Class of 2013 Difference Makers

The Sisters of Providence


Sr. Mary Caritas, SP, left, and Sr. Kathleen Popko, SP.

Sr. Kathleen Popko, SP likes to say that the 700-odd Sisters of Providence, present and past, “share some DNA” with Sr. Mary Providence Horan, the first mother general of the congregation.
And by that, she meant that those who worked beside her or followed in her footsteps have possessed both her many character traits and her broad operating philosophy.
As for the former, these include vision, compassion, determination, a large dose of innovation, and a very strong sense of mission.
“Mother Mary of Providence has always been an inspiration to me,” said Popko, president of the Sisters of Providence. “She had a lot of foresight and was very innovative; she established 20 works of charity within the first 15 years of her becoming head of the congregation. She crossed boundaries — she worked with the Jewish community and the Protestant community to help establish the board at Mercy Hospital, And she was willing to collaborate and ask for help from others to support the work she was doing, whether it was in Worcester or Pittsfield. And she had a great love of learning; those are qualities we like to think we possess today.”
As for the latter, well, that’s perhaps best summed up in a quote often attributed to her: “never rest on what has been accomplished, but continue reaching on to what needs to be done.”
Suffice it to say, the sisters have never done any such resting. Instead, they have, over the decades, responded to changing societal needs with the same zeal and desire that were firmly in evidence when two members of the Sisters of Charity of the House of Providence from Kingston, Ontario, Canada, came to Holyoke on a so-called begging tour in 1873 and were invited to establish a mission there to help the waves of immigrants struggling to carve out a living.
They eventually did, creating a legacy of providence that is captured in the statue of Mother Mary near the entrance to Providence Place in Holyoke, with a commanding view of the valley below. She is depicted holding hands with two young children — a boy carrying a schoolbook and a girl with a broken arm — artistic touches designed to spotlight the two basic tenets of the sisters’ work over the past 14 decades: education and healthcare.
Those two foundations remain, especially healthcare, through work carried out within the broad Sisters of Providence Health System. But the modern work of the Sisters of Providence is quite diverse, said Sr. Mary Caritas, vice president of the congregation, who listed everything from programs to provide healthcare to the region’s homeless population to groundbreaking initiatives in the broad realm of senior living, such as the ‘small house’ concept created at Mary’s Meadow.
“The one constant is need,” she said. “When the sisters came in 1873, it was in response to a need — they saw a need, and they responded. We’re doing things differently in this day and age, but we continue to have that same spirit.
“But they also recognize the need to change as society does — we’ve never been afraid to let go and move on from something because society has changed,” she went on, citing, as just a few examples, the transition of Providence Hospital from acute care to behavioral health; the repositioning of the former Farren Hospital in Montague into the Farren Care Center, a provider of services to people with severe behavioral disorders; and new uses for the facilities at Brightside for Families and Children.
The past several months have been a time of celebration for the Sisters of Providence — specifically, the marking of two important anniversaries.
Last year marked the 120th anniversary of the Sisters of Providence’s 1892 foundation as an independent congregation in the Springfield diocese. And this year marks the 140th anniversary of the arrival of the Sisters of Providence’s foremothers — today’s Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent De Paul in Kingston, Ontario — in Holyoke.
There have been a host of events to mark both occasions, from the planting and blessing of ‘anniversary trees’ to an anniversary procession and prayer; from an “open weekend of gratitude” to a dinner at Mercy Medical Center.
And because of that long history of caring being celebrated, there will be at least one more event to attend — BusinessWest’s Difference Makers Gala on March 21, when the sisters will be introduced as members of the Class of 2013.
For this special section profiling this year’s winners, we spoke at length with Popko and Caritas about how society may have changed over the past 140 years, but the devotion of the Sisters of Providence to their mission of meeting the needs of the most challenged segments of the population certainly hasn’t.

Past Is Prologue
Before talking about Western Mass. in 2013, Popko and Caritas wanted to talk first about Holyoke in 1873. Doing so, they said, would at least start to put the work of the Sisters of Providence in perspective, and also help explain that shared DNA.
Holyoke was the first planned industrial city in the country, they explained, and in the early 1870s, it was the place where some mill owners found fortune and many immigrants found opportunity for employment. But most found only hardship in the form of difficult, often dangerous work; crowded, inadequate housing (tenements built near the mills); and systems of education and healthcare that were nonexistent or extremely lacking.
It was into this environment that Srs. Mary de Chantal McCauley and Mary Elizabeth Stafford ventured on their begging tour in early 1873. They found the climate difficult for philanthropy — the country was in recession, and many of Holyoke’s mills had closed, while others were struggling — but ripe for charity, and for mostly the same reasons.
Fr. Patrick Harkins, pastor of St. Jerome’s Church in Holyoke, proposed that the congregation establish a mission in his parish for sick people and orphaned children, and one was created later that year, with four pioneer sisters from Kingston moving into a house belonging to St. Jerome’s but located across the Connecticut River in South Hadley Falls. The first orphan was admitted one week after their arrival, and the first patient was admitted for hospital care on Dec. 2, the recorded date of the beginning of the House of Providence, the first Catholic hospital in Western Mass.
Two years later, land was acquired for a new House of Providence on Dwight Street, while that same year, six sisters from Kingston, including Mother Mary of Providence, were assigned to teach at St. Jerome’s Institute, a school for boys in Holyoke.
In 1880, 53 acres of property in Holyoke, known as Ingleside, were purchased, and ground was broken for Mount St. Vincent, a home for orphaned girls. Sixteen years later, property on Carew Street in Springfield was acquired and deeded to the congregation for the House of Mercy, which later became Mercy Hospital and is now known as Mercy Medical Center.
In 1890, Bethlehem House, a home for infants and toddlers, opened at Brightside in Holyoke, Farren Memorial Hospital was dedicated, and schools of nursing were opened at Providence Hospital, Mercy Hospital, and St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, establishing a pattern of caring and growth that continued unfettered for decades.
“When the sisters came here, they were not here a week, and they had an ophan at the door, and then the alms person in the city decided to send some more,” Popko explained. “It wasn’t long before the need was manifested, and they responded, whether it was with orphaned children or with healing the sick, oftentimes in their homes, or it was with making burial plots because there was no one to do that.
“And I think that’s why the Sisters of Providence ministries have been so diverse, from the beginning,” she continued. “It wasn’t simply that we started a healing ministry and were in hospitals, although that evolved most significantly. We were also involved in caring for the elderly or the orphaned or abandoned children, or in burying the dead, or doing home care. We were trying to be the providence of God in the lives of others, and in doing that, we reached out into healing ministries.”
Today, the area facilities operated by the Sisters of Providence include Providence Hospital, Mount Saint Vincent Care Center, Beaven Kelly Home, Providence Place retirement community, and Mary’s Meadow long-term nursing care and rehabilitation center, all in Holyoke; Mercy Medical Center and St. Luke’s Home in Springfield; Saint Luke’s Hospital in Pittsfield; Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester; Farren Care Center; Genesis Spiritual Life Center in Westfield; and the many agencies of Brightside for Families & Children. There are also operations far outside this region, ranging from a home-health agency, hospital, and retirement village in North Carolina to a health clinic and multiple social-service agencies in an impoverished section of Santiago, Chile.
The specific missions and constituencies served vary with each ministry, said Popko, but there is a common denominator — bringing care to those who need it, and to those who may have no other alternative.

Innovative Spirit
The stories of many of these various ministries, as well as the people who inspired and created them, are told in a recently released book titled 140 Years of Providential Caring — The Sisters of Providence of Holyoke, Massachusetts.
Authored by Suzanne Strempek Shea, Tom Shea, and Michele Barker, it chronicles how many programs and facilities were developed, and is told largely through the eyes and thoughts of the individuals who paved those roads. There’s a chapter, for example, on Sr. Julie Crane and her work to create Health for the Care of the Homeless, another on Sr. Caroline Smith and her efforts to create the Sisters of Providence Methadone Maintenance Program, and still another on Sr. Elizabeth Oleksak and her work at Genesis Spiritual Life Center.
These chapters serve as both historical record and source of inspiration, said Popko.
“The individual stories demonstrate how that original spirit has been the driving force for us for 140 years, and how it’s certainly taken different shapes and forms and responded to the different calls of providence in each of our lifetimes,” she explained. “It’s certainly been an amazing journey, and for us to look back on it all in 2012 and 2013 and to read some of our archival material and relive some of the extreme dedication and willingness to reach out in multiple ways, is certainly inspiring.”
And moving forward, the unofficial assignment for the Sisters of Providence is to write more chapters for the next book, said Popko and Caritas. This means finding new ways to carry out the original mission, while also strengthening the infrastructure and operating philosophy that will ensure that this work is carried out in the decades to come, long after the last of the current sisters, already dwindling in number, are gone.
This is part of the legacy of never resting on one’s laurels that continues today, said Caritas, adding that there are several examples of how it manifests itself.
One involves a portion of the former Brightside property, used for residential treatment programs that were discontinued in 2010.
“I’m sure Mother Mary would have been thinking, as we have been for the past three years, about what to do with that property,” Caritas told BusinessWest, adding that plans are emerging to relocate the Sisters of Providence home-care and hospice programs in the main administration building at Brightside, while the ground floor will be used for something called PACE, or the Program for All-inclusive Care for the Elderly.
Elaborating, Popko said the initiative is a capitated-insurance program that provides essentially whatever care is needed to enable an older individual to remain in his or her own home. “They come to the site three or four times a week,” she explained, “and they might get all kinds of care, be it socialization, they might get a bath, there will be a clinic there so we can look at their healthcare needs and medication. They will be assessed, and care will be coordinated. It’s all designed to prevent those higher-cost institutionalizations by treating them effectively in the short run.”
In other words, it’s another imaginative approach to meeting recognized needs in the community, said Caritas, adding that there are other possible reuses of the Brightside facilities coming into focus, including low-income elderly housing, a geriatric-assessment center, and other coordinated facilities.
“It will be a full-service site,” she noted, “one that will provide all-inclusive care for those who participate.”
Securing funding for the project is ongoing, and it will be a challenge, said Popko, adding that there is no firm timetable in place for this strategic initiative. But the manner in which it is coming together speaks to the legacy of the Sisters of Providence and that notion of never resting on laurels.
“It references a vision of the future, a responsiveness to the needs of the times, and a creative reuse of existing resources — a replanting of the seeds, if you will, that were put down 140 years ago,” she said. “That’s what we’ve been doing throughout our history.”

Mission: In Progress
Returning to her thoughts on Mother Mary of Providence one more time, Popko said that she’d been doing some reading about her lately, and learned that her skills extended into architecture and building practices.
“I just read a quote recently … she said, ‘the next hospital we build is not going to be the conversion of some big house so we can fit in beds,’” Popko recalled. “She said, ‘we’re going to build a modern facility designed for the care of people.’
“Meanwhile, she designed Mount St. Vincent herself,” she went on. “She saw the first plans and went to the bishop and said, ‘these plans are totally inadequate.’ So they made her a committee of one; they tore up the plans, let her design her own building, and pretty much built off what she drew up.”
The current sisters are not architects in the same literal sense, but they are designers and builders in a figurative manner — blueprinting new ways to expand the mission launched 140 years ago.
And in that respect, the DNA is the certainly the same. The 700 Sisters of Providence through history have always been Difference Makers.