Handmaids halt plans to serve in archdiocese

| April 24, 2018 | 0 Comments

From left, Sisters Mary Elizabeth Plante and Magdalena Marie Marschall, and Mother Mary Clare Roufs of the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus in New Ulm take a break from doing work at what was to be their convent in St. Paul July 31, 2017. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

A series of delays and red tape in trying to convert a 1922 St. Paul building into a convent has led the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus to pause their establishment in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

“As much as we were so sad about it, we’ve come to follow the Lord, and we know that his ways are actually better than our ways,” said Mother Mary Clare Roufs, who formed the order in 2007 with three other women. “So, there’s a real peace, even though there’s a sadness, but also hope, insofar as we hope to be back soon.”

The New Ulm-based order announced last May their plans for a convent that would house four sisters to primarily serve at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul. A few months later, they began transforming a former chancery building next to the Cathedral that served as the longtime offices of The Catholic Spirit. But coming up on a year of work with no real progress, the sisters saw the obstacles as a sign from God that the timing isn’t right.

Mother Mary Clare said the sisters had completed significant work with help from many volunteers and professionals: They removed all carpeting and restored hardwood floors; scraped, patched and painted walls; refinished window sills and installed donated wooden blinds; installed new lights and ceiling fans; installed tile in a kitchenette; removed wires; and cleaned the attic, which they had hoped to use for bedrooms. 

“Truth be told, everything we do, we do for God, and we know that God will use it, and hopefully it will be for the good of the Church,” Mother Mary Clare said of the work. “It was a labor of love, and hopefully it won’t go wasted.”

They hadn’t yet received a construction permit from the City of St. Paul to proceed with larger renovation plans. Mother Mary Clare noted the difficulty in trying to transform the former office building into a residence, citing city codes, high costs and a complicated process. They had hoped to complete the work by this summer.

Father John Ubel, Cathedral rector, announced the change in the parish’s April 22 bulletin. He later told The Catholic Spirit that the Cathedral Heritage Foundation didn’t purchase the building for an intended use, so when the opportunity arose to try to convert it into a convent, they faced a lot of city rules, given its location in the historic Cathedral Hill district. 

“By about Christmastime, it was pretty clear that things were going very slowly with permissions and changing ideas about how the layout would look, and whether or not there could be some shared space and what that would look like,” he said. “It’s hard to do construction when you’re trying to get permissions and figure out buildings with huge, thick walls that aren’t easily renovated. … These things are very time consuming and expensive to renovate when they’re not built as living quarters.”

Father Ubel said there are no immediate plans for the building, but stakeholders will meet to discuss possibilities. The Cathedral Heritage Foundation, which purchased the property in July 2016 as a result of the archdiocese’s bankruptcy, is a nonprofit that provides support for and education about the restoration and preservation of the Cathedral and its campus.

Despite the challenges, Father Ubel said the parish is “most appreciative” of the sisters’ spirit and ministry. 

“It’s great to see a young and growing community, and my hope is that they will end up serving in many dioceses in the future,” he added.

In addition to working on construction projects, the sisters were serving at the Cathedral and the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota campus, and working with the archdiocesan Office of Vocations at events and Bethany House, a discernment house for women in northeast Minneapolis. They had been living at a former convent at St. Michael in West St. Paul.

Mother Mary Clare said ultimately, the roadblocks were delaying their apostolic work. The Handmaids now have plans to expand to another Minnesota diocese, which will have accommodations and work available immediately. The sisters who were going to serve in the archdiocese will move to the other diocese, which plans to make a formal announcement in the coming weeks. 

With strong ties to the archdiocese, Mother Mary Clare said the community is laying the foundation now and will likely open a house here in a few years. Ideally, they’d like to move into a house rather than try to renovate a space into a residence so that sisters can focus on serving. 

Many of the sisters are from the Twin Cities. The community has 21 sisters, including seven postulants, five novices, five who have made simple vows and four who have made perpetual vows. 

“For us, it’s very much we’re in active discernment and communication with the archbishop, trying to figure out where does it make sense for us to go, if not at the Cathedral,” Mother Mary Clare said, “and we’re very hopeful that the Lord’s going to make that clear in the next few months here hopefully, in which we can start to make preparations for that to be a reality soon.”

Archbishop Bernard Hebda said he looks forward to the day when they’ll have a full-time presence here.

“I know that the archdiocese already benefits greatly from the ministry and witness of the Handmaids,” he said. “I hope that the Lord will continue to bring growth to their community.”

“Although it’s kind of sorrowful, there’s actually a lot of hope in our heart, because we trust that the Lord is actually doing something beautiful here,” Mother Mary Clare added. “It’s not a leaving; it’s just a delay in trying to find a place that is really going to be the best place for us, even though we thought this was it.” 

Regardless of their long-term plans, the sisters will have a presence in the archdiocese each summer for the next five years as some members work toward a master’s degree in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

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