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Sisters celebrate years of service

| Saturday, Sept. 1, 2001

When Stephanie de la Roche walked away from French high society in 1851 to serve the poor, she took the first steps toward founding a religious order that would find its way to the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains.

From the stately motherhouse in McCandless, the Sisters of Divine Providence are celebrating the order's 150th anniversary.

What began as a humble group of women working against poverty in Germany has grown into an international order of more than 700 sisters.

The years have taken the order from service in hospitals and schools to new areas of outreach, but the mission remains the same.

'We want to make God's providence visible, to be instruments of God's care particularly for those whom otherwise might be disregarded,' said Sister Michele Bisbey, director of mission effectiveness.

The sprawling grounds along Babcock Boulevard include La Roche College, Kearns Spirituality Center and the Providence Heights Alpha School.

The motherhouse is in the final stages of a multimillion-dollar renovation brought on by a violent storm in 1998 that tore off the roof.

The sisters also run Providence Family Support Center on the North Side, two child care centers, a retreat center, and a women's shelter in Clarion.

The order serves in St. Louis, Massachusetts, Germany, Korea, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

'We have known very graphically and completely God's care for us,' Sister Michele said. 'We're compelled to be that for other people. Very frequently, it's standing for someone when no one else will.'

Sister Michele works as an advocate for abused or neglected children. For more than a decade, she has served as a foster parent - taking in children when no one else would.

Her first experience with foster care came when she was called to care for a 2-day-old baby born to a crack-addicted mother.

Sister Michele thought she would have the child for a weekend. The little boy stayed with her for nearly two years.

In all, the nuns have cared for more than 20 foster children.

Sister Ernestine Alberter can tell a story about each of them. At age 93, she has been in the order longer than any other living member.

For 77 years, Sister Ernestine has lived a simple life of serving others and following the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

She joined the community at age 16 - and followed the path of her two sisters.

At that time, young women filled the halls of the motherhouse. Today, those elderly nuns keep a vigil of hope for the future.

'We have some girls who are interested in religious life,' Sister Rosalia Caulfield said. 'I keep thinking that if this is the work of God, he'll work it out.'

After decades in education, Sister Rosalia spends her days preserving the order's history.

In a small room atop the motherhouse, Sister Rosalia works alongside Sister DeLellis Oravitz and Sister Margaret Boes to maintain the community's archives.

'Young women who come after us are going to want to know the history,' Sister Rosalia said. 'They're going to want to know how this all started.'

The archives tell the story of a passionate priest, the Rev. Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler, who became a bishop and co-founder of the order.

In 1876, six pioneer sisters made the voyage to America to teach German immigrants. The sisters eventually settled in Pittsburgh and built the motherhouse that has been a North Hills landmark for nearly a century.

'We want people to know that we're here,' Sister Rosalia said. 'We're working for them and for God. It's our calling and our privilege to do these things and we're happy to do them.'

Elizabeth Barczak can be reached at or (724) 779-7113.

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