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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Providence sister committed to building international, intercultural ties

Sue Orlowski
Sue Orlowski, SP, returned from work in Chile to new opportunities in Spokane.

Sue Orlowski, SP, who completed two three-year terms as superior of Sisters of Providence at Mount St. Joseph in Spokane in January 2013, is looking for new opportunities as she settles in a community with four other sisters at 1008 E. Boone.

She seeks ways to help implement directions made at the 2012 General Chapter in Montreal where sisters again identified Sisters of Providence as “an intercultural, international, intergenerational and interdependent community.”

The chapter encouraged sisters to live in other countries and learn other languages.  The directions also suggested local houses with community members be mixed-age and include sisters of different cultures. 

Because Sue knew some Spanish, she went to Chile from October to March, returning with insights from living in a different culture to help the congregation and local houses welcome women from other countries, and women who do not speak English or know American culture.

She will also continue her passion for care of the environment, stirred by her love of nature, particularly birds.  Her bedroom walls are covered with nature photographs, including some of the 925 birds she has seen since becoming a birder in 1990.

While at Mt. St. Joseph, Sue wrote two letters a week on environmental issues—such as the Keystone XL pipeline, mountain-top removal mining and coal trains—for sisters to read and sign if they wished, and to inform them on environmental issues.

“To me, God is present in nature.  When we destroy part of nature, we destroy part of God,” said Sue, who was a registered nurse and taught medical assisting at community colleges in Springfield, Mass., and Edmonds, Wash., before entering the Sisters of Providence in 1980 at the age of 32.

She then was a patient and staff educator at Providence hospitals in Yakima and Portland, worked with sick and dying sisters at St. Joseph Residence in Seattle, and taught medical assisting for nine years—applying Sisters of Providence values to work with students who had low self-esteem because of divorce or abuse—at Clark Community College in Vancouver, Wash.

Recently, Sue shared insights from her five months in Chile and her experiences with Spokane-area Sisters of Providence, including those in the house where she lives.

In Chile, she first spent five weeks with elderly sisters at an infirmary in Santiago.  She had intended to go for a year, but returned after five months to heal from injuries sustained when she was robbed in Valparaiso. She had gone to Valparaiso to assist at Casa de la Providencia Hogar por Las Ninas (House of Providence, Home for Girls), where, Mother Bernarda Morin first began a Providence ministry in Chile.  The hogar houses 73 girls from five through 18 years old, who are wards of the state.

“Our role as Sisters of Providence is to work with poor and vulnerable people,” she said.

Sue shared background on the sisters starting the home in 1851.  Five sisters had been sent from Montreal to Vancouver, Wash.  When they arrived, they were told to return, because most people in the Northwest had left for the gold rush in California.  They boarded a ship to sail down the South American Coast, around the tip and back to the East Coast.  Near Chile, the boat had a problem and had to dock in Valparaiso. 

When the people saw the sisters, they said they had been praying for sisters to come and work with poor women and orphan children.  They felt the sisters’ arrival was an answer to their prayers. So the sisters stayed.

Unfortunately in her first week there, she was attacked and robbed half a block from the hogar.  A man knocked her down when he ripped off her fanny pack, leaving her with several broken ribs and bruises, and disturbing chronic back and neck problems.  

When she walked back to the hogar, the sisters did not understand her English, and she did not know enough Spanish to say what happened. They thought she had tripped.  They took her to a clinic, rather than the emergency room.   Only when a sister who knew some English had her write what happened did they realize she had been attacked and robbed.

With pain from the injuries, she had to rest and couldn’t volunteer at the hogar or the Jardin Infintil Preschool, where children might jump up to hug her. 

“I try to find God in every experience, even if it is tough.  I tried to be positive. I sent emails every day, sharing my experiences and observations,” Sue said.

“While resting in a chair on the patio, I listened to pigeons coo and saw how many different colors they were, even though, as an intermediate-level birder, pigeons were the last thing I would have considered watching,” said Sue, who enjoys going on walks to hear birds sing and identify their calls.

“When a person loses something, another thing takes its place, so pigeons were just the thing to keep me occupied while I healed,” she said. On four birding field trips in Chile, she saw 118 new birds. 

Because she couldn’t work with the children, she helped the administrator wrap Christmas presents and helped shop for food at the market.  When she had less pain, she attended hogar functions.  When she was stronger, she went on outings to the beach or park.

On outings, 25 girls, four staff, a driver and large garbage bags of food fit into a van that were intended for eight people.

Now back in Spokane, she wants to start a fund to raise money to buy a bus for the hogar. 

“I met my goal of seeing what it is like to live in another country,” Sue said of insights she gained.

One insight was realizing people do things in different ways.  She noted cultural differences and gained new ideas:  Chileans’ begin counting with their little fingers, rather than their pointer fingers.  Parking garages have green lights above open spots.  Calendars start on Monday, not Sunday.

There are many ways to do the same thing, she commented.

“I also came to understand why people who are learning English may say, ‘yes,’ when they don’t mean yes.  It’s like, ‘Yes, I hear you.’ In Chile, I said ‘si’ when I did not understand what people said. I didn’t want them to keep repeating what they said,” she said.

“Little cultural differences help us understand different ways of doing things and different ways of being in community,” she said.   “Community is important.  Living in a group, it helps to realize there are many ways to do things.” 

At the house where she lives, the two younger sisters are from other countries—one from Vietnam and one from El Salvador.  The U.S.-born sisters are 65, 70 and 85.

“We come together as a group and discern what we need to do and where we need to go,” Sue said.  “In community, one sister may not have a certain skill, but someone else does.  We need to learn from each other to become who we need to be.”

Prayer life, Scripture reading and faith sharing help younger and older sisters, and sisters of different cultures learn from each other, she said.

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Copyright © April 2014 - The Fig Tree