Interviews by Sister Paula Kelleher, SSJ
At one time there were more than 60 religious communities of men and women serving in the Diocese of Worcester and nobody ever wondered why there were so many orders and congregations. Why is each order or congregation different? In a word, it is charism. What is a charism and why is charism so important to consecrated life? Charism is a developmental grace and these interviews are presented to help explain the concept of charism.
Bishop McManus will present the Retired Religious awards on Oct. 2 at the 10:15 a.m. Mass at St. Paul Cathedral, 38 High St., Worcester. A reception is to follow in the Cenacle.
Recipients are: Sister Mary Edward Messier, RSM; Sister Irma Gendreau, pfm; Sister Joan Mary McDermott, PBVM and Sister Maria Manzano, OSB.
These awards are presented before the national collection for the sick and frail elderly religious to focus attention on the fact that all members of consecrated life have devoted themselves to the Church. Our Church needs to remember these men and women and show them gratitude for all they have contributed to the People of God.
I had a delightful visit with Sister Irma Gendreau in her small apartment at Highland House in Worcester. Sister conducts some of her programs at her residence.
Sister Irma was born in Madawaska, Maine, and entered the community in Baie Saint Paul, Quebec, on September 1, 1951. She professed her final vows on Aug. 23, 1957. She has led a peaceful and fruitful life.
After completing her education, Sister Irma worked for a time as a housekeeper for Father Rodrigue Menard at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Madawaska. During this time she felt a consistent call to prayer and she often observed Father Menard at prayer. She wondered if she would ever be able to talk to God in the way this priest did. She spoke with Father Menard who sensed that she had a call to religious life. Sister Irma had no connection with any religious community and she did not realize that Father Menard was a cousin to one of the 11 foundresses of the Little Franciscans of Mary. Father Menard suggested that she investigate the religious community at Eagle Hospital where the Little Franciscans of Mary worked.
Sister did as the priest suggested and after she worked two weeks at the hospital, the sisters invited her to become one of them.
Her vocation, as with many religious vocations, was fostered by the example of a prayerful parish priest.
Sister fell in love with Saint Francis and the Little Franciscans of Mary. She loved the simplicity of the Sisters, their openness to life and their respect for each other. Later she discovered that these aspects she admired were the grace of the charism of the Little Franciscans of Mary. She especially loved the free spirit of the Community. This same spirit is exemplified today in the way the sisters are adjusting to the new lifestyle of the community as they find different ways to be Little Francians of Mary.
Entering the Community was a challenge for Sister Irma but she loved the life and has lived it well. She minded restrictions on home visits when she was young. Her first home visit, after seven years in the community, was limited to 20 minutes. That was the way it was and she joyfully lived up to the demands of consecrated life.
Today she thanks God that these restrictions have vanished. There are different struggles today and the recent loss of the Motherhouse is one of them.
There were only 29 Sisters left in the motherhouse in Baie Saint Paul and, in order to provide for the sisters, the decision was made to sell the property to the city of Baie Saint Paul. City officials and leadership of the Community have agreed on a unique plan that serves both the city and the Community. Housing will be provided for the sisters on the grounds of the motherhouse and the convent will provide housing for the elderly in the area.
The beautiful garden of Saint Francis will always be home to the sisters even though it will belong to the city. Each sister will have a room in the residence and will also enjoy the companionship of the lay people. The sisters’ infirmary will be renovated and a similar plan will be enacted.
Sister Irma has had a variety of ministerial assignments. She especially liked teaching grade four in the school she attended as a child in Madawaska. She was director of religious education and has also taught spiritual discernment. She directed the canonical retreat for the candidates for the permanent diaconate for the Diocese of Worcester.
Sister Irma has a rich and varied background for what she considers her call within a call, introducing the World Community for Christian Meditation, a program founded by Father John Main and Father Lawrence Freeman, who are Benedictine Monks. She enjoys being in Worcester and loves being involved with the people of the Diocese.
Religious do not retire from a vocational call but they do retire from the pressure of a salaried position. Sister Irma loves being retired and having the freedom to spend time encouraging people to spend time in prayer.
I have known Sister Joan Mary for many years and was pleased that she accepted the invitation to receive the Retired Religious Award. Very often the vowed religious women have asked me to pick another sister who has had more experiences and seems to have lived a more interesting life. Sister has always been gracious and willing to help anyone who needs her assistance.
This Sister has lived a long and wonderful life, one filled with great experiences and examples of the love of God and neighbor. She entered the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Community on Sept. 24, 1954. She is charism-centered.
After a cup of tea we settled down in the back of the dining room and the interview began. Sister Joan started by speaking about the Charism of the Community and about Nano Nagle, the foundress of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Sister told me that by word and example Nano Nagle encouraged her future sisters to spend themselves in service to the poor. For Sister Joan Mary, entering this Community was a natural thing to do because she had always been doing things for others. Religious are called to bring the message of faith to the poor and the destitute. Sister learned early in religious life that the poor and destitute are found in all levels of society.
Her first assignment was teaching primary grades in Massachusetts. Sister enjoyed working with the little children and they loved her. Then she was called to religious education in Riverside, Conn. Both of these assignments deepened her love of the poor wherever they were found.
Her next adventure was the pursuit of a master’s degree in Religious Education at Fairfield University. The Community then called her to a different work. This was the care of the sick and frail elderly in her Community.
The time spent in this work brought her into contact with Sisters of the Presentation in different parts of the world.
Sister Joan took part in a program in Mexico. This experience deepened her love for the poor and, while she did not speak their language, she did speak the language of the heart. At this time Sister Joan Mary learned to accept things as they are and to work toward what they could be. She also learned to be thankful for all parts of her ministry and realized that stress is a gift from God in disguise.
The impact of these days gripped her soul and she was invited to go on a mission trip to Jamaica and to Trinidad. Regardless of where she has been assigned she has felt the presence of God. She knows that the grace of the charism has sustained her and will continue to sustain her throughout her life.
Sister Joan Mary worked in New Hampshire for 18 years as the Director of Faith Formation. She entered fully into whatever assignment she was given and loved this work.
The word Charism was not in vogue during Sister Joan Mary’s formative years in the Community but she became and continues being a vibrant example of the Charism of the Community. Sister Joan Mary retired several years ago from Saint Rose of Lima Parish but she still visits some of the parishioners who are homebound and ill. Sister Joan Mary retired from the stress of paid ministry but she will never retire from the joy of being a vibrant part of the Charism of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
My time spent with Sister Joan Mary made me realize how blessed the Diocese has been to have Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary living here.
Sister Maria Manzano is a vowed Benedictine contemplative who professed her solemn vows in Tickfaw, Louisiana. She has always adjusted well to change. When she was 5 years old, her mother was no longer able to care for her, so she asked her sister, Sister Maria’s aunt, to take care of her. This aunt had two children and Sister Maria has always considered these cousins as her siblings.
Sister Maria was born in Merida, Mexico. She told me that she is bilingual when she prays. She also told me that she has a constant conversation with Jesus and loves to simply sit in chapel and tell him about her life and all the things that happen each day. I asked her to please pray for the Diocese of Worcester and she promised to do so. She said that she always prays for the bishop and of course for the pope.
After her initial education, she attended an academy for three years and was qualified to be a secretary. She told me that she applied for her license to drive but failed several times before she received it. She did drive for a while but she has not driven since she moved to Petersham. She smiled when she talked about the driving lessons and her decision not to drive in Massachusetts. Of course there is a wonderful story here, but Sister Maria is keeping those details to herself.
She has always felt a strong call to prayer and to religious life. She investigated a new religious community in the area, called The Smile of Mary. At that time, there were many small groups of women wanting to be established as a formal religious community. The process to become a recognized group is long and the Community never was recognized as a religious community. Sister Maria was attracted to this group because she liked their simple lifestyle. She asked to enter this Community but after a short period of time became too ill to remain.
When she was away from the Community, she spent time visiting the sick, and those in nursing homes. After a while, she again attempted to become a member of the Smile of Mary but she was too frail to remain. After leaving this Community, she devoted her free time to visiting the sick in their homes or in the hospital. She added teaching catechism to her free time activities. She taught the children preparing to receive first holy Communion. She always had a particular devotion to the Eucharist and a persistent urge to spend time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.
She again sought out a religious community and asked for and obtained permission to enter the Benedictine Community in Tickfaw. Here she found her niche. Her heart has always been the heart of a contemplative. She works in the garden and is willing to help anywhere in the convent. She spends her free time in prayer in the chapel.
Her desire for final vows and solemn profession as a Benedictine increased but there was another challenge to overcome before she would be permitted to pronounce her solemn vows as a Benedictine. Her aunt had become ill and needed her. Sister took another hiatus from consecrated life to care for this women who had nurtured her when she was a small child. Eventually she pronounced her solemn vows as a Benedictine and for a short while life was peaceful and predictable. Like all communities, the Tickfaw religious Community was suffering a decline in membership. The community in Petersham asked the community in Tickfaw to merge with them. That small group of Benedictines came to Petersham and became an essential part of the Saint Scholastica Priory. As she has done in the past, Sister Maria adjusted to a move and is at home and at peace.
I had a good interview with Sister Mary Edward Messier at her residence, the Willows Health Care Center at 101 Barry Road in Worcester. I have known Sister for many years and knew she was one of the sisters to staff the Mercy Centre almost 60 years ago. Sister told me that she had lived in Rochdale and attended the public schools there. She also went two years to Worcester State University before entering the Sisters of Mercy.
She completed her college education at Anna Maria College in Paxton. She went back to Worcester State and received a master’s degree in early childhood education.
As I entered the health care center, I bumped into Janice D’Elia, who was visiting her cousin. Janice worked with Sister Mary Edward from 1976 until 1981. Without prompting Janice told me that Sister Mary Edward was the finest woman she ever met and the perfect Sister to receive the Retired Religious Award. She praised her peaceful attitude and her constant concern for the staff at Mercy Centre and the deep love she had for the students and clients. She told me that Sister Mary Edward was competent and firm in her interactions with anyone connected with the Mercy Centre. It was obvious that Janice had a deep love and respect for Sister Mary Edward.
I have known and loved Sister Mary Edward for many years and had often visited a friend at the convent that was connected with Mercy Centre. Sister Mary Edward was always gracious, friendly and humorous.
Janice told me a story which exemplifies the care and concern Sister had for everyone. This story gave me an insight into the vocational and personal charism of this Sister of Mercy who spent many years at Mercy Centre teaching and caring for all who worked or taught in the building.
One day a group was hosting a luncheon for the principle fund-raisers for Mercy Centre. One of the planners came to Sister and asked Sister Mary Edward to tell her staff to move their cars so that the guests would have better places to park. Sister said that would not be done because the staff were in class with the children and neither the staff nor the children would be disturbed. This simple story confirmed what I already knew: Sister Mary Edward is a wonderful example of the charism of the Sisters in Mercy in action.
Janice told me about the fun the staff, the children and the clients had with Sister and also about the many pieces of chocolate from Hebert Candy that both staff and children enjoyed.
I asked Sister how she felt about all the changes in religious life since she had entered. She said that things just seemed to unfold and that she knew that God was always in charge of what was going on in the Community and in the world.
Her life in retirement has been interesting. She reads and interacts with the other residents at the health care center. She has time to pray and to do things she has always wanted to do. Her family visits and she is free to visit them. Prayer is important to Sister and most days she attends Mass in the small chapel.
I always save my best question for last: Would you enter again? Sister said that if she had her life to live over she would still want to be a Sister of Mercy. She knows that the charism of Mercy is the charism or grace that she has tried to live all her life.