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Feature Articles

A Sister to All – Sister Patricia Wittberg

How would you describe your ministry and your role? How would you characterize SC values?
For 40 years my ministry was teaching. Recently, I was offered a job as a research associate with CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) which is connected to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. You might ask how that is connected with the SC idea of ministry and our charism? With regard to teaching, I have almost always taught both high school and college students from less advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. I think this is something our founder, St. Elizabeth Seton, showed a lot of preference for: teaching the children of the poor. At Indiana University’s branch campus in Indianapolis, Indiana, most of our students were first-generation college students.

But the part of that ministry, what really lit my eyes - even more than the teaching - was the research end of it. I have been doing research on the Catholic Church and religious orders for 25 years. This research ministry helps religious orders in this time of change and transition to make decisions that will enable them to survive and thrive. It’s my belief that religious life is as necessary to the Church as the ordained priesthood is, sociologically speaking. Religious orders perform an equally important function of seeing the new needs of the time; they have a history of bringing the Church into the next century. On a practical note, someone needs to meet the new needs in the Church and in society, and if what I do helps one religious order somewhere survive and grow to be able to meet these needs, then that’s the ministry. The research I do meets the needs of the poor, which is what we are called to in the charism of Saints Elizabeth Seton and Vincent de Paul, but it does so indirectly, by helping those who help the poor.

As far as my volunteer ministry, I was looking for something that would draw me out of my research cocoon, and would enable me to fulfill the other part of ministry, which I no longer do if I’m not teaching at IUPUI. I spent some time looking around at what was out there and was very impressed with Education Matters, a nonprofit organization in Lower Price Hill that inspires learning and strengthens our community by removing barriers to education. What attracted me to Education Matters was its English as a Second Language program. There are people there who are not literate in any language and do not speak English at all, people who are literate in varying degrees of grammatical sophistication in their own language but do not know any English, and people who know English but picked it up on the streets haphazardly. In my class I have some people who know grammar quite well but are terrible at pronunciation, and others who are relatively good at pronunciation and terrible with grammar. Even if they need pronunciation work, they don’t necessarily need the same kind of work. It’s fun, they are their own community. They know each other and help each other – and everybody there wants to learn.

What do you wish people knew about religious life?
As I mentioned earlier, religious life is necessary to the Church from a large-scale sociological, organizational standpoint. From an individual psychological, spiritual standpoint, I wish people knew it’s a great life and a lot of fun. Currently fewer women are becoming Sisters than men are becoming priests, which has never happened before in the whole 2,000-year history of the Catholic Church. A lot of women have a negative view of the Catholic Church in general and as a result they dismiss religious life. I wish they knew there’s something to this idea of sisterhood. There have been many times in the past that nuns created new interpretations of ministry and spirituality. Catholicism is often portrayed in the media as monolithic, and it’s not. Religious life can be a spiritually creative and communal way of developing a feminine Catholic spirituality. How wonderful it is to have a community of Sisters that support you spiritually, people you can talk to about what’s deepest inside you.

Could you describe a time when you provided spiritual guidance, and you felt you made a real difference?
One of the first colleges that I taught at was a Presbyterian college in Ohio, Wooster. They had a religious studies department and during the time I was there a very charismatic religious studies professor organized a monthly dinner, where students got together and talked about spiritual things. At the end of the year, this one student mentioned she was going to miss the group the following year when she went off to graduate school. She feared she would have no one to talk to about her spiritual life. I found her afterward and told her when she got to New York to find a Catholic retreat house, they would have a list of spiritual directors she could pick from.

When you think of a brave woman who comes to mind?
S. Blandina Segale moves me. Ultimately I would like to become a professional storyteller. I’m currently re-reading Blandina’s journal, and I think her stories would be wonderful to tell. There are a number of other Sisters that I have been inspired by. S. Ludmilla Hartman also ministered in the Lower Price Hill area, where Education Matters is today. S. Ann Loretto Connell would walk through the worst areas of downtown and cash people’s Social Security checks for them, do their shopping, whatever they needed. She was mugged once and bruised up, and her only reaction was “He [the mugger] must have needed the money, it’s ok.” S. Kateri Maureen Koverman served in the foreign missions. All of them had the bravery to give up their own wishes, to be that other centered, to rely on God like that.