wrote the new community’s Rule of Life, and named the congregation, the Institute of the Missions. Its priests, however, soon became known as Vincentians, in honor of their founder, or Lazarists, for the name of their monastery, Saint Lazare Priory. The Vincentians were soon directing seminaries and colleges in various parts of the world and working with the poor in countries like Italy, Poland, Ireland and Scotland.
Though Vincent, marked by his own experience, procured the ransom of over 1200 Christians enslaved in North Africa, his name is most well known for his untiring and effective work on behalf of the poor, sick, aged and orphaned. He built or procured hospitals, homes for orphans, foundlings and the aged, and founded confraternities in parishes to look after the sick poor. Even today there are societies, hospitals, nursing homes, and homes for children that bear his name.
What links Saint Vincent to the Sisters of Providence?
As Sisters of Providence, we see the first thread of Vincent in our lives when he organized the Ladies of Charity, a group of well-to-do women who both assisted him in his work and collected revenue to support his charitable works.
Finding he really needed full-time help, Vincent, with the help of Louise de Marillac, founded the Daughters of Charity, a women’s religious community, for this purpose. He named its members “daughters” rather than sisters because nuns of the day were confined to convent cloisters. He needed the new order to be an apostolic one. His Daughters of Charity would, instead, consider parish churches their “chapels,” and the streets and hospital wards of Paris, their “cloisters.”
Vincent’s Rule of Life for the Daughters of Charity is the Rule we, Sisters of Providence, follow today.
Vincent died at 90 years of age. Pope Leo III declared him the patron of all charitable institutions.
Our spiritual heritage
In addition to the spiritual traditions of Saint Vincent de Paul, we also look to Saint Louise de Marillac, Blessed Émilie Gamelin and Mother Mary of Providence for spiritual inspiration and strength.
Saint Louise de Marillac co-founded, with Saint Vincent de Paul, the Daughters of Charity in Paris in order to be able to move freely throughout the streets of Paris helping the impoverished. Blessed Émilie Gamelin is considered the foundress of the Sisters of Providence in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, another community, like ours, following St. Vincent’s Rule.
Our foundress Mother Mary of Providence also embraced St. Vincent’s Rule for herself and for our Holyoke community’s Sisters. All of these spiritual role models continue to inspire and encourage us today.
Saint Louise de Marillac
A 17th Century native of France, Louise de Marillac knew the difficulties of Parisian life. Famine, disease and civil strife raged, hundreds of children were abandoned at birth and torture and other atrocities claimed countless lives. The division between rich and poor grew ever wider as more families joined the ranks of the latter. One seventh of the population died. Membership in cloistered religious communities swelled, but what of the poor, filthy, starving, sick, aged, and abandoned? Who would care for them?
It was Louise who joined with Saint Vincent de Paul in caring for them—alone at first—and later, with hundreds of women who became known as the Daughters of Charity.
Born to wealthy parents in 1591, sadness invaded her tiny life when her mother died shortly after her birth and her father 13 years later. Her formative years were spent at boarding schools studying Latin, philosophy and theology, and when her father’s fortune diminished, her education shifted to practical matters such as cooking and housekeeping.
She eventually married a wealthy man and had a son. Free from financial worry, she devoted herself to her son’s care and the needs of the materially poor. Tirelessly she visited poor persons in their homes, bringing them food and washing them. With respect, patience, and a warm smile, she instructed them in their daily tasks, taught them catechism and shared her love of God.
The death of her husband in 1625 brought more sadness but the hand of Providence became evident when Saint Vincent de Paul took over her spiritual direction. In his eyes the poor were Jesus Christ, and it took little time for him to realize Louise shared his vision. He subsequently put Louise in charge of the management of the confraternities of charity he founded and before long, her energies were thrust into training numerous young girls who hoped to spend their lives in service to the poor.
Due to her relentlessness in serving her “masters” as she affectionately called the less fortunate, charities sprang up all over France and continue to exist in similar form today. In time, her efforts along with Saint Vincent’s led to the establishment of the Daughters of Charity, a religious community of women who viewed the streets of Paris as their cloister and gave direct service to the poor.
The Daughters of Charity eventually came to minister in almost all of Europe and in over 30 other countries around the globe. From our own beginnings in 1873, we Sisters of Providence have continued to follow the same Rule of religious life as those Daughters of Charity of yesteryear and today.
Blessed Émilie Gamelin
Her mother died when she was only four, and an aunt raised her. In the years that followed she also lost her father and a sister. At 18 she took charge of her widowed brother’s household, using one room as a dining room for the poor. Émilie married Jean Baptiste Gamelin when she was 23, he 50. A wealthy man, he supported her charitable works so she spent her spare time and resources reaching out to the poor. The couple had three sons, but only one survived infancy. And in 1827 Émilie lost her beloved husband and last child as well.
Grieving, she immersed herself in her charitable endeavors. After selling some property, she used its proceeds to purchase a residence for abandoned women of advanced ages. Her first guest was 102 years old! She went on to fill the house with 15 others and then purchased two more houses to provide housing for 30 women. She alone carried the burden of expenses, and when her resources were depleted she trusted totally in help from our provident God.
In time Émilie purchased a large building known as the Yellow House. It was so roomy its elderly guests could work on projects that brought in revenue to help with expenses. When cholera ravaged Montreal, Émilie visited the sick and dying in their homes. She brought six of the children whose parents had succumbed to live in the Yellow House with the elder women. Her work made her a familiar and welcome figure in Montreal. Following the political insurrection of 1837, she gained access to the city’s prisoners facing death or deportation. Every day “The Angel of the Prisons” brought the prisoners food, messages, and gifts from their loved ones. One of her most difficult tasks was assisting at the farewells between the condemned and their families.
Émilie also put great energy into caring for the mentally ill. Her strong interest in their welfare spurred the establishment of institutions to care for them. As her works mushroomed, the Montreal Bishop saw the need for a community of Sisters to carry on her work. When efforts to interest an established community failed, he decided to establish one. Seven women already working with Émilie formed its nucleus, and on March 25, 1843 they became the first novices of the new community. When one returned home, Emilie took her place, and a year later became their first Superior.
Less than ten years later, Émilie woke a Sister with the news she was facing death after contracting cholera. Her last words were to urge her Sisters to practice the virtues of “humility…simplicity…char…” She lapsed into unconsciousness before completing her last word and died soon afterwards. She was only 51.
Émilie’s community went on to help found the Sisters of Providence of Saint Vincent de Paul in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. In 1873, the young Kingston community sent Sisters to establish a mission here in Holyoke. From that community sprang ours, the Sisters of Providence of Holyoke.
Our Foundress Mother Mary of Providence
Our foundress Mother Mary of Providence was born Catherine Horan on July 19, 1850 in Belleville, Ontario, Canada. Her childhood was characterized by her untiring devotion to God, her mother and charitable works. At 19, she became a member of the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, because of their commitment to the poor, sick, elderly and orphaned and because her sister, Elizabeth was a member of the order.
The first four Sisters from her first community established a mission in Holyoke in 1873. Catherine Horan, now Sister Mary of Providence, came two years later to teach in the all-boy St. Jerome’s Institute. Within a year, she was also the school’s principal. Her faith in God’s providence was strong even in her early years: “My assignment to schoolwork was somewhat of a disappointment to me, as I had been wooed to my vocation by a great sympathy for the poor and an ardent desire to relieve them in their sufferings. However, I was consoled by the circumstance that my charges were of lowly condition.”
She spent what little time her school responsibilities allowed to minister, side-by-side, with her Sisters: begging door-to-door, caring for the ill in their homes, scrubbing floors, laundering clothes, doing whatever was needed, whenever needed. By 1890, she was not only the school’s principal but local superior of the mission and the Sisters’ works to shelter and care for the city’s poor and infirm flourished.
When in 1892, the Bishop of Springfield asked Rome for the Sisters to be incorporated as an independent community in his diocese, legally separate from the Kingston order, Sister Mary of Providence was selected as our first major superior. With her new office, came her new designation—“Mother” Mary of Providence. She and her Sisters spent the next 15 years establishing 20 works of charity in central and western Massachusetts including acute care hospitals, nursing schools and homes for children and the elderly.
After 35 years of selfless ministry in Holyoke, 18 years served as Major Superior, Mother Mary chose to relinquish that leadership role, but continued as councilor and treasurer general for the next 16 years.
In 1923, she was instrumental in establishing the New England Conference of the Catholic Hospital Association, serving for seven years as its first president. From 1926 until her retirement in 1932, she was superior of St. Luke’s Hospital in Pittsfield. Even then she continued as a councilor on our Community’s Executive Council, to work with novices while spending most of her time writing a history of our then 40-year-old Community. Mother Mary of Providence suffered a stroke in 1936 and never fully recovered. She died on January 25, 1943.
Living a life of exemplary service
Mother Mary gave almost 74 years to the service of God. Nearly three-fourths of those years were spent as our community’s major superior or treasurer general. She had labored as teacher, principal, housekeeper, nurse, administrator and businesswoman. While an exemplary religious leader, she also was a compassionate confidant, a gifted writer and beloved friend. She was a mother in the most loving sense of the word, and during her lifespan the humble mission that began in 1873 with four Canadian Sisters increased in number to almost five hundred.
Among her greatest accomplishments is the fact that she left the work of her order in the hands of women well attuned in a vision, that even today, so closely resembles her own.
The word charism is not a word most people are familiar with, unless, of course they are affiliated with a religious congregation. Charism is a gift of the Holy Spirit given for the sake of the Church and the world. It is the spirit that forms the heart, identity, and mission of our Community and is rooted in the spirit and vision or our foundress Mother Mary of Providence Horan.
Sister Ruth McGoldrick, author of many articles on Providence spirituality and charism, explains it well, saying, “A congregation’s charism is its energy, its charm, and its distinctive spirit. It is a gift freely given to the founder and subsequent members. When the members are truly exercising the gift, it is experienced as one large grace. This resonating together in grace is what we call the Founding Charism, alive and evolving in time.”
As Sisters of Providence, we manifest our charism by “being Providence” to those in need, especially to poor people. Our efforts to do this, by bringing hope and healing for all the people we serve, fulfills our mission to proclaim the mystery of Providence. Our charism is most visible when we, and our Associates stand together to communicate hope to those in spiritual or material need—particularly those who are poor and/or alienated.