Sister Ann Keefe

Using her charisma, smarts and talent for arm-twisting, Ann Keefe is fighting to take back Providence’s toughest neighborhoods, one mean street at a time.

Photography by Corey Hendrickson

(page 1 of 2)

It is easy to imagine the many titles that Ann Keefe might have accumulated by now.

She turned sixty this past July Fourth and one can see her, for example, as chief executive officer, charged with bringing order to an Internet company with a zillion friends and lots of disgruntled stockholders. Maybe she could be president of a bank, preferably one of the kinder ones. Or Secretary of Health and Human Services. Perhaps executive director of a nonprofit agency — turning around an image-tarnished scouting organization.

But she chose Sister. Sister Ann Keefe, SSJ, the Sisters of Saint Joseph.

..The towering Roman Catholic church has played a healing role, not just in its South Side neighborhood, but in Providence and the state.

Sister Ann cofounded the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence, which now has its own renovated headquarters next to St. Michael’s and is credited with helping to sharply cut the city’s murder rate. She started Providence ¡CityArts! for Youth, which has its own building and enrolls 1,200 children yearly in after-school and summer programs.

Sister Ann also helped establish, run, guide and champion a host of other organizations. Here’s a sampling: the Community Boating Center, the Sophia Academy, the Family Life Advocacy Center, Witness for Peace, the Southside Community Land Trust and the Providence Community Library.

Then add these to the list: AIDS Care Ocean State, the Annual Good Friday Walk for Hunger and Homelessness, the Providence Human Relations Commission, the Economic Progress Institute and Taming Asthma.

By now, Sister Ann is legendary for her ability to get things done, to lead, console, confront, organize, schmooze, strategize, shame and entertain with her quick wit. Never look her in the eye, she warns people, from janitors to mayors, lest they be drawn into her latest scheme, shaken down for a donation, handed a paint brush, signed up for an overnight peace sit-in, recruited to cultivate a community garden or enlisted to cook Thanksgiving dinner for thousands.  

Which leads to this: Why would someone with her charisma, her talent for leadership and organization, her intellect, choose this kind of career and life?

It’s a familiar question, she admits.

“We have vows that are not always easy,” Sister Ann says. “You know: poverty, chastity and obedience. Someone says: ‘Well, Ann, what’s the hardest one?’ To be perfectly frank, poverty is the hardest one.”

But seriously, Ann Keefe, why choose to live your life as Sister Ann?

“This is not charity that she does. This is justice — that’s a big difference,” says Teny Gross, the charismatic former Israeli Army sergeant who heads the nonviolence institute and has worked closely with Sister Ann for more than a decade. Gross says that in his own work, for example, he’s not trying to make the streets of Providence safer in the abstract: “I’m making sure that my kids are going to grow up in a world where they don’t get shot — my own children.”

 “She’s not doing charity,” he says again. “This is the purpose of life. It’s so clear, she doesn’t even have to lecture about it. It just comes with her aura — that’s how the world is supposed to be.”

It helps to look back to an incident that took place more than two decades ago: It’s an August evening, with daylight in retreat in South Providence, as a woman guides a Chevy Impala, a tank-like relic from Detroit’s glory days, along Potters Avenue. Suddenly, she slams on the brakes, just missing a car roaring out of a cross street. As she takes a deep breath, seven or eight adolescents surround her car and begin violently rocking it.

To what end? Is this a car-jacking? A murder? A laugh? Whatever the case, the driver is having none of it, and she shoves open the Impala’s giant door and climbs out.

“Sister Ann,” the youths cry out. “The sister from the church!”

As suddenly as they appeared, they’re gone.

Sister Ann calls a meeting that fills the St. Michael’s rectory dining room with people from the city’s recreation department, the neighborhood, the library and the fire and police departments.

“I want to know what you think is missing,” Sister Ann asks the group. What’s missing in the lives of young men with nothing better to do than shake up a woman’s car?

“A couple of people say the arts,” Sister Ann says. Which happens to be what she’s thinking, too.

The result, twenty-two years later, is Providence ¡CityArts! for Youth, an established landmark, with professionally run summer and after-school programs in the visual, performing and writing arts. Not that it was simple.
¡CityArts! first ran as a summer program at St. Michael’s, then it found a home in a jewelry factory, which it eventually took over.

To grow the program, Sister Ann enlisted an army of supporters, including the City Council and then-Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr., the Jekyll and Hyde of Providence politics, a visionary leader and a felon jailed for misusing his office.

Her ability to work with a range of people is one of the talents that distinguishes Sister Ann. What counts, she says, is whether a would-be partner has “focus” on what’s good for the city. “If there’s an imperfect person sitting in front of me,” she says, “that person’s looking at one just as imperfect.”

No single incident or flash of lightning produced the phenomenon of Sister Ann Keefe, just the everyday miracles that come from being raised in small-town America and a big family — and the inspiration of nuns who taught at her high school.

She grew up the third-oldest of nine children in Warren, Massachusetts, about fifty-five miles from Providence, with a population at the time of 3,500. Her father, James Thomas Keefe, oversaw regional wine and liquor sales for the S.S. Pierce Company. Her mother, Patricia Gorman Keefe, went to Regis and Wellesley colleges, worked for Polaroid and taught school.

The Keefes took their children to the local Catholic church and were moved by both the civil rights struggle and the liberalizing changes in the church brought about by the Second Vatican Council. The first time Ann saw her father cry was when John F. Kennedy, the country’s first Catholic president, was assassinated in 1963. “We saw in our parents that concern for being able to change things,” she says. “They really believed social change could happen, in a good way, through the political process.”

Ann was moved also by the nuns who taught at Marianhill Central Catholic High School in nearby Southbridge. “They were very young, they were smart, on the ball,” she recalls. “And they were very strong about social justice and Martin Luther King Jr., and what it meant for the whole country to have this powerful example of what you can do with your life.”

“I was fortunate,” Sister Ann says, “to know amazing women, smart as anything, committed to social justice, who knew that the Gospel meant more than reading Gospel stories. They knew it meant action.”

Ann Keefe entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1970, attending the College of Our Lady of the Elms in Chicopee, now called Elms College. Finishing her training in 1975, she taught at Bishop McVinney Regional School in Providence, in the former St. Michael’s school. That was followed by four years of social work at the school, then a master’s degree in social work at Fordham University.

 Returning to Providence in 1982, she joined the team ministry at St. Michael’s. The team included priests, religious women and laypersons, and they were another of the changes springing from Vatican II, with the goal of increasing laypersons’ involvement in the church. Sister Ann’s assignment was “social justice,” addressing the economic, health and other urgent needs of the neighborhood.
The following year, Reverend Raymond B. Malm joined the St. Michael’s team, and the ensuing collaboration between Sister Ann and Father Ray would have lasting effects in South Providence and beyond.

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