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Drawn to religious life: Sister Theresine Gildea, CDP, reflects on early life, and 60 years of service


It’s a typical Wednesday afternoon at the home of Sisters Theresine and Maxine, CDP. The pair, who belong to the Sisters of Divine Providence order, recently returned to their home in Clinton after a visit to their motherhouse near Pittsburgh, Penn.

Sister Maxine carries laundry to the washer, and two Immaculate Conception parishioners, Fred and Fran, fix a door on the side of the house.

The kitchen table is already set with napkins and placemats for two. The sisters went ahead and prepared cold drinks and sandwiches for the handymen’s lunch.

Sunlight shines into the one-story, brick home that was gifted to the diocese 17 years ago. Sister Theresine (pronounced Tray-seen) takes a seat on a couch. She’s ready to talk about her vocation and upcoming jubilee, or anniversary. Sitting on the seat’s edge, she wears a what-do-you-want-to-know type of grin.

“I was born Rita Gildea,” she said. “May 29th … I have the same birthday as John Kennedy and Bob Hope.”

Her mother was a homemaker; her father, a steel mill worker. Growing up, she was one of eight children in a south-side Pittsburgh home. The area was populated with families of Irish, German and Polish descent. Her mother was German, but the family was “raised Irish,” she said.

A monastery, which belonged to St. Paul Parish, was situated at the end of her street. And just a few blocks in the other direction was St. Michael Church and School, where she was a student. Both Catholic parishes were served by priests of the Passionists order, she said. As a girl playing in the neighborhood, she saw those priests at work. “I found them caring. They really did visit every family. Every home,” she said.   

It wasn’t only the service of the priests that left her thinking about others. The examples of her teachers and her mother were important, too. “My mom was a people person,” Sr. Theresine said. “She told us if you didn’t have people in your life you didn’t have anything.”

After graduating from high school, where she played basketball and softball, she worked in a drug store to pay for a 10-week business school course. She had a steady boyfriend and figured she would eventually marry and work in an office.

But as she entered her early 20s, she began to visit hospitals and do charity work with friends. She considered a path other than marriage. “I was drawn to something else, and I knew it was religious life,” she said. “I felt I could serve in a special way.”  

When she told her dad she was entering the convent, he said he would see her in six weeks.

She stayed longer. In fact, her tally in religious life is 60 years. She does understand why her father chuckled at her announcement, though. “[At the time] I was active and hardly ever sat still,” she remembered with a grin. “But I prayed, studied, worked … and we had fun times, too.”

She’s still praying, working and enjoying her vocation. Today, at age 77, she teaches faith formation three times a week and serves the Hispanic community at Immaculate Conception Parish in Clinton and the nearby San Juan mission in Ingold.

“My brother used to joke and say, ‘you can’t love them all’ when I was making friends and helping people,” she said. “[And once I became a sister] … well, I can love them all. Everybody.”

Sr. Theresine Gildea

Six decades of service 

1957: Joined the Sisters of Divine Providence

1960: Began teaching 6th grade

1965: Took perpetual, final vows; went to Puerto Rico to work as a teacher and principal; studied counseling

1975: Moved to Arizona to serve Native Americans

1976: Returned to Pittsburgh, worked in pastoral ministry

1996: Moved to the Diocese of Charlotte, worked in religious education and served the Hispanic population

2000: Moved to the Diocese of Raleigh to continue ministry

- Kate Turgeon Watson, editor, NC Catholics