April 12, 2013

Sisters overjoyed at approved miracle that paves way for beatification

By Sean Gallagher

Mother Maria Theresia BonzelMembers of the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration received an early Easter gift when Pope Francis approved a decree of the Vatican’s Congregation of the Causes of the Saints that verified a miracle attributed to their foundress, Mother Maria Theresia Bonzel.

The approval of that decree on March 27—Wednesday of Holy Week—paved the way for the beatification of Mother Theresia on Nov. 10 in Paderborn, Germany in the diocese in which she established her community in 1863.

Twelve years later, she sent a group of sisters to Lafayette, Ind. to establish a hospital there. They now operate 14 hospitals across the Midwest, including Franciscan St. Francis Health facilities in Indianapolis and Mooresville.

The motherhouse of those sisters who minister in central and southern Indiana is now in Mishawaka, Ind., in the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese.

Franciscan Sister M. Madeleine Schumacker, previously a member of St. Louis Parish in Batesville, is a year away from making perpetual vows in the community and currently ministers in the community’s motherhouse.

She learned about the decree on Holy Thursday.

“It made it kind of hard for Good Friday to be a somber and solemn day,” Sister Madeleine said. “But it was just so beautiful that we have a great intercessor. We’ve always believed she was in heaven. But the Church has finally made it official.”

Franciscan Sister M. Angela Mellady was pleased at the timing of the decree for various reasons—as well as the fact that it was the first miracle approved by Pope Francis, who took the name of the order’s ultimate spiritual father, St. Francis of Assisi.

“The sisters have prayed for this special gift for 52 years,” Sister Angela said. “As we approached 2013, our jubilee celebration of 150 years as a congregation, we thought, ‘What a special joy it would be to have Mother Maria Theresia beatified during this jubilee year which has also been declared the Year of Faith by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.’ And for this we are most grateful.”

Franciscan Sister M. Marlene Shapley entered the community in 1965, just four years after they started promoting the cause of their foundress.

The regional vice president of mission integration for Franciscan St. Francis Health in Indianapolis, Mooresville and Carmel, Ind., Sister Marlene said she has prayed for the beatification of her community’s foundress every day over the course of her 48 years in the community.

When she had been a sister for 25 years, she visited her community’s motherhouse in Germany and prayed at the tomb of Mother Theresia.

“We have a medal with Mother’s picture on it,” Sister Marlene said. “I put my medal on her grave, and I wear that medal every day, hoping that she will keep me faithful to the Church and our rule and constitution, faithful to what she intended for us. I truly believe that my vocation is a gift from God and have the responsibility to nurture that vocation every day.”

While she was happy to share the joy of the upcoming beatification with her fellow sisters, Sister Marlene was especially pleased to share the news by e-mail with the employees of the hospitals where she ministers. In a short time, she received dozens of congratulatory e-mails in reply and personal visits by overjoyed co-workers.

“It was heartwarming and overwhelming and made me so proud to be part of this family,” Sister Marlene said.

Franciscan Sister Maria Kolbe Elstro is much newer to the community than Sister Marlene. Previously a member of St. Andrew Parish in Richmond, she joined the community in 2009 and professed her first vows last year.

“I ask [Mother Theresia] to pray for me,” said Sister Maria Kolbe, who currently ministers at Franciscan St. Anthony Health in Michigan City, Ind., in the Gary Diocese. “At night, especially, I pray to certain saints and she’s one that I mention, [asking her] to pray for me to get to heaven.”

Part of the path to heaven that she is walking on now is facing the challenges to religious freedom that religious orders, dioceses, private Catholic employers and others are facing in the abortifacient, sterilization and contraceptive mandate of the federal government’s Health and Human Services Administration (HHS), she said.

Sister Maria Kolbe noted how Mother Theresia sent sisters to Indiana in 1875 because the German government at the time was placing severe restrictions on the ministry of the Church there in what is called the “Kulturkampf.”

That included the community being prohibited from accepting new members. So when interested women sought entry, they were sent to the United States.

“She and the sisters came over during the time of the Kulturkampf,” Sister Maria Kolbe said. “I find it interesting because in the year that she’s going to be beatified is also a year here in the United States in which our religious freedoms are being challenged.”

Mother Theresia made three trips to Indiana and other places in North America where the order had spread before she died in 1905. The first hospital founded by the order in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, located in Beech Grove, was founded nine years later.

Sister Angela sees the growth of the order in the United States as being directly related to the persecution it faced in Germany. And the courage that Mother Theresia showed in the face of that injustice inspires her and her fellow sisters today.

“Without her courage and perseverance to live out our charism in spite of persecution from the [German] government, the foundation in America would not exist,” Sister Angela said. “She has been a powerful intercessor for us in recent times with the HHS regulations which threaten our religious liberty.

“Mother Theresia’s motto was, ‘All as God wishes. He leads. I follow.’ We must follow in her footsteps and, trusting in divine providence, remain committed to our charism of perpetual adoration and the works of mercy, despite persecutions we may encounter and wherever that may lead us in the future.”

Although Mother Theresia was committed to defending her community and its ministries, she was not sure what God’s will was for her as a young adult.

She sought to join a Salesian women’s order, but a health crisis that arose the night before she was to enter their convent prevented her from doing so.

Later, she was a founding member of another fledgling community. But when it decided to live by another rule other than one in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, she left it and was encouraged by the bishop of Paderborn to found her own community.

She followed his advice, and the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration was established in 1863.

Sister Madeleine thinks that Mother Theresia’s difficulty in discerning God’s will for her—yet her faithfulness throughout this trying time—can help today’s young adult Catholics identify with this religious sister who lived in Germany 150 years ago.

“She trusted and she let God lead her on the path,” Sister Madeleine said. “She stayed faithful to prayer and daily Mass. She frequented the sacraments and entrusted herself to the advice of her spiritual director.

“When the roadblocks came, she saw them as God’s will, took it to prayer and found where God was leading.”

(For more information on the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration, log on to www.ssfpa.org.)

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