I’ve talked with numerous people who have attended Catholic schools and hear a common theme. “There is something about that charism that has stayed with me.” Some religious consider this a sign of the Holy Spirit. Each religious institution I’ve been associated with has a charism that is uniquely its own. I’ve been blessed to be able to take away something from each one.
We never leave home when the charism of a movement is in your heart. You take it wherever you go, and it inspires you to do more in its name. I imagine that this point penetrates any religious group who has experienced a diaspora. The truth of this statement resonates with me having attended an event with women religious this weekend. Although I left Los Angeles seven years ago it has not completely left me.
It was a sort of homecoming for me, as I attended the RSHM’s 100th Anniversary Celebration of the Southern Region’s Foundation in Los Angeles. The event entailed a celebration and symposium of the RSHM, The Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary.
It’s no secret that vocations to the religious life are declining in our country. Women religious like the RSHM have been responsible for vital aspects of our communal and spiritual lives around the world. The RSHM have established schools, hospitals, orphanages, and contribute vital energy to non-profit groups to bring the word of the Gospels through their actions and deeds, inspiring others by being fully present to the needs of the community. As it is written in John 10 and its mission statement: “To know and love God, to make God known and loved, to proclaim that Jesus Christ has come so that all may have life and have life to the full.”
This group of women impacted my life greatly by bringing me into the fold through their work with social justice. They literally adopted me as one of their own. They opened my eyes to the injustices of human trafficking and inspired me to look deeper at the profound teachings of Father Jean Gailhac. I have the honor of being a part of the Extended Family and served on a JPIC, Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation, committee.
Father Gailhac founded the order with the help of Mere St. Jean in the late 19th Century in Beziers, France. Gailhac was friends with Eugene Cure who was married to Appollonie. Eugene was a childhood friend of Gailhac and a rich landowner. Gailhac’s vision for helping the people of southern France was so profound that Eugene and Appollonie vowed if one of them died, they would join him in carrying out his Gospel vision of helping the poor. Eugene passed away and Appollonie became Mother St. Jean. With the help of six nuns the order was founded.
Gailhac’s story is interesting. He first served as a chaplain at a hospital and ministered to prostitutes. Having seen their plight, he was inspired to form a refuge for women and started a school to help them find their way to a better life. Out of necessity, he established an orphanage when a woman brought a child to the refuge. Gailhac also established Good Shepherd Church in town.
The event I attended paid tribute of those nuns who went before us. We learned about the history and spread of this unique charism and how it made its way to America with the help of an Irish nun, Mother Butler, who helped the order thrive first in Tarrytown, New York and then in Los Angeles, California.
After a brief history of how the province came into existence, we were directed to contemplate a sister who impacted our lives and write three words that identified what was so special about that person. As I sat and wrote about one of the sisters, I could not pick just one. It’s like a parent picking your favorite child. It’s not easily accomplished. Any given day, one of them could be a favorite or impact me in a thoughtful way.
One by one, people called out a memory from a sister who impacted their lives. One by one the memory resurrected a significant story. My friend Sr. Marilyn Ficht shared with our small group how one of the nuns, Sr. Helen, inspired her through her teaching. It was Sr. Helen’s example that prompted her to seek out the religious life.
Laity spoke of how small acts of kindness and dedication revealed God’s grace in bigger ways.
I couldn’t help but think that the sisters and the charism is not only alive and well, but thriving. It’s just manifesting in new ways. Sr. Pat Connor often reminds me, “Bill, you are a son of Gailhac.” I don’t take this honor lightly. I consider the zeal and fire of the Holy Spirit that Gailhac often stated. I consider the actions of those who’ve gone before and know full well that the proverbial torch is being passed to the laity to carry on his mission.
I have had the honor of visiting the Mother House in Beziers, France. Recently the sisters donated the facilities to the college next door. Once again, the sisters have ingeniously remained true to the mission of Gailhac and repurposed the facilities to suit the needs of the community of Beziers. In a beautiful ceremony, the remains of the founders were moved to their new resting places, being carried with each of the sisters taking their turn.
May the laity who have been touched by the charism of these women take the spirit of the mission and carry it wherever it needs to be.