New religious orders expanding to archdiocese

| August 7, 2017 | 4 Comments

Sister Magdalena Marie Marschall, left, and Mother Mary Clare Roufs of the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus scrape material from a hardwood floor to prepare it for refinishing at their new convent in St. Paul July 31. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Wearing sneakers and smocks, five sisters of the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus painted ceilings and scraped floors July 31 in the building they’re renovating to become their St. Paul convent.

In May, the New Ulm-based sisters announced they had accepted Archbishop Bernard Hebda’s invitation to establish a convent in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

It’s a dream come true for the sisters, who have longtime ties to the archdiocese. The community’s foundress, Mother Mary Clare Roufs, attended the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and then worked in the archdiocese’s vocations office as she discerned a call to start a new community of sisters. In 2007, she and three other women founded a discernment house in St. Paul and started to live in common. In 2009, Bishop John LeVoir of New Ulm, a Minneapolis native, invited the sisters to formally establish themselves in his diocese. As their community has grown, many of the sisters have come from the Twin Cities.

Because so many of the Handmaids are from the archdiocese, establishing a presence here makes sense for the community’s mission, Mother Mary Clare said.

Recognizable by their habits — black tunics with white apron-like “scapulars” and veils — they’ll be based at the Cathedral of St. Paul and are working to transform a former chancery building next to the Cathedral that served as the longtime offices of The Catholic Spirit, into a convent. They hope the work will be done within a year, but they don’t have a firm timeline, Mother Mary Clare said. In the meanwhile, they’ll live at a former convent at St. Michael in West St. Paul.

“Our greatest desire is to be part of the family and to serve the family of the archdiocese in whatever way the Lord desires,” Mother Mary Clare said.

Teachers and models

The Handmaids aren’t the only new community of sisters establishing themselves in the archdiocese. St. Agnes in St. Paul announced July 29 that the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist from Ann Arbor, Michigan, will begin teaching at St. Agnes School and living on the parish campus next year.

The number of sisters the teaching community will send has yet to be determined, but news of their anticipated presence was received warmly by the school and parish. The school has wanted a teaching order to join the faculty since the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady, Mother of the Church, who had been teaching at the school, left a few years ago, said Headmaster Kevin Ferdinandt. He calls the Ann Arbor Dominicans “a perfect fit.”

Not only are the sisters known as stellar educators, but they may also inspire students to consider religious life, he said.

“We pray a lot for vocations to the priesthood and religious life,” Ferdinandt said. “Without a living presence here, it’s tough to foster those vocations in the same way as it is when there are teaching sisters who are … attracting young people to their orders.”

He said that when the sisters visited the school, students flocked to them, as if they had missed the presence of religious sisters in the school.

“From my standpoint, the great gift is to the children,” he said of the order’s impending arrival. “In education, what are we about? We’re about forming souls to be soldiers in this life and to live eternally in the next with God in heaven, and what better way to do that than to have some teaching sisters who are living examples of that sincere and significant commitment to Christ, in living their whole lives for him.”

In a July 29 statement, Mother Assumpta Long, the order’s foundress, said the community receives many invitations to teach in schools across the country, but felt “this was the divine prompting to send sisters into this wonderful parish and school.”

Formerly a Dominican Sister of St. Cecilia, Mother Assumpta, along with three other Dominicans, left their order in Nashville to establish the Mary, Mother of the Eucharist community 20 years ago. The order is now present in Arizona, California, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Texas and Washington, D.C., as well as Rome.

When Archbishop Hebda was bishop of Gaylord, Michigan, he “tried desperately to get them to come to one of our schools,” he said, adding that he feels blessed that they’re coming to St. Paul. “I knew that they were great educators and that the Lord was blessing them with vocations. I think that every bishop in the U.S. would love to have them come to his diocese.”

Sister Carolyn Puccio, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet and the archdiocese’s delegate for consecrated life, said she welcomes the arrival of new communities to the local Church, which includes about 40 other religious orders.

“The umbrella of consecrated life is wide enough, in that the groups of women religious, with their different charisms, their different gifts, their different ministries enrich the life of our archdiocese and the Church and society,” she said. “We welcome these new women to join those of us who have been here since the beginning of the archdiocese and through all the years of ministry and service.”

In July, the archdiocese also welcomed a new religious community of men, the Priestly Fraternity of the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo, to St. Peter in North St. Paul. Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens called the addition of the three new religious groups to the archdiocese a sign “that we’re a vibrant local Church.”

He also said that religious orders see the archdiocese as a place that can foster vocations.

“We’re very grateful for the historic communities who have served here over many years, and we’re also grateful for the new life that these newer communities bring and the witness that they will bring to the beauty that it is to live one’s life completely for Jesus,” Bishop Cozzens said.

From left, postulant Meg Miller works with Sisters Mary Angela Gross and Mary Elizabeth Plante to paint walls at a building that will be the Handmaids’ new convent in St. Paul. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Mothers in the Church

Bishop Cozzens has a unique role in the life of the Handmaids. He and Mother Mary Clare became friends while she was at St. Thomas and he was a priest teaching at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity. When she started discerning starting a religious community, she asked him to provide spiritual guidance. In addition to being a friend, he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the evangelical counsels, or means to holiness, to which religious men and women profess vows: poverty, chastity and obedience.

Drawing on his experience knowing the Missionaries of Charity in Rome, then-Father Cozzens provided spiritual formation for the women as they discerned whether to start a new religious community. Even after the sisters moved to New Ulm and he was ordained a bishop, he has continued to provide formation and spiritual direction for some of the sisters and direct annual retreats. Mother Mary Clare said she and the sisters consider him their spiritual father.

“It’s a great joy for me to have them come into the archdiocese, because I think it’s a great gift, especially for the young women in our archdiocese to see that some young women still chose this vocation, and that it can be a joyful and beautiful way to live one’s life,” Bishop Cozzens said.

Archbishop Hebda said he anticipates “an exciting collaboration” between the sisters and Father John Ubel, Cathedral rector.

“Having seen the Handmaids in action at Cor Jesu at [St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity] and at NET Ministries’ Lifeline Mass, I already knew that they offered an enthusiastic and authentic witness to the Gospel,” he said. “Because so many of their members are young women from Minnesota, I think that they are going to be really helpful to the young women from our archdiocese [who] are discerning consecrated life.”

The Handmaids now have 16 sisters, with seven postulants arriving this month — their largest class yet. Of the sisters, six are novices, six have taken temporary vows and four have taken perpetual vows. Their charism, Mother Mary Clare said, “is to live in imitation of Mary as spiritual mothers in the diocesan life of the Church.”

“We see ourselves as a complement to the diocesan priesthood,” she said. “As the diocesan priest is a father … we complement that with the feminine genius of consecrated life. So, we care for the children in a different kind of way. We assist and support the priests and … really help the family of faith be a family.”

In 2010, Bishop LeVoir established the Handmaids as a public association of the lay faithful, and they received habits and began to live a more intense communal life. They hope to become a religious community of diocesan right, a canonical status for which they can apply when they have about 40 members with more than half in perpetual vows.

In the Diocese of New Ulm, the sisters assist at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity with the liturgy and sacristy work, and teach religious education for the cathedral and five nearby parishes with which it shares resources. Three sisters also teach religion and assist with campus ministry at Cathedral High School. They also assist in several diocesan offices.

With so many new members, however, the Handmaids’ primary work is in the formation of the younger sisters, Mother Mary Clare said. Postulants are primarily from the Midwest. Mother Mary Clare said she typically discourages women from outside the region who express interest in the community.

“Our charism is to be diocesan, local and a stable presence, and a place where local girls can join religious life in their home culture,” she said.

That’s one reason she’s thrilled they’ll be establishing themselves in the archdiocese, where 10 of their members grew up or attended college. Living in St. Paul will be four sisters: Sister Agnes Horlocker, Sister Amata Crain, Sister Mary Elizabeth Plante and Sister Mary Joseph Evans, the local superior. The latter two grew up in the archdiocese. Sister Agnes is from Rochester but earned a master’s degree at St. Thomas, and Sister Amata is from Duluth.

Relying on providence

The Handmaids aren’t called to  keep growing larger and larger in New Ulm, said Mother Mary Clare, who grew up in Winsted, in the New Ulm diocese.

“A lot of our sisters aren’t from New Ulm. They’re from the archdiocese,” she said. “We want to send them home so that they can actually live and establish a consecrated life in their home archdiocese and stay there.”

They’re also reaching capacity at their home in New Ulm, a former middle school building they renovated — with community help — into a convent with a chapel and 20 bedrooms. They’ve since added six more bedrooms to accommodate their growth.

As they did in New Ulm, the Handmaids are relying on the community to help them with material needs. They’ve never done a fundraiser or capital campaign; they don’t even grocery shop, relying instead on daily donations for food, clothing and other needs. Living off of divine providence “has been a beautiful part of our life,” Mother Mary Clare said. “We just trust that what we need God is going to provide. It’s a way in which we are able to witness to the world God’s love and providence.”

As the Handmaids make their home in St. Paul, they’re asking people to help with the renovation work with a series of work days.

“We do the work, and whoever shows up, we put them to work with us,” Mother Mary Clare said. The sisters have learned how to frame rooms, hang drywall, and mud and tape. They’ve laid 14,000 square feet of wood flooring. When the sisters need them, they call in experts.

“It’s slow work, but it’s really beautiful. We’ve found it builds community in a way that we would never have dreamed of,” Mother Mary Clare said.

They’re also working with McCrery Architects in Washington, D.C., to help transform the space. They want their convent not only to be a home for the sisters, but a place where they can host guests.

After they began exploring expansion to the archdiocese last year, the Handmaids visited several parishes where they could make a home, but none felt like the right fit. Archbishop Hebda suggested the Cathedral, and it clicked. They hadn’t considered it because there’s no convent on its property, but once the idea was planted, Mother Mary Clare said, it “began to sing.” Because they serve at the New Ulm cathedral, they’re familiar with the responsibilities of a diocese’s mother church, and it also symbolizes their diocesan character, she added.

Although things have been coming together for their move to St. Paul, there are still many unknowns.

“We’re always going to be growing and entering new seasons, so there’s always going to be fear and trepidation, but we knew that we have to keep stepping forward. We can’t keep staying here [New Ulm], and in some sense not really living the full expanse of what we think the Lord wants for us and the Church,” Mother Mary Clare said. “So, with courage, we’ve been stepping into this with the Lord.”

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