“God Has a Plan for You:” A Conversation with Sister Alice Wittenbach
Author's Note: A 1960 graduate of Aquinas College, with a major in English and minor in Biology, Sister Alice Wittenbach, O.P., demonstrates a life rooted in each of the Dominican charisms of study, prayer, service, and community, as well as an ongoing commitment to the integrity and growth of Aquinas College. Over the years, she has been many things: a leader, a mentor and a professor of many subjects, including biology, the humanities, and literature, among others. Currently, Sister Alice is the Coordinator of Alumni Reunions for Aquinas College. Through her many years of service to the Aquinas community, she has cultivated a lifelong passion for faith and pursuit of knowledge. Her example is an inspiration to others. Recently, I sat down with Sister Alice to discuss her accomplishments, the many lessons she has learned in life, and her advice for new and upcoming Aquinas graduates.
Could you tell me what inspired you to go into the religious life?
For a long time, I didn’t think it was a good idea. As my life moved along, and actually as I met the Dominican sisters [while studying] at Aquinas -- I had never met any sisters till I came here -- I thought, “They’re happy, they’re joyful, they’re welcoming, and they’re friendly.” It’s a strange thing to explain, but it’s like the voice of God enters into your head and your heart somehow. By that time, I was ready to go.
When I was a freshman at Aquinas, I went to one of the Dominican priests here, and I said, “I’d like to go to Marywood, so that they’ll send me home, and I’ll know I don’t belong there.” And he said, “Well, that’s no reason to go. You stay home and you pray about it for a little bit longer.” So I did. I came back as a sophomore. At the end of that year, I thought, “This is what God wants me to do.” I think it comes from a lot of prayer, and realizing that Dominicans that I had met were really interested in teaching and learning and serving: all of that together, I think, drew me forth.
At the time, where was home for you?
I grew up on a big farm outside Belding, Michigan, in St. Patrick’s Parish. My dad was a big farmer: cattle, and corn, and wheat, along with many acres of apples. It was a big, wide space to grow up in! The whole area had been purchased by my grandfather when he came from Switzerland. It was gentle, a good place to grow up. I had three brothers and one sister, and I was the eldest of them.
Did your parents have any expectations as you were growing up, of what they wanted you to do with your life?
They were interested that we go to school, that we continue our education. My mother had come to Aquinas as a freshman, when it was Catholic Junior College. So she said, “Oh Alice, why don’t you try Aquinas?” My dad was just interested that we be good. That we go to school. Neither of [my parents] had any expectation that I would enter religious life. That was not a goal for them. It was just something that was bubbling around in my head for many years before I gave any serious thought to it.
Looking at your life as a whole, are there moments of great triumph, or special moments of God helping you, that you feel comfortable sharing?
That’s a great question. My dad died very suddenly when I was in graduate school. I remember thinking, “How can we deal with this? How can this all happen?” I remember my mother saying, when we were at the funeral, a fresh breeze came across her face. It was like dad saying, “Don’t worry, it will be alright.” When I went back to Oklahoma, I remember sitting in the chapel one time and having a great light come into the chapel windows. I thought, “I think that’s of God.” Those kinds of things help. Also, the constant prayer that we did - we always were saying the Divine Office, and going to Mass - I think those were all consoling pieces.
One of the wonderful things about your journey is that you were educated at Aquinas, and then you returned here to serve. Today, we still encourage students to give back: not to let it stop with them, but to keep giving. Was this return a natural fit to you?
I taught five years at Muskegon Catholic Central. It was a time when the United States government was providing many scholarships for teachers of science. Russia had put up Sputnik, and we were behind. They thought we needed to have more teachers of science, that are better prepared. One of the Dominican sisters who was in the science department at Aquinas, suggested, “You should apply for one of those scholarships!” Which I did, and I got one at the University of Oklahoma. That changed my interests and my focal point, from mostly English literature and writing, to Biology. I did a Ph.D. in Biology. Then they needed a teacher here, at Aquinas.
Many of the young sisters were educated for the purpose of coming back. In terms of being here, it was sort of a given. I thought, “Maybe that’s what will happen to me.” But you don’t know -- I was young, and you sort of take life as it comes. So I came back. I didn’t even have to apply. There was a spot and I filled it. And that was the beginning of all those wonderful years of teaching at Aquinas, and all those wonderful students who fell in love with Biology and Environmental Biology and flowers and trees and insects! I just loved the whole teaching career that I had here, along with several semesters at our overseas study program in Tully Cross, Ireland.
In your time here, are there things that other people can learn and take away in their own lives, for their own growth?
[Many of my students] were interested in environmental issues. I think they were interested, even back then, how we preserve our environment. How do we think about such things as global warming? How do we learn to appreciate more? I think the coursework itself enlarged their lives. I think that inspired them to have that context in their own lives.
We have many students who are soon graduating, who are taking the next steps of their own journeys. There’s a lot of change that comes with that. Is there advice from your own experience that you would offer to students taking that next step, going out into the world?
I always used to say to the students, “You are going to have many opportunities. And God has a plan for you.” You need to pray about what this plan is. Then, as this plan develops, you don’t pull all the plums out at one time. You leave all the opportunities in there together. They’ll be mixed and matched, and at some point it’ll just seem to be the right thing.
I want to thank you for your many years of service to Aquinas, and to the wider community. Your example is an inspiration for many!