Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Sister Michelle Holland entered Religious life ‘to try and make a difference in people’s lives’
by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the Dec. 1, 2005 edition of the Inland Register)
Left: Sister Michelle Holland (IR file photo)
In 1970, Sister of Providence Michelle Holland was named Notre Dame University’s “Man of the Year.” Today, this honor elicits laughter from Sister Michelle, who received a master’s degree from Notre Dame and has been retired since 1999.
When she received the Notre Dame honor she was acting president of the College of Great Falls, and she told a newspaper reporter that she had no wish to be the actual president of the college because, according to the reporter, “she feels a woman can’t cope with the strains and tensions as well as a man can.”
If you can’t help but laugh out loud at that, you probably already know Sister Michelle, or at least you know of her. It’s also highly likely that, within a few years of that interview, Sister Michelle would no longer say any such thing. Among her accomplishments: Sisters of Providence, St. Ignatius Provincial Council Director of Education, 1964-1974; Sisters of Providence, St. Ignatius Province Provincial Superior, 1974-1980; Chair, Region IV Leadership Conference of Women Religious, 1977-1980; and Assistant to the President, Director of Mission and Values, Sacred Heart Medical Center, Spokane, 1981-1999.
Her service also includes time with various boards, including the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the Spokane Diocese’s Diocesan Pastoral Council, the Pope John XXIII Medical-Moral Institute, and numerous hospitals and medical centers.
Along the way, Sister Michelle assisted Spokane’s Sacred Heart Medical Center in the development of its Center for Faith and Healing, and founded the Women of Providence, a group of 15 Congregations of Providence throughout the U.S. and Canada “who,” Sister Michelle says, “collaborate for the good of all.”
Today she uses an electric wheelchair to get around, and her vision is limited. All the same, she remains active on the boards of the Sacred Heart Medical Center Foundation and Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital Foundation (both in Spokane); Sisters of Providence-Mother Joseph Province; and several committees of her community.
Born in Bovill, Idaho (at the time, population 500), on May 16, 1927, Marion Jean Holland was the only girl of five children. She attended local public schools until after her junior year in high school, when she moved to Spokane to attend Marycliff High School, graduating in 1945. “My parents thought that the school in Bovill was not an atmosphere that they wanted me to continue in,” Sister Michelle said. “There was a Sister at Marycliff who was in charge of placing in local homes girls who wanted to ‘work out.’ I would clean and cook for the people I was living with in exchange for room and board, while going to Marycliff, plus I got $3 a week besides.”
In 1946, Marion Jean Holland entered the Sisters of Charity of Providence (the name was later changed to the Sisters of Providence). Completing postulancy and novitiate in two years at Mount St. Vincent in Seattle, she took the name Sister Mary Michelle when she made her first profession of vows. In 1958, she graduated from the Sisters’ college in Great Falls, Montana, with a five-year certificate in secondary education.
“What influenced me to become a Sister of Providence,” Sister Michelle says, “was that in the town that I was raised in there were many lumberjacks, and quite a number of men from Greece who worked on the railroad. I often, as a young person, wondered who ever prayed for them? Who was concerned about them being able to know God and that sort of thing? So I wanted my life to make a difference in that way. But becoming a Sister was late in the thought process. I thought I could do that some other way, but by the time I finished high school, and some of my friends from school were entering the Franciscans, and the Franciscans were kind of after me to come, and I said no, I didn’t want to do that. There was no Peace Corps or Papal Volunteers, or any of those kinds of things, so I got thinking during the year after high school.”
Sister Michelle Holland belongs to the generation of women Religious that made the transition from the pre-Vatican II forms of Religious life to the post-Vatican II lifestyle of women Religious. She wore the old habit of the Sisters of Charity of Providence for some 20 years.
“I was very positive about making that change, from the very beginning,” Sister Michelle recalls. “One of the reasons that I (favored the changes) was – for instance, with regard to the habit – the Protestant side of my family. We were close, but they liked my dad so much that they tolerated my mother becoming a Catholic. They were basically Methodists. When I became a Sister the Protestant side of the family thought that I had lost my senses. One uncle couldn’t even look at me (with the old habit on). Then after we changed the habit, he and I became friends. Most of the Sisters have said, I think, that if we thought it would help us to reach people we’d put (the old habit) on again.”
Sister Michelle recalls a time when change came to her community even before the Second Vatican Council. “Back in 1956, we changed from praying together out of the prayer book that had prayers we made up ourselves through the years to praying the breviary together. I remember one of the Sisters who was told that we were going to do that, and she said, ‘I’ve waited all my life for this.’ And she was in her early 80s. That hit a bell with me, because I realized that there had to be some changes.”
Reminded that some laity still feel disappointed by the changes communities of women Religious embraced following Vatican II, Sister Michelle responds: “I’d like to remind everybody that my vocation to Religious life did not come from the Sisters. I didn’t know any Sisters. It came out of my family. I often say, ‘Are you trying to promote your son to be a priest or your daughter to be a Sister?’ The bishops were like that to us because they thought we were deserting the schools. Nuns don’t make nuns, but I think that there were a lot of expectations that we would or should.”
Sister Michelle highlights as her most rewarding experience as a woman Religious the relationships she formed with people along the way. “I was a science teacher, and I always wanted to teach religion, to keep me honest, and I had a minor in school counseling, and I think that some of those relationships with my students have been lasting, and that is what has really given me personal enjoyment. That’s why I entered (Religious life), to try and make a difference in people’s lives. This summer I went to Missoula for the 50th (reunion) of students I had taught all four years of high school at Sacred Heart Academy, and it was just wonderful to see pictures of their grandchildren and all that.”
Sister Michelle is also very happy to have been helpful in organizing her community’s Women of Providence program. “This allows all of our new members, from all of our communities, to meet together, and since they are so few in number, and there is such an intergenerational gap with most of us, that I think it gives them a sense that, ‘There are others like me; I’m not the last of the breed.’”
Between 1964 and 1971, Sister Michelle chaired the board of the College of Great Falls, and she views those years, trying to keep the college open, as her greatest challenge. “It opened in 1932, during the depths of the Great Depression, and the Provincial Council could afford to give them as an opening gift $5. And it’s been just about that close ever since.”
In addition to serving on several high level boards and committees, Sister Michelle serves as spiritual director for a few women and she assists her community’s formation team in working with Sisters who are in formation.
Sister Michelle Holland has no trouble articulating the advice she would offer to any woman who decides to become a Sister of Providence today: “Be sure you know that this answers what you know God is calling you to be – and that is more than being a Sister. You live it out as a Sister, but it’s much more basic than that. It’s that life with God that you know yourself, and you want to learn more about it. I think it was St. Francis of Assisi who said, ‘What we are before God, that we are and nothing else,’ and that just makes so much sense to me. Happy the person who knows that and is happy with it.”