Galesburg native connects with God through creation

Photo Caption: Sister Ann Sullivan, SP, a native of Galesburg, picks tomatoes in an organic garden at the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice at the Sisters of Providence motherhouse near Terre Haute, Ind.

By: By Tom Dermody

ST. MARY-OF-THE-WOODS, Ind. — Sister Ann Sullivan, SP, is well connected, but not with the rich and famous.

Her care and respect for animals, plants, and the land are among the ways she connects with God.

From a childhood on a farm north of Galesburg through the last 13 years as director of the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice operated by the Sisters of Providence at their motherhouse here, Sister Ann has lived and taught the “interconnectivity of all creation.”

“God has provided for us,” says Sister Ann, a former teacher at Immaculate Heart of Mary and Costa elementary schools in Galesburg. “This magnificent creation is the greatest gift we have,” she adds, though lamenting that humans don’t always treat it as such.

This summer, Sister Ann handed on a great gift of her own in entrusting the White Violet Center to a new director. The center, on hundreds of acres owned by the Sisters of Providence, is a well-known destination for environmental education and features organic crops, an orchard, certified natural forests and even a herd of award-winning alpacas.

The gentle alpacas “are more popular than any of us on campus,” said Sister Ann, referring to nearby St. Mary-of-the-Woods College, sponsored by the Sisters of Providence. Like the religious community, the school was founded by newly canonized St. Mother Theodore Guerin.

Sister Ann was honored for her pioneering work at the White Violet Center at a recent reception at St. Mary-of-the-Woods, located just outside Terre Haute, Ind.

“Because of you, Ann, we see the world differently,” said Sister Marie McCarthy, SP. “Because of you, we think differently. Because of you, we ask different questions. You have transformed the consciousness of people.”

That’s just what the religious community hoped would happen when, following an international assembly in 1993, the Sisters of Providence named eco-spirituality and sustainability among its priorities. Sister Ann was charged with developing land the community had formerly rented into a place that, grounded in Providence spirituality, offered leadership and education in the preservation, restoration, and reverent use of all natural resources.

It was called the “White Violet Center” because the flowers native to the area were a favorite symbol of St. Mother Theodore for the young religious community and school.

One of Sister Ann’s first goals was to obtain organic certification for the cropland, a three-year process.

The center — also featuring a water garden, berry patch and straw bale house — has become a favorite place of learning for area students, Scout groups, and environmentally-minded organizations and individuals. Sister Ann noted that Schlarman High School in Danville has sent students on field trips to the center.

White Violet draws large crowds each April for Earth Day, and is a popular, quiet destination for those on sabbatical.

But while environmental concern and spirituality now mesh easily — and are a frequent topic of Pope Benedict XVI — it wasn’t so in the past.

Those who promoted eco-spirituality were formerly “thought of as ‘New Age’ or ‘way out there’ by people who didn’t take the time to understand,” said Sister Ann. “That has changed. There’s been a lot of progress.”

Sister Ann was environmentally aware before it was popular to be “green.”

Her family’s farm dates to the 1850s, and her father — John Sullivan, who died a year ago at the age of 96 — embraced the Irish Catholic tradition of “the land being sacred.”

“There was a strong sense of responsibility and care for the land and animals,” said Sister Ann, noting her father was named an Illinois Master Herdsman several times for the quality of care for the family’s sheep herd.

“I remember sowing oats with my Dad and our horses, Old Molly and Mike,” she told The Catholic Post this week. Sister Ann’s mother, Margaret, still lives on the farm and is a member of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Galesburg, and three siblings reside in Galesburg.

In addition, three of her cousins from the Galesburg area are also Sisters of Providence: Sister Carol Nolan, serving in Hispanic ministry in Indio, Calif; Sister Lucille Nolan, religious education/children’s music, Sauk Village, Ill.; and Sister Nancy Nolan, a former president of St. Mary of the Woods College now in transition in River Grove, Ill.

Sister Ann entered the Sisters of Providence after graduating from the final class at the former Corpus Christi High School (later renamed Costa) in Galesburg in 1964.

“I had been taught by superb teachers,” she recalled. “I knew the Sisters and respected them. It wasn’t a big step.”

She would become a teacher as well, returning to Galesburg in 1970 to serve at Immaculate Heart of Mary School. Two years later, she was part of the founding of Costa Catholic Grade School, now Costa Catholic Academy.

After earning a psychology degree, Sister Ann returned to the diocese as director of the Spoon River Community Medical Health Center in Cambridge serving Henry County. She later would chair the clinical psychology department at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College, and served in provincial leadership before taking on the White Violet Center project.

Following 13 years of daily duties at the center ranging from “scooping poop” to program planning, Sister Ann now hopes to take some time to further her education, “think, read, and write.” She will continue her passion for promoting sustainable agriculture, warning that chemical pesticides and fertilizers threaten the balance of God’s creation.

“Sister Ann set the foundation by making people aware of the need to think about sustainability, and moreso, to think about God in a different way,” said Sister Maureen Freeman, CSJ, the White Violet Center’s new interim director. “The Divine is immersed in everything around us.”

Sister Ann explains the connectivity of all creation the way Jesus explained the church: as one body with many parts.

“Humans tend to view ourselves as above that,” she said. “It’s a dangerous position.”

“It’s time to look at the health of the planet and the future,” said Sister Ann. “We need to take a long, hard look at the food system. It’s a moral issue.”

Editor’s note — More information on the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice is available online at

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