Dual vocation of faith and healing

Growing up in Germantown, Wisconsin, Sister of Providence Arrianne Whittaker always knew she was going to be a doctor.

She went to Catholic schools, knew religious sisters and may have even expressed a passing interest in religious life from time to time — but never enough to derail her plan. While in high school, she even woke from a dream with the feeling that she should explore being a woman religious, but that did not change her plan.

“I was going to be a doctor, and I didn’t think you could do that and be a religious sister,” Sister Arrianne, 29, told Our Sunday Visitor.

But this fall, two years after making her first profession of vows as a Sister of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods, she started her second year of medical school at Marian University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Indianapolis.

She knows she was right about one thing: It’s not easy to combine her vocations in religious life and in medicine.

During the school year, she lives in community with two other sisters, and she has asked them to help keep her accountable to participate and contribute. But medical school is not an easy venue in which to adhere to community life.

“Med school doesn’t care if I have prayer on Tuesday night or if we have community night on Thursday,” she said. “Sometimes they’ll say to me, ‘Arrianne, we haven’t seen you much lately,’ and I have to make an effort.”

While there are other religious sisters who are doctors, she would be the first member of her community to practice medicine, according to the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods website. She made the decision to enter the community with no guarantee that her longtime goal of becoming a doctor would be something she could achieve.

“I just wasn’t ready to go to medical school after I finished my undergraduate degree,” said Sister Arrianne, who majored in biomedical sciences at Marquette University in Milwaukee. “Something was holding me back.”

During her time at Marquette, she had confided her thoughts about religious life to a priest friend. He told her that it could be possible to be both a sister and a doctor. Still, she thought, she wanted to finish her education before discerning whether she should further explore a vocation to religious life.

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After graduating from college, she decided to take a gap year, and she looked for volunteer programs. She ended up at the Wabash Valley Health Center in Terre Haute, Indiana, a clinic that was sponsored at that time by the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods. Because it is only a few minutes away from the sisters’ motherhouse, she lived there while she did her year of volunteer work.

“When I came here, and I began to learn the sisters’ story, I began to see myself reflected in their story,” Sister Arrianne said. “It was just a feeling of, ‘this is where I belong.’”

So she upended her plans and entered postulancy. She continued to the novitiate in 2012 and professed temporary vows in 2014. She expects to make permanent vows sometime in the next several years.

She and the rest of the community discerned together that it would be good — for Sister Arrianne and for the community as a whole — if she went to medical school.

“It wasn’t that it would be good in terms of the financial benefits or anything like that,” Sister Arrianne said. “I don’t even know what I’ll do when I finish. I could go back to the clinic where I volunteered, even though that’s not a ministry of the Sisters of Providence any more. And of course, we have an aging community, and we have a health care facility here. We have a physician’s assistant, and she’s wonderful. But they discerned that if I had a call to medicine, I should follow it.”

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.