Sisters of Providence
ST. MARY-OF-THE-WOODS —
The Fillenwarth sisters are sisters in more than one sense of the word.
Both were born two of the eight children of city cop Henry and his wife Catherine Fillenwarth. Both grew up among a large and giving Catholic extended family in inner-city Indianapolis in the 1940s.
It was a decision that older sister Mary (now known as Sister Joseph) made as a teenager: that she wanted to become a Sister of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods, and that Patty (now known as Sister Patty) made four years later that made them sisters in a second sense: both members of the same Congregation of religious sisters.
Thus for the past 55 years the Fillenwarth sisters have lived not only as blood sisters, but as religious sisters as well.
A fun sense of camaraderie livens the area when Sisters Patty and Joseph, now both in their seventies, are together: a teasing humor, a warmth, a playful bantering.
“She was spoiled,” Sister Joseph taunts Sister Patty.
As the two sisters work together cleaning dishes after preparing treats to share with family members, Sister Patty mentions, “I was one of the youngest, so I used to sneak out when they were doing dishes at home.”
“See, she was spoiled! It came from her own mouth,” Sister Joseph says.
“I was not just a youngest, I was the smartest,” laughs Sister Patty.
“There’s one in every family,” laments Sister Joseph, shaking her head.
Both sisters know the teasing is all in fun. They say their parents taught them that you could be different and still get along, and that has served their relationship and that of their siblings well.
“Since we’ve been in the community, we really haven’t been in proximity all that much. But we’re always happy to see each other, and we always seem to love what we do,” Sister Patty said.
Despite the lack of proximity, plenty of similarities exist in the sisters’ life paths. “We both started as teachers, and then we were both principals, and then she went to the foreign missions in South America and I went to the home missions, so we were both missionaries in different senses,” Sister Joseph said.
The sisters say they are both full of energy and determined. They point out plenty of differences as well: Sister Patty is more laid back than Sister Joseph; Sister Joseph is more of a neat nick than Sister Patty.
But both share a similar life’s passion: helping others, especially those who are poor.
That passion has sometimes stretched them beyond their comfort zones: to the South American country of Peru, to areas in the U.S. where only one half of one percent of the population was Catholic or to the big, intimidating city of Chicago.
Today, both sisters live out that passion full-heartedly in the work they do.
Sister Patty is the founder and director of Providence Family Services in Chicago, where she also serves as a counselor to Spanish-speaking and often low-income individuals who would not have access to such help elsewhere.
Sister Patty’s journey to Chicago started in Peru when she volunteered to go as a foreign missionary with a group of Sisters of Providence in the early 1970s.
“That changed my whole life,” she said.
Sister Patty returned home after six years due to political unrest that caused the Congregation to deem it unsafe, but she didn’t want to lose her Spanish. A sister in her Congregation’s leadership suggested she go to Chicago; that did not excite her.
“I said, ‘Oh no, too big and chaotic and busy, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. And the other sister said, ‘Just go and try.’ So, here I am 37 years later. So it is big and busy, but it also has a lot of wonderful people,” Sister Patty said.
Sister Patty served as a teacher and then principal at Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary School in Chicago for more than 15 years. During that time she noticed among the people in her Humboldt Park neighborhood an unmet need for affordable, bi-lingual counseling. So with the support of her congregation, Sister Patty set out to fill that need to a struggling population. She returned to school to get a counseling degree and then opened Providence Family Services. Now, 18 years later, PFS also offers English as a Second Language classes, citizenship classes, computer classes and an afterschool homework club for students whose parents may not speak English well enough to help with homework.
“I love doing it. It gives me energy in itself. People say, ‘You’re always running around, up and down, up and down, up and down all day.’ And I get tired from it, of course, but I’m energized by it because I know we’re doing good work, and people are being helped. It does my heart good to see people helping themselves. “
“I wanted to do some kind of missionary work with the poor,” Sister Joseph said.
So she spent 27 years working with the Glenmary home mission priests in small, impoverished rural parishes in Oklahoma and Kentucky.
Upon her retirement six years ago, Sister Joseph stepped right into her current role as director of Providence Food Pantry in West Terre Haute. There she works with agencies and various churches in the area to offer food to people in need.
“I think the most important thing is the support that we give from the pantry. It’s nice to see all the churches working together and trying to help the needy in the community,” Sister Joseph said.
People who come to the pantry are treated with dignity. They get to choose foods they like, and they get three different kinds of meat, and eggs and fresh produce, she said.
Sister Joseph said that she is thankful for the good health and energy that keeps her so active despite her 76 years. In addition to running the pantry every Thursday morning, the rest of the week she keeps busy with tasks such as traveling around Terre Haute and West Terre Haute to pick up donated foods from Catholic Charities or local grocery stores. She also works to keep the area from which they operate clean and organized and to keep all the paperwork in order.
Sister Joseph also volunteers two afternoons a week tutoring a child at Educational/Family Services in West Terre Haute. She staffs a phone room in one of her motherhouse buildings on Monday and Wednesday mornings. When she’s not doing those things, she is writing thank you notes and encouraging people to keep on giving to the pantry.
Like her sister, Sister Joseph is always going, always pouring her energy into helping others.
“I think we’re here to be of service, and Jesus didn’t go to the wealthy. He went to the people who needed help. Not that you overlook the rich, but there’s such a great need,” Sister Joseph said.
Sister Patty agrees.
“I’m happy here. I’m here because I want to be here. Nobody ever made me come. Nobody ever made me stay. And that’s why I stay, because I like it,” Sister Patty says of her ministry at Providence Family Services.
And though their common passion has led them to different places with similar missions, the sisters remain close.
“I’m always glad to come home and see Mary [Sister Patty still calls her sister by her given name], but she knows and I know that I do my business and she does hers. And she thinks I’m crazy sometimes, and I think she’s crazy sometimes,” Sister Patty says.
Sister Joseph agrees with her sister. “And we both know it,” she says, “… that you’re crazy sometimes.”