How Sister Judy Tensing became Cincinnati's unlikeliest entrepreneur

In 2006, when Over-the-Rhine’s Vine Street had just begun its building by building transformation, Sister Judy Tensing brought the neighborhood one of its first new retail businesses: Venice on Vine.
Serving up classic Italian streetside fare — pizza, hoagies, pasta, etc. — Venice on Vine also provides catering services to local businesses, churches and organizations. The restaurant is the grandchild of a job-training initiative started 30 years ago at the West End Center on Ezzard Charles Drive.
The woman behind Venice on Vine might seem to be an unlikely entrepreneur, but Sister Judy has given Cincinnati far more than a slice of pizza. She’s been inspiring personal and professional growth in the West End and Over-the-Rhine neighborhoods for years.
Apart from images of convents and sacred vows, the life of a “woman religious” (as the Catholic Church calls its nuns and sisters) is a bit of a mystery to most outsiders. A woman’s commitment to vocational life can take many forms and direct a sister into varied lines of work, so the confusion is understandable.
All women religious are affiliated with ordered Church-approved institutional religious communities. But, unlike nuns who spend the majority of their lives cloistered in convents, sisters live and practice their religious devotion as active participants in the world.
For Sister Judy, who took her vows with the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in 1958, the call to religious life has taken her from her hometown of Cincinnati to Chicago and back again and from teaching first grade in parish schools to teaching adults in non-traditional environments like the pizza shop on Vine Street.

The most important work on Earth
The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur were founded in Belgium in 1804 and first arrived in Cincinnati in 1840 to do “the most important work on Earth,” teaching. All of its sisters work in the field of education, especially among poor women and children, teaching and administrating in schools and nontraditional programs in 18 regional communities worldwide. Cincinnati owes many of its parochial schools to their ministry, including Summit Country Day School and St. Francis de Sales.
Tensing was attracted to religious life from a young age. As a child, she lived in the Corryville neighborhood and attended Corryville Catholic School, which was a part of the Old St. George parish and run by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. She was deeply influenced in those early years by the women who taught her, so following in their footsteps seemed like a natural fit.
“I guess in my head that was always just what I wanted to do,” she says. “I had the Sisters of Notre Dame in grade school, and I admired them a lot.”
Tensing entered the convent when she was 17 years old and took her vows two years later. Early life as a sister meant teaching in various traditional capacities while finishing her college degree from Our Lady of Cincinnati, which would later become Edgecliff College and then merge with Xavier University.
Sister Judy worked in the Chicago area, then in Hamilton and Dayton, Ohio. After a six-year stint as a school principal in Lancaster, Pa., she came back to Cincinnati and settled into a new role as an outreach worker at St. Joseph parish in the West End.
Several local churches opened a food pantry at the West End Center in 1984, and Sister Judy and Sister Barbara Wheeler (a Dominican Sister of Hope who passed away in 2013) took over its operation. The food pantry would eventually inspire the nonprofit organization Power Inspires Progress, which owns and operates Venice on Vine.  
For two women with years of experience teaching and serving among the poor, it was obvious that many of their West End neighbors needed more than what the food pantry alone could provide. Together, they created a ministry that was flexible and innovative enough to change as the community’s needs changed.
In addition to emergency assistance and tutoring, Sister Judy and Sister Barbara facilitated trips for community residents to visit friends and family members in prison. They also provided educational resources and experiences, and eventually they provided jobs.
Sister Judy knew that many of the women who volunteered at and used the services of the West End Center were capable of working and willing to work but were difficult to employ. So she and Sister Barbara tried something she’d done back in Lancaster — they found a way to put women to work while teaching them new skills that could empower them out of dependency and into self-sufficiency.
“There’s something about having job that’s invigorating,” Sister Judy explains. “So we were always thinking about how to get people working and moving on and wanting jobs.”
With a commitment to making the organization sustainable without taking loans or government funding, those first few years were an exercise in trial and error since finding profitable work for somewhat unskilled workers was (and is) difficult. The women learned new skills like silk-screening and assembly work, and, at one point, they built pine box caskets in partnership with a local carpenter.

Not surprisingly, the most promising work was something that most of the women already knew how to do: prepare food. A catering business at the West End Center was born.

Learning to make pizza
In 1990, a defunct restaurant came up for sale a few miles away and the sisters took a chance on it. Without money to rebrand the storefront or change the sign, they adopted the existing business name, Venice Pizza, and opened shop.
Sister Judy didn’t know anything about making pizza, but she and Sister Barbara worked with a friend to develop a house sauce and learned together how to craft a good pie. They continued to operate the catering business at the West End Center as well as the food pantry and education programs, but now they had a formal nonprofit in place for their job-training program: Power Inspires Progress (PIP).
Venice Pizza operated for about 15 years at the corner of Marshall and McMicken avenues in Clifton Heights/Fairview, but running the pizza restaurant and the catering business out of two different locations was cumbersome. It was time to move and merge the two.
At the right time, Over-the-Rhine Community Housing made a Vine Street storefront available for Venice Pizza. They recruited a few classes of students — some from the University of Cincinnati’s DAAP program, some from the Miami University — to help with new restaurant concept’s design and implementation.
After a long, two-year transition, Power Inspires Progress opened Venice on Vine in September 2006 with a full-service pizza parlor, commercial catering kitchen and staff education space. The renovation work was completed free of loans, solely through grants and donations, using many repurposed and reused materials.
Venice on Vine is staffed by a few traditional employees, many volunteers and about 20 roving “trainees.” The location serves pizza by the slice, whole pies, hoagies and salads. The catering kitchen serves local businesses, schools and organizations as needed.
PIP’s mission is to empower people with barriers to employment into a place where they’re prepared and qualified for a job. Trainees can stay for a year of training, by which time they will have experience in all areas of restaurant work as well as new life skills such as managing their finances, interviewing and, for some, completing their GED. More than 1,000 trainees have come through the program to date.
Venice on Vine hires on a monthly basis and doesn’t discriminate. Those who show up looking for work and are willing to put in the work to complete the program are hired.

The doors are open wide, but the organization has high expectations. Trainees must be dressed appropriately for work and arrive on time. They need to have a Social Security card and a bank account. They need to respect other trainees and work together.
Power Inspires Progress and this training program at Venice on Vine are the fruition of Sister Judy’s nearly 60 years of vocational ministry. Although her position is now Catering Manager, she’s clearly still the operation’s heart and soul — everyone who walks in the door knows her, and many have worked for her. They come back to visit and tell her about their new job or their new apartment or how thankful they are that she helped them prepare for life after PIP.

The culture of Sister Judy
Eugene Smith was an accidental trainee who walked in the door because he needed a job and knew Venice on Vine hired immediately.

“My goal was just to get employment, period,” he says, adding that three years later he’s helping Sister Judy manage the catering business.
There is always more to learn, more experience to add to the resume, and Smith has thrived in the work environment.
“I’m glad to be here,” he says. “This is a great opportunity, and I hope that others come and decide to make a positive change in their life.”
About Sister Judy, Smith has nothing but warm regards.

“She is a hard worker,” he says, “a wonderful teacher, soft-spoken, patient, humble.” Then he adds, “But she could probably use some rest.”
Volunteer Mary Welsh expresses a similar sentiment. She’s volunteered with PIP since before Venice on Vine opened. These days, she helps about once a week, mostly in the kitchen with baking and cooking.
Welsh says that Sister Judy is the closest thing she’s seen to “another Mother Theresa,” though she knows the humble sister would scoff at the comparison. “She’s the glue that holds it all together. She’s just a phenomenal woman.”
Although hard work and commitment have carried Sister Judy through to this point, it seems to be her kindness that’s had the greatest influence on the culture of PIP. This kindness and generosity are what come across most clearly when she explains what her training program offers the trainees.
“It’s true that we help so few in a way,” she says. “And it’s hard to get people to want to convert and get working. But we hope that, while they’re working with us, they see an opportunity to make friends and to see working as a way of supplying money for themselves and raising their children.”
Many of the trainees, she explains, have been out of the workforce for years due to family situations, addiction issues or incarceration. For some, this their first taste of paid employment and personal success. To help encourage them to stay the course, Sister Judy showers them with gratitude.
“We’re creating a community of people who know they belong to each other, that they’re important,” she explains. “Many of them haven’t been celebrated, so we try to help them celebrate simple things.”
She surprises trainees with birthday cakes and throws graduation parties when they finish the program. She celebrates their small successes and offers encouragement and hugs when they come back after they graduate and tell her about their new job. And for those who drop out or walk away from the program, she is willing to welcome them back so they can complete it.

Always learning, always growing
In a way, women religious are married to their vocation. Many never truly enter “retirement.” So as for what the future holds for Sister Judy and Power Inspires Progress, she has no definitive exit strategy and doesn’t believe her work is finished.
“I am always calling myself to do better, to teach better,” she says. “I want to be a better teacher even now when my days are numbering.”
She is slowing down but not even close to stopping. And, at 77, Sister Judy is learning to relinquish control of the organization and let its staff and volunteers pave the way for the future.
“It’s like children,” she says. “You raise them, but you have to let them go. If this continues as long as there is a need — and right now there is a need for people to get back on their feet and working again — then that’s a good thing. So, in a way, I hope that this continues.”
Venice on Vine still meets an urgent need in the community for now, and so the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur faithfully support the work at PIP by allowing Sister Judy to work without being paid. Between the support of her family (four of her five siblings still live nearby and volunteer often) and PIP’s staff, volunteers and donors, she is quick to credit everyone but herself with its success.
“We saw the need to do this, or I guess it just developed,” she says. “It’s always been building on other people’s encouragement and inspiration and just going along with it. I don’t know if I would have done this by myself.”
Sister Judy may have had many great partners and volunteers throughout the years, but her humility and heart for empowering the discouraged are the glue that holds the operation together.
“I find a lot of life and a lot of love working here,” she says, and there are always new lessons to be learned. Among them: learning to work with and love the most unlovable of her trainees. But when they’re part of a community of mutual respect and acceptance, when she allows herself to learn from them and to love them, she says, “people grow.”
And it appears the inspiration extends in both directions, because 60 years after leaving home to pursue religious life Sister Judy is still learning and growing as well.
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Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.