Sisters of the 'Good Thanksgiving'
At a time when major religious congregations around the country are struggling to increase their numbers, hold onto their traditions and care for their aging populations, one small group of nuns has taken a leap of faith into the unknown.
Four former Dominican sisters from Tennessee have formed the heart of a new congregationthe Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharistand they are committing themselves to the kind of vocations that hearken back to the earlier days of religious communities.
"This is kind of like a response to the Holy Father's call for the new evangelization, and we think that certainly that will come a great way through devotion to the Eucharist and also to Our Lady," said Mother Assumpta Long, who heads the new congregation and is former prioress general of the St. Cecilia Dominicans of Nashville, Tenn.
In fact, Mother Long planted a seed for this kind of congregation about eight years ago, when she addressed the Institute on Religious Life and challenged major superiors to select four sisters whom they felt best expressed the charism of their communities and let them go to other parts of the country to renew the witness to religious life.
"I challenged them to let these sisters go to a part of the country where there are few Religious or no Religious and to begin peppering the United States again with communities that would witness the consecrated life, would live the consecrated life and the charism," she explained.
New York Cardinal John J. O'Connor established the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, as a public association of Christ's faithful Feb. 9, during a ceremony at St. Patrick's Cathedral.
In addition to Mother Long, the other members are Sisters Mary Samuel Handwerker, Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz and John Dominic Rasmussen.
Although they are already operating with a constitution based on the rule of St. Augustine, as other Dominican congregations do, the nuns will formally petition to become aggregated into the Dominican ordersomething that will require time.
"I am sure that we will get that when we show stability in Dominican spirituality, which we have. It's in our very being," said Mother Long.
In the meantime, the sisters are well on their way to establishing themselves as a new teaching order with an old twist. They will be moving their operations to the Diocese of Lansing, Mich., to begin running private, multigrade schools with no more than 100 children.
The move is being made with the permission of Cardinal O'Connor, since the order is canonically under the authority of the Archdiocese of New York.
"These are remarkable women. I will miss them," said Cardinal O'Connor, who had requested the assistance of Mother Long when he established the Sisters of Life in his archdiocese in 1991. "Bishop [Carl F.] Mengeling is fortunate to have them in his diocese."
The schools that will be established in the Lansing diocese have been referred to as a type of "institutionalized" homeschooling, in that they will provide personal attention to students and a strong foundation in the faith, but at the same time offer children the social atmosphere that is absent in home-schooling.
"We have an opportunity to be in very small schools that we will help to design," said Mother Long. "There will be a chapel in each of the schools and daily Mass, and certainly devotion to Our Lady. We will keep them like a family atmosphere where the faith is loved, the children are loved and are given individual attention.
"It's kind of like going backwards in timeto start with evangelization that way, in small ways, and see where the Holy Spirit leads us. We're open to wherever the Spirit leads us. We're going to start with these schools, but we'll go where God wants to take us."
The schools are being financed by Catholic businessman and pizza magnate Tom Monaghan, who has promised to build new schools as the congregation grows and is able to staff them.
The nuns, who can assume legal ownership of the schools at anytime, will begin with two schools for the fall semester in the Ann Arbor area: They will take over administration of Spiritus Sanctus Academy, which Monaghan established as a private elementary school in the early 1990s, and they will administer a second school that is being built by the Domino's Pizza owner along with a convent.
All of this is being accomplished with the permission and blessing of Bishop Mengeling of Lansing .
"I am convinced of the faith and the loyalty and the strength of these four sisters," Bishop Mengeling told Our Sunday Visitor. "I think they will be able to start a foundation that will be a powerhouse of spirituality and a real draw to a lot of young women.
"They will be down in the Ann Arbor region, where there is no religious community. I think it's a real open door for the Churchnot just in terms of people interested in religious life, but it will be a powerhouse of spirituality for that entire area. They'll make a great impact."
Bishop Mengeling, who will be closely involved in the establishment of the schools and their curricula, said the new schools will "offer a choice" in an area of intense growth.
"It's not in competition with the present diocesan school system. If you look at the history of the country and you look at what's been happening for the last 100 years, private Catholic schools and diocesan Catholic schools have existed side by side in all of our major urban areas, and they're both flourishing. They are in no way a threat to each other," he said.
"These will be private schools owned and operated by the sisters. I think it's going to be a positive dimension in the educational ministry of the Church. The whole purpose of this is the religious education of our children, and I am willing to be open to every option available. It's like what St. Elizabeth Ann Seton started."
That comparison is not lost on Dominican Father Romanus Cessario, a professor of systematic theology at St. John's Seminary in Boston, who has been advising the sisters throughout their discernment and formation. He said that the establishment of this new congregation is part of the "new feminism."
"If you read the history of religious orders, it's sometimes hard to know even in the ones founded by women who was there. Was it the man or the woman? Frequently in the 17th and 18th centuries, it almost had to seem like the man, because he was the only one who could take these measuresSt. Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac, St. Francis de Sales, St. Francis de Chantal," he explained.
"It's obvious thatthrough the good offices of Cardinal O'Connorthe grace is in these four women, who themselves took a very bold step. They stepped away from a community that they had given, in some cases, 30 or 40 of their adult years to and they stepped out without a lot of security," he said.
"They still have to make a go of it. It's a remarkable exercise of what I call 'feminine confidence.' The Pope speaks about spousal receptivity, and these women were very persuaded that, to the extent that they were doing God's holy will, He would support them. And He did."
Father Cessario said the four sisters are good examples of what religious vocations are all about.
"The question of women's vocation in the Church is so contested now, unfortunately. This is a good example of a real vocation, and one that is probably going to have a great deal more influence on saving souls than other so-called power positions, which are illusion," he said.
That is the hope of Sister Rasmussen, who at 33 is the youngest of the four nuns. She said her decision to leave her former order for this new challenge was something she had been praying about for a number of years.
"I was wanting to do something in response to the renewal in religious life, end also [in response] to the Holy Father's writings about the new evangelization and what he's calling us to do: bring forth new life in the Church," she said.
"Truly, the consecrated life lived in its fullness is Marian, because Mary lived her life united to the TrinityFather, Son and Holy Spirit. And I want to bring that aspect of the Church to a deeper respect and understanding among young women."
Sister Rasmussen, who will be vice principal of the two new schools, said that when she was given the opportunity to join the new congregation, she knew it wasn't going to be easy.
"As the doors began to open, I realized it was a huge step in faith, especially since I am young. You look to your future and you don't know," she explained. "It's totally how God is going to lead us, as opposed to if I had remained a Dominican. Then, you would have a sense of where you were going, and you could see that you have stability within the Church.
"Again, it's faith and trustful surrender to God, and that's what Our Lady has taught us."
DeTurris is a senior correspondent for Our Sunday Visitor
This item 194 digitally provided courtesy of CatholicCulture.org