September 8, 2006

Once in a lifetime: Mother General of Little Sisters of the Poor visits Indianapolis

By Mary Ann Wyand

With love and gratitude, Rosa Freixas of New Orleans kissed the Mother General’s hand.

The St. Augustine Home for the Aged resident was so happy to meet Mother General Celine de la Visitation on Aug. 19, and wanted to thank her for the wonderful care she has received from the Little Sisters of the Poor, their lay staff members and dedicated volunteers in Indianapolis during the past year.

Freixas was among the elderly poor evacuated from the Little Sisters’ former home in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina decimated the Gulf Coast region a year ago on Aug. 29, and she is grateful for the Little Sisters’ love and concern for her and the residents of all their homes.

“I try to help the Little Sisters in whatever work they’re doing,” Mother General Celine said during a brief interview on Aug. 19.

Her visit marked the first time that the general superior of the international religious order has visited the Indianapolis home in more than 50 years.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime visit,” Sister Marie Geraldine Freeman said about this opportunity to meet the Mother General.

“I go from country to country and try to keep the congregation united,” the Mother General said. “We work for the Church, first of all, so we stay very close to Rome and to the Holy Father, then we try to care for the aged poor in every country, according to whatever is asked of us in that country.”

At 94, Mary Etta Abernathy can still tell a good story. While holding the Mother General’s hand, the St. Augustine resident and former St. Andrew the Apostle parishioner enjoyed sharing a few memories about her childhood years at a Catholic school in St. Louis. As a child, she knew St. Katharine Drexel, who founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and established schools for African-Americans and Native Americans.

“Bless you,” the Mother General told Abernathy before greeting other residents during her historic visit to the St. Augustine Home.

Mother Assistant Gerard Patricia traveled with the Mother General from France to visit the Little Sisters’ homes in the Baltimore Province during July and August. Sister Maria Christine Joseph, provincial, accompanied them.

In honor of their Aug. 18-20 visit, the Little Sisters invited Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein to celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving on Aug. 19, the feast day of St. John Eudes, in their chapel. Lafayette Bishop William L. Higi and Benedictine Archabbot Justin DuVall of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad were among the concelebrants.

“Bishop Higi, Archabbot Justin and I are delighted to be with you as well as all the priests here on this very

special day for our local St. Augustine Home,” Archbishop Buechlein told the Mother General, Little Sisters, residents, volunteers and guests during the Mass.

“My understanding is that it is the first time for a visit of the Mother General here in 54 years,” the archbishop said. “That makes it very special.”

The St. Augustine Home was founded in 1873 at 500 E. Vermont St. in downtown Indianapolis then

relocated to 2345 W. 86th St. in 1967.

In his homily, the archbishop explained that St. John Eudes is credited with beginning devotions to the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

Blessed Jeanne Jugan, the former Sister Mary of the Cross, founded the international Little Sisters of the Poor in Brittany, France, in 1839 and followed a religious rule partially based on the spirituality and devotions started by St. John Eudes. She taught the Little Sisters to “take good care of the aged, for in them you are caring for Christ himself.”

Archbishop Buechlein said Pope Benedict XVI, speaking about the Christian call to do works of charity, emphasized that those who help the poor need spiritual formation in order to see with the eyes of Jesus.

“We must be personally present in giving ourselves, especially to the poor,” he said. “… We need a deep connection with God in our daily life. This happens in prayer.”

After the liturgy, Bishop Higi praised the Little Sisters’ ministry to the elderly poor in central Indiana.

“Over the years, I’ve heard so many wonderful things about the care that people receive here,” Bishop Higi said. “[The late Indianapolis] Archbishop [Edward T.] O’Meara told me one time that he was just overwhelmed by how kind the Little Sisters were to his mother when she lived here. Then he realized that they are that way with everybody. Some of my parishioners have come to live here, and they’re just overwhelmed by the love they receive from the sisters. It’s a privilege to be here today.”

Archabbot Justin noted that Benedictine monks have served as chaplains for the Little Sisters’ homes.

“One of the principles of our Rule that St. Benedict lays down is to care for those who are infirm,” the archabbot said. “That’s a very important value to us as Benedictines.”

Most of the St. Augustine Home residents attend daily Mass with the Little Sisters, and enjoy frequent programs and activities at Lanagan Hall.

Resident Agnes Hopkins, a native of England who portrayed Blessed Mother Theodore Guérin during a program for the Mother General, said it was an honor to commemorate the foundress of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

A former member of St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis, Hopkins moved to the St. Augustine Home six months ago and loves living with the Little Sisters and residents.

“It is heaven,” she said. “It’s just the nicest place to be. The nuns are outstanding, and I can’t believe I’m here. This is really home for me. I go to Mass here every day.”

Resident Joe Wilson, an accomplished tenor, sang “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” for Mother Assistant Gerard Patricia during a variety show with an international theme presented by the residents and volunteers. Other songs included “We Are Family” and “Let There Be Peace on Earth” as well as Hispanic and Gospel music and dances.

“As residents, we couldn’t have asked for something more exciting,” Wilson said. “This is really fantastic, and we had the most beautiful weather for the whole thing.”

The festivities also included a special presentation by Marquisha Bridgeman, faith-based coordinator for the City of Indianapolis, who gave Mother General Celine a key to the city on behalf of Mayor Bart Peterson.

The Mother General thanked the residents, sisters, staff and volunteers for their “wonderful Hoosier hospitality.”

A native of San Francisco, Mother General Celine has lived at the order’s international headquarters in France for 30 years.

She said 2,934 Little Sisters serve the elderly poor at 205 homes in 32 countries, including new homes in Peru, the Philippines and Benin, West Africa. The sisters have 30 homes in the U.S.

The faith-filled residents of the homes “give us a certain happiness, a certain joy,” she said, “in serving them.”

She also asked for prayers for the elderly poor and for religious vocations. “What we need the most are sisters,” she said. “We have to really work hard to get vocations.”

St. Augustine Home is “very well-situated,” the Mother General said. “It’s a very good home. We have many good benefactors, friends, the Association Jeanne Jugan, guild members, other volunteers and our good employees here. I think it’s got a wonderful spirit, and I’m very happy to be here.”

Sister Judith Meredith, superior of the St. Augustine Home, thanked the residents, staff and volunteers for helping the Little Sisters prepare for the Mother General’s visit.

“You surely showed her what a wonderful place Indianapolis is,” Sister Judith said. “You really gave her an excellent Hoosier welcome and, from all the sisters, we thank you so much for that. It means so much to us.”

After a farewell ceremony on Aug. 20, Sister Marie Geraldine said the Little Sisters were happy to host their Mother General, Mother Assistant and provincial.

“Each sister had individual time with Mother General then we spent the afternoon together,” Sister Marie Geraldine said. “She gave us advice and we asked questions and, of course, we reminisced. It was really beautiful.” †


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