Those who make the decision to become an Associate of the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul often find that the profound changes which occur in their lives are invisible to the outside world. While an incredible inner journey is taking place, there are few outward manifestations to the casual observer.
“It’s not a change of lifestyle,” notes Dianne Dutcher, a Providence Associate since 1997. “It’s a deeper exploration of how you live your life, of the things you need to look at, yet you remain true to your personal calling.”
Providence Associates are lay women or men, single or married, who feel called to be associated with the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul in their charism, spirituality and mission. The charism –a gift of the Spirit for the Church –of the Sisters of Providence is one of serving with compassion, trusting in Providence. This charism is not unique to the Sisters but is shared by many of God’s People. Providence Associates live the charism in their relationships with family, at work, and in their communities. Most Providence Associates find their journey begins with personal contact with a Sister of Providence. Dutcher’s Associate relationship began in 1977 when she started working at Providence Manor, a home for the aged sponsored by the Sisters of Providence. After working with Sister Sheila Langton and the late Sister Margaret Haughian, Dutcher says, “I grew to understand and love the mission of Providence Manor” and she began the Associate membership process.
That process can take from two to four years beginning with an initial inquiry phase where individuals visit a local Associate group and complete an official application. Then the “candidate” enters into a two-tiered phase, with the first phase one of getting to know one another –candidates with the Sisters, candidates with each other –and receiving a general explanation of the process.
In the second phase the process develops into a commitment to personal prayer, reading required material, studying the history of religious life within the history of the Church and the role of the laity within it, a survey of the present ministries and lifestyles of the congregation today, a retreat experience, regular meetings and other gatherings. When the second phase is complete and the application accepted by the congregation, there is a commitment ceremony. All commitments are for one year, subject to renewal.
In 1997, 11,000 Canadians were involved in Associate relationships with religious congregations, all exploring the concepts of spirituality, community and mission.
“Being a Providence Associate means you live the charism, spirituality, and mission of the Sisters of Providence,” says Dutcher. “You begin to understand their love for all people, especially the poor and the destitute, and how you might live your life in a similar way.”
It’s an understanding that has helped Dutcher, a registered nurse and senior director of residence services, in her day-to-day work at Providence Manor. “I am blessed with many opportunities to express compassion for the suffering and the poor on a daily basis,” she says. “Many people phone or come to Providence Manor in terrible states of anxiety, not knowing where to turn for help for their aging family member. We listen to their unique circumstances and give directions and some options for them to consider.”
Her responsibilities include the admission process, which begins with Dutcher personally visiting every potential resident in their home. She also works with residents and their families, manages several departments and serves on various committees within Providence Manor and its parent organization, Providence Continuing Care Centre. In a job many would find stressful and overwhelming, Dutcher finds strength in her Associate commitment.
“We see a lot of suffering, but we also see how people become more compassionate. Someone needs something and Providence happens,” she says. “Trusting in Providence, I’ve learned to do that. I’m not fearful. Somehow we are able to manage it all with the Lord’s help.”
With the number of Providence Associates growing — there are currently 96 in Canada, Peru and Guatemala — the need for smaller group meetings has increased. As co-ordinator of the nine-member Catalpa Group, Dutcher plans the year’s gatherings, which include prayer and study as well as ministry, for example spending a night at the Providence Manor pub interacting with the residents. Prayer partners also pray for each other daily. Dutcher has two, one from Kingston and one from Guatemala. Associates provide mutual support for one another by listening, reflecting and praying.
“We share our stories, come to know each other and the works of others. Your spirituality is deepened as you journey together,” says Dutcher. “My prayer life has also been further developed, and the Associate prayer has given me real strength every morning and centres my whole day.”
The Associates also carry their experiences into their parishes, some as ordained ministers in their traditions, some as volunteers in prison ministry, school chaplaincy, palliative care, soup kitchens and food banks. Dutcher, a parishioner at St. Paul the Apostle church in Kingston, is a reader and works in pastoral care and eucharistic ministries. She also makes presentations about Providence Manor to the church’s youth group, inviting them to meet the residents for one-on-one conversations about, for example, what it was like to have served in both World Wars, or to have spent a lifetime in a career a young person is considering.
Dutcher finds the Associate relationship is relevant to all aspects of her life. “There is something ‘more’ to life,” she notes, “and the ‘more’ within us is our spirituality.”