I know two persons’ journeys are never the same, but the story of Brittany Maynard has really been on my heart since I heard it. I have been praying for her, her family and that she will have a conversion of heart and healing in whatever way God wills. I was debating if I should write something, share a little of what my journey has been like, of what it was like to live not as someone diagnosed with brain cancer, but rather as someone who loved and lived with someone diagnosed with brain cancer: my husband Michael. Michael lived each day upon diagnosis not just with dignity but also with hope, love and faith. I wanted to share the gift he gave me. I think that is what we are all called to do.
I write this now from the monastery. I hope someday, God-willing, to become a religious sister. However, a little over 10 years ago, my life was very different. I was preparing for marriage. And 5 years before that my life was even more different, distorted by darkness, bad habits and sinfulness without the light of Christ in my life.
I met my husband Michael in college. We dated for some time and married in July of 2004. Though we were both raised Catholic and married in a Catholic church, we were not practicing our faith. 10 months after we were married, newlyweds at 27 and 28 like Brittany, Michael was diagnosed with brain cancer. Mike was diagnosed with a grade 3, mixed anaplastic oligoastrocytoma in his right front lobe. Our lives were changed immediately, in a matter of seconds. We were immersed in the world we did not ask to nor want to be a part of. All of a sudden we were learning a new vocabulary and discussing surgery, treatments, etc. Mike had his first craniotomy on 5/13/05 (Just little over a month away from our 1st wedding anniversary and the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima). At that time, the date with Our Lady did not have much significance to me; however, now Our Lady is so much a part of my life and I am certain she was interceding that day unbeknownst to me.
Upon Mike’s diagnosis we were angry and sad; we felt slighted. We felt we were too young. We wanted to have a family. We felt this was unfair. Why!?! That was the big question we asked and we asked God. This was probably the closest we came to praying together since being married. Why, God? And that was all God needed us to say, to utter, to cry out his name. We needed to be the ones to initiate, for He would never force his love upon us, and he never does. And he responded in a way we did not expect. Mike and I began to be open to the Lord. We slowly began to open our hearts to Jesus. We began to pray together … not just asking why anymore (though that question still lingered) but real prayers. We began attending Mass. Mike’s mom and I began attending a cancer prayer group. Did it mean we were unafraid, didn’t cry, have weak moments and that we were not scared? No. Did it mean that Mike would not suffer? No. Did it mean that Mike was healed? Yes! Maybe not physically the way we desired for him to be healed from brain cancer, but I believe he experienced a spiritual healing and not just Mike but I was as well.
The surgery lasted 14 hours and prior to surgery we were informed of all of the potential risks that we should be prepared for paralysis, cognitive impairments, or speech impairments. A couple times during the surgery, the neurosurgery team would come out and tell us how Mike was doing and responding. At one point the neurosurgeon came out and when I asked him what the prognosis was, his response was, “I’m not God.” He taught me so much by responding like that. His faith was in God, but where was mine at that moment? I still was not fully there, still not fully committed in a relationship with our Lord, in complete trust and surrender. I thought I or someone else had control over Mike’s life, but it was up to God.
Mike survived 4 ½ years after his initial diagnosis. On our wedding day we vowed to be faithful in sickness and in health until death do we part, and we were. There was tumor regrowth, frequent scans, and a plethora of various treatments over the years. Looking back I sometimes compare that time, our journey, to a roller coaster ride that we rode together, side by side … sometimes screaming, sometimes laughing. I am not pretending times were easy, but we made a choice to live our lives with hope and to make the best of the time that the Lord had given us. Each day was seen as a gift. We were able to do so by the grace of God and because we had such a strong support system of family, friends, church, coworkers and prayers! We wanted to live as “normal” of lives as possible. We tried to start a family, but were unable to conceive. That was a difficult cross to bear. We moved and bought a home and got a dog. We traveled, went to concerts and enjoyed the time the Lord blessed us with. Each day was a gift. We joined a parish. Mike befriended a priest here who was so faithful and over the years the parishioners and other clergy continued to be instruments in our lives.
Mike and I were able to celebrate our 5 year wedding anniversary in June 2009. He went on Hospice in July 2009. During the 6 ½ weeks he was on hospice in our home we were surrounded with friends, family and loved ones. We were showered with prayers and love. Mike and I spent more time together, a great deal of time in silence because he was unable to communicate, and in that silence was much love. The best gift we gave each other was our faith, returning to the faith as a married couple, helping one another grown in holiness. We were not perfect and did not pretend to be. But I know in my heart we were in much better places in our relationship with God, with one another and with others than we had ever been. This is a gift I received and I am so grateful. He taught me what love is and how to receive love.
Unfortunately, suffering doesn’t end at death. After a loved one dies those living suffer no matter how somebody dies. There is a loss, an unexplainable loss, a void in life. After Mike died it was his witness, his endurance to suffering that helped me persevere and continue to draw closer to our Lord. The agony I felt, now alone, was painful and I sought his strength and his courage. It was hard because for the first time in 10 years I was alone. I didn’t have Mike’s physical presence there to comfort me, but I had his memory and I had this gift of faith to console me.
Suffering doesn’t always have to be feared or viewed as ugly or wasteful. God makes all things beautiful … past sins, suffering included―he can work with all of that if you give it to him. Mike’s life from the moment of conception until natural death was beautiful. His life gave life: maybe not life in the sense that we had hoped when we married and had dreams to conceive and start a family, but he gave me life, a new life in Christ. And through his life and legacy others are still being inspired. Soon after Mike’s death our families established a foundation (The Michael G. Belz Foundation) to help others diagnosed with brain cancer/brain tumors to live and celebrate their lives with hope! That is the sole mission of the foundation. Hope was an essential element of our lives and we (our families) wanted to give this gift to other people living with this disease, as well as their families and caregivers.
I continue to pray for Brittany and for others who maybe believe the lies that suffering is a waste or there is no hope. I know that if it wasn’t for the grace of God, that could have been Mike and I believing and living in those lies too. Suffering of any sort is never easy, but it is not avoidable. We will all experience some type of suffering at some point in our lives, sometimes more than others, sometime less. But God is there in the suffering. You are not alone and he makes all things good … very good. Let him.
-Mery Belz, candidate
Thank you to all who prayerfully and financially supported the Share His Mercy Benefit Banquet. We began with Mass in Father of Mercy Chapel almost filled to capacity. It was a delight to see everyone and start our celebration as one – the Body of Christ. Bishop Jeffrey Monforton, Bishop of the Diocese of Steubenville our main celebrant was joined by Fr. Sean Sheridan, T.O.R., president of Franciscan University and other brother priests and deacons.
Everyone agreed that the auction and dinner location was spacious and afforded a time of fellowship and ease. The Silent Auction was a fun and entertaining way for the attendees to further support the mission while bringing home many wonderful items. Our net income is approximately $23,000, with donations still being received.
Meet our new candidates! From left: Elise Chabot, from New Hampshire; Mary Belz, from Cleveland, Ohio; Holly Smith, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Sarah Riffon, from West Virginia. They came to our motherhouse in late July and began their formation program officially August 9. Please pray for them as they continue to adjust to our way of life!
On August 7, we watched with much joy as our sisters in initial formation made steps forward in their formation process. Our candidates, Victoria Clarizio, Sarah Kilonsky, Sarah Pratt and Judy DeHitta, entered into postulancy, and our postulants, Jenny Lynn Pelzel and Molly Jameson, became novices.
Our four candidates, who entered in August 2013, each committed to stand with Our Lady at the foot of the cross as they begin this step in their formation. They each received a Tau cross on a white cord tied with three knots to wear around their neck. Our Constitutions say, “The purpose of postulancy is to further discern the suitability of the postulant to our life, to provide a gradual transition from secular to religious life, and to prepare the postulant for novitiate. During this time, the postulant is gradually incorporated into our fraternal life and our daily rhythm of prayer, work and ministry.”
Our two postulants, Jenny Lynn and Molly, who entered in August 2012, took a deeper step into our life by becoming novices. Novitiate is a concentrated time of formation that helps the novice to discern, understand and integrate the evangelical counsels and our Rule and Constitutions. “Central to the novitiate experience is the opportunity for the novice to concentrate on deepening her intimate relationship with Christ,” our Constitutions say. They received our gray jumper and religious veil as well as a new religious name–always the most exciting part of the ceremony.
After adjusting their new veils, Jenny Lynn and Molly waited in anticipation as Mother Mary Ann announced their new names. Earlier in the summer, each of them submitted a letter requesting entrance to novitiate, in which they included three names for the Reverend Mother and her council to consider. Jenny Lynn took the name Sr. Isabelle Marie, after St. Elizabeth of Hungary, patroness of the Third Order. Her feast day will be celebrated November 17. Molly took the name Sr. Maria Grace, in honor of Our Lady of Lourdes, a title of Mary very special to her. Her feast day will be February 11. Please pray for all of our sisters in initial formation!
Whenever I think about my profession day, I can’t help but smile. What a day filled with joy! I don’t think any words can do the day―or the Lord―justice. And to think―I still have perpetual profession to look forward to! On August 5, 2014, my two classmates, Sr. Teresa Reyes and Sr. Anna Rose Ciarrone, and I made our first profession of the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. Our community and our families and many wonderful priests, religious and other friends witnessed as we knelt down before Mother Mary Ann and handed over our hearts and our lives to Jesus, through the hands of our community. As I waited my turn to profess, I felt the Lord say in my heart, “Come! Do not be afraid!” How could I be? There was something, Someone, more than just myself speaking my vows, filling me with an overwhelming eagerness to give love for Love. Shortly after we made our vows, we received our new habits and walked (apparently calmly) down the aisle of our chapel to leave and be clothed anew. I will never forget how we ran to the dressing room, as St. Clare writes, “with swift pace, light step, and unswerving feet.” We ran to prepare ourselves for the Bridegroom. How we laughed as we changed! The old was gone and the new was come! With my heart in my mouth, I emerged with my sisters and waited for the signal to enter the chapel once more. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry―so I chose both. I wanted only to look at Jesus. There He was, waiting for me, always ahead of me, drawing me on. What I did not expect was the effect the Mass had on many who attended. The Lord did not waste any time in making our consecration fruitful! There was so much beauty to behold and to hear and to know, it could not but attract everyone to my Beloved too. There can be no question―never have I felt more freedom, more joy than on the day when I received the crucifix around my neck. Now I begin to live this incredible life to which He has called me. Pray that I and all those consecrated to Him may do so always with great trust in His mercy.
-Reflection by Sr. Mary Gemma Harris, T.O.R.
On August 2, all of our dear junior sisters renewed their profession of vows. Every year on this day, the Feast of Our Lady of the Angels, our temporarily professed sisters renew their vows during evening prayer, after spending a day in prayer and reflection. We also take time to pray over them as a community for all the graces they need to continue to be faithful to their consecration. This year, Sr. Miriam O’Callahan, Sr. Mary Markita Kratochvil, Sr. Agnes Therese Davis, Sr. Sarah Rose Dent, Sr. Rita Clare Yoches, Sr. Veronica Hanson, Sr. Sophia Grace Huschka and Sr. Maria Clare Smith renewed their vows.
Thank you to everyone who contributed to Pedaling for the Poor, our online fundraiser for our sisters at Heart of Mary mission house in downtown Steubenville! With the help and perseverance of Fr. Matt Russick, T.O.R., we far exceeded our goal and have raised more than $11,000! Fr. Matt completed his bicycle ride on August 2, the Feast of Our Lady of the Angels, crossing the finish line at the Portiuncula, the Eucharistic chapel on campus at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Because of their work and ministry with the poor at Samaritan House and LAMP Ministries, it is more difficult for our sisters in downtown Steubenville to sustain themselves financially. But our God is a great Father and has provided abundantly for us!
July 6 was a day of great rejoicing for our community, as we witnessed three of our dear sisters make their perpetual profession of vows. Sr. Maria Teresa Tortorice, Sr. Eliana Day, and Sr. Elizabeth Beussink vowed to live the counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience for the whole of their lives. The day was even more special because it was our first celebration of final vows in Father of Mercy Chapel (the last perpetual profession was in 2010). The chapel was overflowing with hundreds of family members and friends of the three new brides of Christ. Bishop Jeffrey Monforton celebrated the profession Mass, along with 15 other priests and 2 deacons. In his homily, commenting on Matthew 11:25-30, he said Jesus wants to pull us into personal relationship with Him, into the joy and love of the Trinity. “Jesus’ light shines through you, my three dear sisters,” he said, “as you prepare for your perpetual profession … Where is Christ our light? Here it is, our three sisters, embracing our Lord Jesus in a public way this day for all to see. This is for him, and in turn, then, for us to see. There always is hope!” After the homily, the Bishop questioned the sisters in their resolve to be consecrated to God: “Are you resolved, with the help of God’s grace to embrace that life of perfect chastity, obedience, and poverty which St. Francis, following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary, chose for himself and his followers and to persevere in it forever?” They responded in unison―”I am”―before moving onto the altar to prostrate themselves and pray for the intercession of the saints. Then the whole congregation knelt and sang the litany of saints together. Our new Reverend Mother Mary Ann, for the first time, received the vows of the sisters as they knelt before her and placed their hands in hers. “I vow to Almighty God to live for the whole of my life the counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience … Relying on His mercy, I entrust my life to the chaste, poor and obedient Christ. I freely choose to join our Sorrowful Mother at the foot of the cross, and, with St. Francis as my model of Gospel living, I place myself at the disposal of this religious congregation, to glorify God and to make known His merciful love.” After each sister professed, the bishop responded, “If you remain faithful to these vows, I promise you, in the name of God, eternal life.” The rest of the ceremony was rich with symbols and signs of the mystery into which Sr. Maria Teresa, Sr. Elaina and Sr. Elizabeth are entering. The bishop prayed a beautiful prayer over the three of them, and then Mother Mary Ann presented them with their rings. She said, “Receive this ring, for you are betrothed to the eternal King; keep faith with your Bridegroom so that you may come to the wedding feast of eternal joy.” The newly professed then removed their white capes and offered their crowns of roses to Christ Crucified. Mother Mary Ann gave them each a crown of thorns, symbolizing their call to love the crucified Christ and to stand with Mary at the cross. Next she gave them each a rose, a sign of their self-gift to Jesus: “its beauty, the joy and love of your life; its thorns, a reminder of life’s sufferings.” Finally, all of the clergy present and all the sisters in our community extended a sign of peace to the beautiful brides. It was a truly joyful day! We pray that joy and peace continue to uplift our sisters and carry them on their way as they live the beautiful commitment they have made to Christ, their Spouse.
Bishop Jeffrey Monforton celebrated Mass for us at Father of Mercy Chapel on Pentecost Sunday, during which we also had the installation of our new Reverend Mother and General Council. Mother Mary Ann Kessler and the four new councilors made their oaths of office and officially began their 6-year terms. First Councilor is Sr. Mary Catherine Kasuboski, Second Councilor is Sr. Della Marie Doyle, Third Councilor is Sr. Monica Spates, and Fourth Councilor is Sr. Carrie Ann McKeown.
It was such a joy to praise the Lord together for sending His Holy Spirit, not only at Pentecost but even at this time in our community, as we continue to follow where He leads. We are so grateful to Sr. Katherine Caldwell and the previous administration for their servant leadership, and we continue to pray for our new sisters in leadership.
What do a bicycle, a friar, and downtown Steubenville have in common? Pedaling for the Poor!
Fr. Matt Russick, one of our Franciscan Friars, T.O.R., has volunteered to cycle more than 250 miles of rail trails across 4 states this summer to fundraise for our Heart of Mary mission house and our ministries to the poor in downtown Steubenville, Ohio.
Fr. Matt has most recently been assigned to Franciscan University’s study abroad campus in Gaming, Austria, where he has the chance to minister with some of our sisters. He has a heart for our work with the materially and spiritually poor and wanted to help out in honor of our 25th anniversary, which we celebrated last year.
His goal is to raise $5,000 by August 1, when he’ll arrive on his bike at Samaritan House, our thrift store and emergency food bank in Steubenville. He plans to join our community for evening prayer on the eve of the Feast of Our Lady of the Portiuncula. The route will begin in Hancock, Maryland, and will most likely follow the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, the Great Allegheny Passage and the Panhandle Trail.
Thank you, Fr. Matt! Please help us cheer him on with your prayers and your financial help, if possible. We will keep you updated when he begins his trek! Pledges can be made through PayPal on our Pedaling for the Poor fundraising website. Donations may also be made by check, payable to Franciscan Sisters, T.O.R. with “Pedaling for the Poor” in the memo line. Please send checks to Franciscan Sisters, T.O.R. 369 Little Church Road, Toronto, OH 43964.
Thank you for your prayers! We were blessed to have a wonderful retreat May 11-18 here at our motherhouse in Toronto. All of our sisters except for three (still in Austria) were present. It is so powerful to spend a week in silent prayer in the midst of community!
Each day we had at least 12 hours of continuous Eucharistic adoration. We had daily Mass celebrated by Fr. Boniface Hicks, O.S.B. from St. Vincent’s Arch Abbey in Latrobe, PA. Fr. Boniface also gave a conference each evening on topics related to our overall theme: “Openness to the Holy Spirit and Mary’s Fiat in light of our spirit and charisms.”
Fr. Boniface drew from the writings of Pope Francis, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, St. John XXIII and many others to speak on the pattern of God’s mercy and love that is imprinted on all of creation, a pattern we are called to recognize and to which we can respond with our Yes, our Fiat. The conferences were a beautiful preparation for General Chapter as well, as Father quoted from our community’s constitutions to call us on to live our charisms—Crucified Love, Mercy, Poverty and Contemplation—more faithfully and fully. God was full of surprises in His majesty and beauty in nature during the week as well. We had many sunny days with mild temperatures—a blessing for our sisters who love venturing outside for prayer and exercise. As is expected in the spring, there were many rainy days too, but the rain just made the trees and grass come alive with a brighter and fuller green than a week before. The last day of retreat the Lord put His bow in the clouds as a sign of His covenant for each one of us!
Our community is blessed to be on retreat at our motherhouse May 11 to 18. Please note that we will be unavailable during this time. We pray that it will be a powerful time of bonding as we commune with the Lord and with one another in our prayer and silence. We do not always have the opportunity to be on retreat together, but this year it will be a special time of preparation for our General Chapter, which begins May 23.
During the week, Fr. Boniface Hicks, O.S.B., will be giving homilies and conferences for us on our retreat theme, “Openness to the Holy Spirit and Mary’s Fiat in light of our spirit and charisms.” Sisters will also meet individually with our spiritual directors, and we will be free to spend time in prayer and solitude in any number of ways, including Eucharistic adoration and basking in the springtime glory of our Lord’s creation.
Please pray for us during our retreat, that we may be truly open to all the Lord wants to do in us as individuals and as a community and that we may respond generously.
Alleluia! He is risen! We had a joyous celebration of Easter this year at the monastery! Sisters went to various Easter Vigil Masses in the area and met back at the Motherhouse for Easter treats and fellowship afterward. Everyone was very blessed by witnessing Baptisms and Confirmations, hearing inspiring homilies, participating in the liturgies and, most especially, receiving our Risen Lord in the Eucharist. Bright and early Easter morning, some of the sisters gathered outside at a bonfire for sunrise praise and worship. Fr. Shawn Roberson, T.O.R., came to celebrate Mass for us at our chapel later in the morning, followed by Easter dinner. We closed the day with Eucharistic adoration and a prayer meeting in our chapel. We were filled to overflowing with the joys of the day, and the knowledge that the Lord is faithful and fulfills His promises!
We had begun our Triduum celebrations on Holy Thursday with our tradition of washing one another’s feet. This year, in preparation for General Chapter, all of the finally professed sisters washed each other’s feet and then the feet of all the sisters in formation. It is a beautiful tradition we have, imitating Christ’s own act of washing the feet of His disciples before entering into His passion and death.
Sr. Elizabeth and her team for Franciscan University of Steubenville Women’s Ministry put on the group’s first Spring Fashion Show on April 14. About 80-90 women attended the event in the J.C. Williams Center Gallery on campus.
“Through the fashion show, we wanted to help women love their body and embrace their body as they are,” Sr. Elizabeth said. “When you choose an outfit, you’re expressing yourself and how you want to represent yourself to other people. What kind of impression do you want to give?” Twelve students, representing unique body types, modeled outfits appropriate for different occasions. The categories included business, sporty, casual, classic, date night and hipster. Sr. Elizabeth and the student head of women’s ministry served as emcees, describing each outfit as it was modeled. They showed why the outfit helped each woman look her best based on her body type. In between each outfit, the team showed a clip from the TLC show What Not to Wear, in which the show’s hosts give tips on how to accentuate or deemphasize different certain body parts. They also showed before and after pictures from the TV show. The team also created a “magazine” given out at the show with information about how to dress to flatter certain body shapes, hair styles that flatter face shapes, makeup tips, and colors. Sr. Elizabeth said some of the women were surprised when she explained why items like “skinny jeans” aren’t flattering or modest. “A lot of women were really excited about it and wanted to talk to me more and wanted me to go shopping with them,” she said. “I think it was a hit!” She said she often has opportunities to speak with women about how they dress. One young woman came to her with a photo of an immodest formal gown, and decided to wear a more flattering dress after Sr. Elizabeth gave her honest opinion.”She told me, ‘I don’t want to be hot―I want to be beautiful,'” Sr. Elizabeth said. “It was huge for her, seeing the difference.” Sr. Elizabeth and the FUS Women’s Ministry also organize the annual Beloved Event and the Capture My Heart womanhood retreats for students.
Mother Katherine received the “Religious of the Year” award from the local Knights of Columbus on April 13. She was recognized for her role in founding our religious community and for her service to the poor through opening a mission house in downtown Steubenville. Immaculate Heart of Mary Council #472 in Steubenville celebrated its 114 Anniversary Dinner and also gave awards to a youth, volunteer, “blue coat” (law enforcement official), family, and Knight of the year. At the dinner, special recognition was given to the local Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion posts for their work for military veterans. Our beloved Bishop Jeffrey Monforton spoke on the goal of Lent, especially in this sacred time of Holy Week—welcoming the Lord into our lives and hearts. He quoted Psalm 24: “Lift up your heads, O gates; be lifted, you ancient portals, that the king of glory may enter.”
The Knights of Columbus has long been a supporter of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Some of our own sisters have been supported by the Knights during their time of formation. Read about their Keep the Faith Alive vocations ministries here.
Our team of 22 Franciscan University students, a priest and I flew to Nicaragua with the intent to incarnate Pope Francis’ apostolic letter , The Joy of the Gospel. In the course of the week, we ministered to the poorest of the poor as well as to the richest of the rich of that country.
For the first half of the week, there were 3 groups. As the mission advisor, I got to spend a day with each group. At the end of the week, the whole team came together to put on a retreat. Group 1 was assigned to the Abandoned Children’s Center in Managua where we volunteered last summer on our first mission trip to Nicaragua. This center is a safe haven for children who would otherwise work in the streets to help support their families. Our team helped prepare meals for the children, did catechesis, and played with the children. It was wonderful to love and nurture them and to see the huge smiles on their faces. We brought many of the children into our makeshift chapel to make a visit with Jesus.
Group 2 was assigned to help the Missionaries of Charity in Granada. At the sisters’ boarding school for young girls who have been abused, our team spoke to them to reveal to them their inherent dignity of being made in God’s image. On the last day, the team took the girls on a field trip to a challenge course. One of their guardians said that it is exactly what they needed to bond. Group 3 was the Theology of the Body team, which led the retreat at the end of the week for high school seniors at Lincoln International Academy (where I just happened to teach 20 years ago!) At first, they seemed like a tough crowd, most of them young men with a reputation for living the party life. The mission team put their whole selves into serving these young people and testifying to the truth that Jesus is real and has the power to heal and transform lives. It was amazing the transformation that could be seen in practically all of the seniors at the end of the retreat. At the beginning of the retreat, hardly any of the students received communion at Mass. Father was available for confessions throughout the retreat and his genuine words really helped melt their hearts. At Mass at the end of the retreat, nearly every teen went up to communion. At a mission team reunion recently some of the team members were able to report (since they are now Facebook friends with the teens from the retreat) that the guys are changed. They’re having clean fun now, some now desire to attend Franciscan University, and one tough guy turned himself into a drug rehab program! Pretty immediate fruits God is allowing us to see! The students truly spread the love, light, and joy of the Gospel to everyone they came in contact with. It was a real privilege for me to have been with such authentic young people striving for holiness and living an authentic and attractive gospel life. They are a real inspiration!
–Sr. Joan Paule Portenlanger, T.O.R.
Some students go to the beach for their spring break―I went along with 14 students from Franciscan University to Belcourt, North Dakota for a mission trip! Belcourt is on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation, and all week the students and I worked alongside members of the Society of Our Lady of the Trinity and volunteers serving the Native Americans in a variety of ways: leading youth groups, performing a living Stations of the Cross, visiting the elderly, and helping to clean and repair people’s homes. It was a tremendous opportunity to see the face of Christ in the lonely, elderly, and needy and lives―both those of the students and those we served―were certainly changed.
–Sr. Agnes Thérèse Davis, T.O.R.
Here on the home front, Sr. Rita Clare led a group of 65 Franciscan University students in ministry to our friends in downtown Steubenville. The students spent the week following the Holy Father’s call to “go forth from our own comfort zone … to offer everyone the life of Jesus Christ.” The students helped at Samaritan House and our LAMP ministries block party, visited local nursing homes, and volunteered at other local ministries to the poor, including Urban Mission, Urban Underground and Mama Nita’s Coffee House. But some of the most profound experiences for the students came from being on the streets. They began the week with a Marian procession through the downtown area, consecrating the city to Our Lady. They walked the streets of Steubenville picking up trash and praying with and talking to the people they met. They interceded outside the jail and attended the funeral of a young man who was killed in a gang fight. They spent a day doing door to door ministry two by two. As Pope Francis says, “How beautiful it is to see that young people are ‘street preachers’, joyfully bringing Jesus to every street, every town square and every corner of the earth!” Meanwhile, back at the monastery, 23 women from Florida State University drove from Tallahassee to Toronto to pray, work and minister with us during their spring break. It may have been a sacrifice to leave the beaches of Florida for the cold Ohio weather, but the women were elated to see snow the first night they arrived! Sr. Maria Pio led the women in prayer during the week, as they reflected on the Luminous mysteries of the Rosary and spent time in adoration and praise and worship each day. They joined us at Father of Mercy Chapel for Mass each morning before splitting up into groups for their work and ministry. A group helped at Samaritan House every morning and afternoon, and one afternoon all of the women joined our candidates in visiting Serra Village, a nursing home in nearby Weirton. They also volunteered at a Steubenville soup kitchen one day. The rest of the time they worked on a number of projects here at Our Lady of Sorrows―everything from washing cars to making St. Thérèse sacrifice beads. Each work group, led by a sister, chose an intention and a creative way to intercede during their work, to make their service itself a prayer. Some worked in silence, stopping to pray a Divine Mercy Chaplet, and some set an alarm for every 15 minutes and stopped to pray a Hail Mary when it went off. Spring cleaning had concrete results and spiritual fruits!
On Sunday March 9th, we hosted around 90 people for an inspiring talk by Danny Abramowicz, a former NFL player, and our very own Sr. Rita Clare. Sharing Scripture and personal stories, Danny challenged us to be open to the Holy Spirit. With great passion he shared his own story of how the Holy Spirit has changed his own life. He encouraged us to let the Holy Spirit be our coach this Lent and to go deeper in our relationship with Christ. Sr. Rita Clare shared her vocation testimony and how following the Lord is a journey far more exalted than being on a professional winning team. We are on the winning team and it is a much more spectacular victory than any football game! We had people of all ages and of all denominations present. The talks were followed by a Mercy Chaplet sung by our Sisters and a reception in St. Elizabeth dining hall. Both talks are worth your listening time. Listen below!
Every year, our sisters at Our Lady of Sorrows take a weekend to enjoy one another and a little break from the routine. We call it “Winterfest” because it’s a little bright spot in what can often feel like a long winter here in Toronto!
The first weekend in March, the sisters from the Professed House trekked to Erie, PA to see the sights at Lake Erie and the surrounding area. They visited Tom Ridge Environmental Center at Presque Isle, a peninsula a few miles west of Erie, and even walked onto the frozen lake to watch ice fishing and hockey and try out some ice skates! They were blessed to visit an adoration chapel at St. Joseph’s parish and attend Mass there and at St. Peter Cathedral, both in Erie, and at St. Gregory’s in North East.
Meanwhile, the sisters at the Formation House stayed home for a relaxing weekend together with a focus on being Daughters of the Father and Sisters in the Spirit. The sisters watched “A Little Princess” Friday night and had “tea time” on Saturday, during which each sister was invited to share a reflection, story, song or poem that was meaningful to her. Throughout the weekend, the daughters of the King wore the princess crowns they had created together.
We all marveled how it is such a gift to be able to stop everything and just be together. Truly, “we have been made for communion,” as our Constitutions say. “Our communion with one another flourishes in an atmosphere of reverential love, for when we see our preciousness reflected in one another, our true uniqueness and giftedness is unveiled.”
The women of Franciscan University were in for a treat when they heard Sr. Monica speak on the vocation to religious life for the annual Beloved Event in Finnegan Fieldhouse February 1. She had everyone in stitches one minute and tears the next!
Sr. Monica shared about how the three religious vows are remedies to the world’s myth that our happiness is dependent on persons or things other than God. Our desire for happiness, for love, motivates us in the choices we make. “Each one of us is a thirst in the flesh,” she said. “We long, seek, want and then we lack. Every person, regardless of her vocation, has this thirst!” What is the answer to that thirst? “Whoever wishes to come after Me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow Me.” Sr. Monica gave a number of practical ways to live the evangelical counsels on a daily basis, including dying to one’s self in conversations, refraining from buying the latest fashions, asking the Lord what He wants you to do with your time, and committing to spend time daily in prayer.
She spoke honestly of many of the concerns that the women might have with the difficulties in living poverty, chastity and obedience. “Our culture and possibly even some of you might think that these vows are a deprivation and death,” she said. “I assure you we are deprived of nothing that really matters in life. But the truth is that they are a death, a death unto a fuller life.” We choose to live the vows because “we are motivated by love, we are motivated by another, not ourselves!”
The evening also included talks by Sr. Mariela, a Sister of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George, two women living the single life and two married women with children, an exhortation from Fr. Dominic Foster, T.O.R. and time with the Beloved in Eucharistic adoration.
During the Christmas octave and in the weeks following, some of our sisters at home and abroad were blessed to set aside time to live our hermitage setting. The hermitage setting is one of three settings in our way of life (the others are the monastery and the mission house). We have not yet established our hermitage setting, but hope to sometime in the future. The way of life is one of more solitude and silence, enabling the sisters to devote themselves more intensely to prayer and penance, especially in intercession for all of God’s people. In this setting, as our constitutions say, “we imitate Christ in His prayer on the mountain, giving ourselves in communion with God and being drawn into a communion with all people through the Spirit.” Three sisters participated in the hermitage experience together at the motherhouse property December 26 to January 8. One of them, Sr. Elizabeth, a junior sister who lives at Santa Chiara, our mission house on campus at Franciscan University, participated in the experience as part of her preparation for perpetual vows. She offered the time for two intentions: for our community as we prepare for General Chapter in May and for the renewal of authentic femininity in the world. Sr. Elizabeth said her own awareness of her spiritual motherhood grew in depth during the two weeks. “My heart expanded in ways I can’t describe to encompass the world, particularly all the hurting, confused women in the world who are bombarded with lies about their feminine identity,” she said. “I felt my heart unify with Christ’s as I experienced the pain and sorrow and yearning He feels toward all His hurting children. I experienced and shared in a very deep way His desire to bring all His children back into His loving arms and to pour healing balm on all the walking wounded. I felt my heart become one with Him and His desires.” The schedule for the hermitage setting included more time for prayer. Instead of working from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 or 5 p.m., as in our ordinary schedule, the sisters began prayer at 3 p.m. with the Chaplet of Divine Mercy and had silent adoration until evening prayer at 5 p.m. Most meals were in silence, except for dinner and recreation together a few times during the two weeks. The sisters did more contemplative work during the day if possible, and kept their evenings free for prayer and spiritual reading. Sr. Elizabeth said the time gave her freedom to be still, both exteriorly and interiorly, quite a contrast from her life of college campus ministry. “I fall into being a very task-oriented person very easily,” Sr. Elizabeth said. “But during my hermitage experience, I was not so concentrated on tasks and my work assigned to me, but on prayer and offering my life as a sacrifice of praise; offering penances and acts of love; living and residing in a more conscious way in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The focus was completely different and there was a freedom in knowing that I was not there to complete a task or finish a job, but to walk and live and move and breath in a deep unity with my Beloved. As religious sisters, we are always called to ‘assiduous union with God in prayer’, but I was able to really experience what that meant during the hermitage experience.” Our four sisters at Greccio, our mission house in Gaming, Austria, also lived the hermitage setting for two weeks January 12 to 27. They offered the time for a number of intentions: our upcoming General Chapter, all the souls in purgatory, those who are close to death, Pope Francis, and the community at the Kartause in Gaming. They also felt called to pray for all children who suffer, including those who suffer physical, verbal, and sexual abuse, those who are victims of abortion, war, human trafficking and pornography, those who live in broken homes or in poverty, those who live in a household with two homosexual parents, and those with mental or physical handicaps. They also invited the Franciscan University community in Gaming to give their intentions to the sisters and to join them at the foot of the cross praying for the Father’s mercy.
101 teens. 7 religious sisters. 3 days in Texas. 1 Jesus in the Eucharist. That makes for one “Unstoppable” LifeTeen retreat. Jenny Lynn and Sr. Eliana left chilly Ohio for sunny Texas in mid-January to be present at a retreat for high schoolers from St. John Nepomucene parish in Ennis. The retreat was held at Sky Ranch, a Christian camp with activities like horseback riding, paintball, a zip line and “the pillow jump,” which provided lots of entertainment for the youth and the religious who attended! Sisters from the Marian Sisters of the Diocese of Lincoln and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville were also present, as well as a priest from the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. Jenny Lynn told her vocation story and Sr. Eliana gave a brief meditation during Eucharistic adoration on the retreat, but most of their ministry consisted of simple interactions with the teens as well as intercession. They found that most of the young people were going through difficult life situations and needed to hear the message of God’s merciful love. The teens were able to have a profound encounter with Jesus in Eucharistic adoration Saturday night, as the priest processed through the crowd with the monstrance and stopped in front of each person. Many of them flocked to the Sacrament of Reconciliation as well. After the retreat, our sisters made a stop to Texas A&M on Monday, hanging out with college students at St. Mary’s and attending a worship event called “The Rock.” Sr. Eliana also gave a short talk on abiding in Christ and she and Jenny Lynn were blessed to offer prayer ministry for the students. They also made stops to sights in Jenny Lynn’s hometown, Pilot Point, and visited with some of Sr. Grace Anne’s family near Dallas.
WQED TV in Pittsburgh aired a 30-minute documentary January 9 on religious sisters and their impact on the local area: Change of Habit. We were honored to be included! Our ministry to the poor at Samaritan House in downtown Steubenville is highlighted. The film is also a beautiful testament to the generosity and sacrifice of the many sisters in Pittsburgh who have given so much in the areas of teaching and nursing.
The next day, WTOV-9 in Steubenville featured our community on the local evening news! Go here to watch the video.
Sr. Rita Clare journeyed with 30 students and 4 priests from Franciscan University of Steubenville to Jamaica on a Christmas break mission trip. It was her second time on the 10-day mission to the Diocese of Montego Bay, where there is a shortage of priests and a hunger for the sacraments.
The local parishioners in Reading greeted them with a jerk chicken feast, music and dancing! The next day, most of the 80-member parish returned to enjoy a skit, music and futbol with the mission team. There may have been no electricity, but the place was lit up with the smiles on everyone’s faces!
The rest of the mission included events for youth and young adults, door-to-door and street ministry, visits to schools and more futbol! One day the group visited an all-girls’ Catholic school with 1,400 students. After a skit on the effects of sin and our redemption in Christ, Sr. Rita Clare gave a teaching on sin to the whole school before they split into groups for classes on prayer, chastity, St. Francis, relationships and vocations. The team also led a Life in the Spirit seminar and did prayer team ministry at a local parish. Please continue to pray for the people of Jamaica and the missionary priests, sisters and deacons who bring Jesus to them!
While visiting her home state of Kansas in January, Sr. Sophia Grace spent some time with young women discerning religious life. On January 4 and 5, Wichita held its first-ever Fiat Vocation Discernment Retreat for women 17-25 years old at St. Mark the Evangelist Parish. Sr. Sophia Grace gave a talk, led a small group, participated in a panel discussion and hung out with the 39 women who attended.
During the weekend, she ministered with a number of sisters from other communities: the Marian Sisters of the Diocese of Lincoln and the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary from Wichita. The retreat was a good chance for young women to get a glimpse of various expressions of consecrated life and to open their hearts to the possibility of God’s call.