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Xaverian Sisters start U.S. ministry here 60 years ago

Posted By June 5, 2014 | 1:11 pm | Featured Article #2

By Tanya Connor

WORCESTER – Sister Rosetta Serra, 85, remembers her congregation’s foundress as having luminous eyes and open arms. She also remembers coming with her to start their first mission outside of Italy – in the Worcester Diocese.
Sunday Sister Rosetta and the five other members of the Xaverian Missionary Society of Mary, who now serve here, celebrated the 60th anniversary of their presence in the United States, a presence that began in Petersham.
They also celebrated the fact that Pope Francis declared their foundress, Mother Celestina Bottego (1895-1980), venerable on Oct. 31, 2013.
Bishop McManus celebrated Mass for them Sunday at St. Paul Cathedral and blessed a photo of Mother Celestina for the sisters’ house on Salisbury Street. Concelebrating were Father Angel R. Matos, associate pastor of St. Paul’s, where two of the sisters serve, and five Xaverian Missionaries from their brother congregation (the provincial superior from New Jersey and priests who run Our Lady of Fatima Shrine in Holliston). Also participating in the Mass and reception were the master of ceremonies, deacons, other religious and laity.
If the sisters are like Mother Celestina, she must have been incredible, Xaverian Father Carl Chudy, provincial superior, said in his homily.
“She’s with us today through them” helping us to “transcend all the things that weigh us down,” he said. He said everyone always has that power to “defy gravity;” it’s the power the Church is celebrating between the feasts of Ascension and Pentecost. Sunday was about recognizing the Trinity’s power working through Mother Celestina and the urgency of the global mission today, he said.
“We’re hoping to do some collaborative missionary work together,” he said of the fathers and sisters. “For us that means interfaith or intercultural dialog. That’s at the core of our charisms,” along with encouraging new Christians. “Our charism is to proclaim Christ to those who do not know Christ.” Secular culture and atheism are a challenge, he said; the fathers have started dialog with atheists.
“Our first concern is to find common ground,” he said, adding that they seek to establish trust, not wage battles.
Mother Celestina herself is described as a welcoming person.
Josephine Belli, of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Fitchburg, recalled their one meeting. In 1972, when she and her sister-in-law went to Italy, they stopped at the motherhouse. Mother Celestina invited them to lunch.
“We had such a pleasant time,” Ms. Belli said. “She was just an outstanding woman – so loving and caring. Such a warm embrace.”
“Always open arms,” added Sister Rosetta. “She was a mother. She was writing all the time and asking how the community was. Always with a smile. (Her) eyes – they were brilliant. So much light was coming from them.” She said Mother Celestina was very human,  humorous, inspiring and understanding.
“She was Irish and you could tell,” she said. “I understood Mother better when I met so many Irish here.”
Sister Rosetta said she herself was born and reared in Italy, and joined the sisters in 1948.
A few years later, the Xaverian Fathers, who had a novitiate in Petersham, asked for the sisters’ assistance. (It had been in collaboration with another Xaverian – Father James Spagnolo – that Mother Celestina, then an English teacher, founded the Xaverian Missionaries of Mary in 1944 in Italy. He was responding to the vision of his founder – St. Guido M. Conforti – for a sister community. After struggle and prayer Celestina agreed to help, and young women joined her.
In 1954 one of those women – Sister Rosetta – joined her on a 10-day voyage on the Andrea Doria. (In a 1957 voyage the ship sank, killing two of their sisters in route to Petersham, recalled Sister Laura Canali, a volunteer at St. Peter and St. John parishes.)
To cheer seasick passengers on her only trip back to the United States, Mother Celestina played her accordion. (She’d been born in Glendale, Ohio, to an Irish mother and Italian father.)
They landed in New York, where Sister Rosetta’s brother, Xaverian Father Rocco Serra, who served in Petersham, met them. He left his sister in New Jersey to visit cousins, and took Mother Celestina with him to a missionaries’ reunion. Upon returning for Sister Rosetta, they went to Petersham.
Sister Rosetta said she was young and did not think to suggest that Mother Celestina, who was reared in Butte, Mont., and moved to Italy at age 15, visit her relatives.
“I remember, Mother was always serene, with a smile, and deep faith in God’s will,” Sister Rosetta said in a talk at Mass. “At first, we attended to the kitchen, although our lack of experience on the job caused many sacrifices to our brothers (the Xaverian Fathers and novices). But we all survived.” (Eventually an American became cook.)
A few months after they arrived, other members of their congregation came, and Mother Celestina returned to Italy, fulfilling her role as Superior General through correspondence, Sister Rosetta said.
“Being new, you have to see what the needs are,” she said. She studied English, got in touch with people, and became superior of the community. The sisters sought vocations and contributions for their missions and “stressed that we all are missionaries,” including laity, she said.
They opened a community in Fitchburg, where they ran a kindergarten at Madonna of the Holy Rosary Church, Sister Rosetta said. Later they opened missions in New York, working in parishes, she said.
Sisters still come to Worcester, now their only U.S. mission, to study English for service in other countries. (They have about 250 members in 10 countries.)
Sister Rosetta served in Petersham or Worcester from 1954 to 1974, then in Mexico for 30 years. Since 2004 she’s been back  here, where she’s treasurer of the local community, and helps with things such as mission talks and sisters’ visas. The other sisters help in parishes and one is studying English.