By Becky Aubut, Anchor Staff
FALL RIVER, Mass. — On November 8 at Church of the Immaculate Conception, on the grounds of the Mother House of the Sisters of Providence in Indiana, Fall River resident and Anchor columnist Helen Flavin joined with 21 other Providence candidate-associates with the Sisters of Providence in a commitment ceremony to pledge “to honor Divine Providence and further God’s loving plans through works of love, mercy and justice in service among God’s people.”
The Sisters of Providence is a congregation of nearly 350 women religious who have a motherhouse at St. Mary-in-the-Woods in Indiana. The Sisters of Providence minister in 17 states, the District of Columbia and Asia, and the recent Providence candidate-associate commitment ceremony brought the total of Providence associates to more than 200 in the United States and Taiwan.
To become a Providence associate, candidates are paired with a Sister of Providence or Providence associate, and go through a year of study, prayer and reflection; for Flavin, her journey to becoming a Providence associate is the culmination of a lifelong journey of faith, and that her commitment to the Sisters “felt like I was coming home,” said Flavin, “as opposed to just discovering something.”
Flavin has spent a lifetime of “discovering” through her academic studies. After graduating valedictorian from B.M.C. Durfee High School in Fall River, she earned a scholarship to Boston College and studied chemistry, earning her college degree in 1984 at a time, she said, when men dominated in the science world.
After applying to medical schools, she discovered that she had limited her options by only applying to a few schools.
“I didn’t get in the first time around, so I was crushed,” said Flavin. “I started doing research as an undergraduate and fell in love with doing research” so Flavin decided to stay in the chemistry department and earned her Ph.D. in 1993 in neurochemistry.
Even as a little girl, her Catholic faith was strong. Her family attended weekly Mass and Flavin said her mother “encouraged” her and her siblings to talk about their faith: “When I was growing up, my mom used to question us every once in a while to see if we understood about what was going on, and I remember those chats in a positive way,” recalled Flavin.
After earning her Ph.D., Flavin moved to Connecticut to attend Yale School of Medicine in New Haven for her postdoctoral studies. There she joined a Catholic young adult group in the area to meet people, though Flavin said that looking back, “I think God had other things in mind because that’s where my Spirituality and interest really started to grow.”
The group would meet once a week and did many activities that included readings, discussions and a once-a-month service activity that saw the group cook for and serve a homeless shelter.
“I loved being with all the people in the group,” said Flavin, crediting one person in the group who made the biggest impact on her Spiritual life. “One of the things about that group was the priest who was in charge of the group, Father Carlton Jones.”
The pastor of a Dominican parish, Father Jones made it a point to be there each week for almost every meeting: “He made it a top priority on his schedule,” said Flavin. “We could show up and ask anything, talk about anything; we were challenged, and that’s where it all began to come together for me.”
Father Jones was the first to encourage Flavin to write down her thoughts, an encouragement that has opened additional doors for Flavin, including her becoming a columnist for The Anchor. Father Jones also saw an inner Spiritual light in her, said Flavin, and thought maybe she had a religious calling and said she should reach out to a Dominican order and explore the possibility of becoming a nun.
But instead of being welcomed with open arms, Flavin was told through a letter from the order that because she had earned a Ph.D., and that those who have earned a Ph.D. have a hard time with vows of obedience, the answer was “a thanks, but no thanks,” said Flavin, who said that she couldn’t even argue the point because just challenging the answer shows “you can’t follow directions, so I just said, ‘God’s answer is no.’”
Flavin was disappointed and felt that though God had called her, she would be unable to live up to His call; “I felt like I had failed, in a sort of way,” said Flavin, though she kept faith and felt that God still had something planned for her. “I just kept trying to live a good life and keep on going, and that eventually I would understand.”
She could have done a second postdoctoral study at Yale, but instead Flavin came home to Fall River to attend her ailing mother, and spent her mother’s final year by her side before her mother passed away at age 62. At that point, Flavin felt adrift: “After that, it was like, what am I going to do with my life?” she said.
She spent the next few years dabbling in the chemical and pharmaceutical industry while teaching at night — an occupation she fell in love with in high school while being a lab aide — and eventually found herself as an adjunct faculty member, teaching at five or six colleges at once: “It was fun and challenging; each day was a different day,” recalled Flavin. “I loved being with all the students.”
Flavin decided to become a high school teacher, and a former principal she worked for lit the writing flame again by asking teachers to write prayers. She eventually landed a teaching position at St. Margaret School, a Catholic middle school in Rumford, R.I., where she is currently in her first year and feels the school “is the place God wanted me to be,” she said.
Flavin is also a friend and caretaker of Sister Clare Dumont, SS.CC., a retired nun who was living in an assisted-living home when Flavin went to attend Mass one snowy Sunday, only to find that the priest hadn’t been able to make it in, but a nun stepped in and decided to say a few words. Not only was Flavin touched by what the nun said, she was pleasantly surprised to find out that the nun had a Ph.D.
The final piece to fall into place for Flavin’s faith journey was when a younger faculty member expressed her thoughts about becoming a nun, and Flavin’s reaction to the admission.
“I looked at her and my mind went back to my Yale days. I was happy for her, but my thought went to my past,” said Flavin, an emotion that showed on her face. When the young woman asked what was wrong, Flavin admitted to her that she had thought about becoming a nun and how the order had rejected her due to her earning a Ph.D.
“She whipped out her cell phone and said, ‘My order would never do that,’ and she called her contact. I didn’t know what to say, but I figured their answer would be they didn’t want a Ph.D. either.”
Instead of getting her hopes up, Flavin said to herself, “God, this one is Yours.”
That order was the Sisters of Providence, and the answer was mixed: Flavin was too old now to become a nun, but she could make the commitment to the order by becoming a Providence associate, and that’s how Flavin came to be standing at the front of the altar just a few weeks ago — a path that God had intended for Flavin to follow all along.
“I think God was guiding me to a place — you know how they say all your experiences in life prepare you where you need to be right at this moment? I definitely feel God’s guidance taking me there,” said Flavin.
And though she feels like she has come home, she feels there is work still left to be done: “I felt like I was working in a tiny part of God’s vineyard, and I wanted to feel a part of something bigger, a part of something that was reaching God’s people throughout the world, and I wasn’t sure how to do that,” said Flavin.
“When I went through this, and now that I’ve become an associate — part of the process is at the end [of the ceremony], when you’ve received your cross, you’re standing at the altar and facing the congregation, the congregation and visitors rise and give you a blessing.
“As I was standing there, I was looking at everyone who was there and thinking [the order] is spread throughout the world, and I did feel like a part of something bigger. I felt that I had achieved and found exactly what I had hoped to find.”