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Associates link arms with Religious through prayer and shared charisms

Posted By March 1, 2012 | 12:54 pm | Lead Story #3
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By Tanya Connor

Lay associate programs of Catholic religious congregations have attracted a variety of people – including an Episcopal priest and former religious sisters. One woman seeking such a program found it after asking a woman who impressed her if she was a religious sister.
The lay associate movement is about 30 years old, according to Sister Constance Charette, program adviser for the Daughters of the Holy Spirit, who does community organizing at Pernet Family Health Service in Worcester. It’s an international movement of people who want to share in the charisms and missions of religious congregations, she said. She and others with congregations in the diocese described their associate programs.
Interested Christian women and men, Catholic or not, married or not, seek out an associate program. Sister Constance said the Daughters of the Holy Spirit even have an associate who is an Episcopal priest. Associates meet with one or more religious or associates and sometimes fellow inquirers, for a year or so, to learn about the congregation’s founder, history and charisms. Then, if still interested, they make a commitment, often for a year at first, to be an associate of that congregation. They can renew the commitment repeatedly after that.
Associates live in their own homes and keep their jobs, trying to bring the spirit of their congregation’s founders to their everyday lives. They gather with each other and sometimes the sisters for spiritual, business and social purposes and sometimes participate in the sisters’ ministries.
Sister Constance said the Daughters of the Holy Spirit started their associate program in 1988 in Putnam, Conn., because three women asked the sisters to share some of their spirituality with them. Now the congregation has 113 associates in the United States, and 430 altogether in 12 countries, she said.
“Our foundresses … simply … cared for the poor, the sick and the children, in the spirit of Matthew 25,” Sister Constance said. “Our charism is very much the Spirit of Pentecost that moves us.”
Associates are invited to live that – and most already do – she said. That’s why they seek out this congregation. They are encouraged to be partners with the sisters and lead the associate program, she said.
On Pentecost in 2003 the Daughters of the Holy Spirit started a program for consecrated seculars in the United States and France, according to Sister Marion Pepin, who lives in Worcester and works with the congregation’s retired sisters at their provincial house in Putnam.
Unlike the associates, these women take public vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, Sister Constance said. Unlike the sisters, they live in their own homes, not in community, and work at their own jobs, not sisters’ ministries.
Last year, for the first time, the congregation had family assemblies around the world, which brought together sisters, associates and consecrated seculars, said Sister Constance and Sister Marion.
The congregation has no consecrated seculars in the Worcester Diocese, Sister Constance said, but they have one associate here.
“For a number of years I’ve been looking for an associate program, something that would allow me to explore that side of myself and deepen my relationship with the Almighty,” said that associate, Jennifer Davis Carey, a member of St. Peter Parish in Worcester. She said she sought a shared charism and spiritual journey.
“I had missed that since high school,” where the Sisters of St. Joseph taught, she said. She said she tried to contact them, but that didn’t work out.
“It’s interesting how the Spirit works,” she said. At a non-religious community engagement seminar, she heard a woman whose questions were on the mark.
“I jokingly said, ‘She’s either a nun or she went to Smith College,’” Mrs. Carey said. “There’s a strength and a directness in some of the women who went to women’s colleges.”
Afterwards she asked the woman, “Are you a nun?” The affirmative answer drew a second question: “Do you have an associate program?”
“Not only did she say ‘yes;’ she said she was the director of the associate program,” Mrs. Carey recalled.
That nun was none other than Sister Constance Charette.
Last May Mrs. Carey said she and others made a covenant with the Daughters of the Holy Spirit in Putnam.
“It is all women from very different walks of life,” she said of her group. “You would never think we would have anything to do with each other.” But their conversations and interior changes were profound, she said.
Becoming an associate of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur was a change – and a continuity – for Marcia Blanchette, of Sacred Heart Parish in Springfield.
She said she was a Sister of Notre Dame for 20 years. Sometime after she left, learned about the associate program.
“I was definitely interested because I could focus more on my spiritual life” through it, she said. “And the charism of the Sisters of Notre Dame is, ‘God is good,’ and he has been good to me.” She said she is proud to proclaim that to others.
“I knew all the people,” she said. “It was like a coming home. I felt totally comfortable just falling back into the charism and the spiritual life. Association is just an enrichment of your life.”
Sister Dorothy Connelly, who coordinates the program with Ms. Blanchette, said the sisters started it about 30 years ago, after much discussion, in response to women who wanted to participate in the sisters’ life and work. They have 82 members in New England and Alabama, and programs in other states and countries, she said. Five more people have expressed interest, she said.
“They’re usually attracted by the spirituality of the community, and the works of the sisters, and the friends they have in the community,” she said. Many already had a focus like one of the sisters’ focuses – poor women and children.
“So they bring a lot of wonderful additions to us and there’s a lot of good sharing that happens,” she said.
“It’s kind of a trend in the Church – continuing the charism of our foundress, as the sisters’ numbers are less robust,” said Sister Yvonne Millman, co-coordinator of the associate program of the Sisters of St. Anne and director of religious education at St. Mary Parish in North Grafton. “The charism of our foundress isn’t just for us; it’s for the world.”
The associate program, she said, is “another way of sharing our faith with people, and that’s always life-giving; it’s in line with Jesus’ life too.”
The associates share the sisters’ joys and sadness, she said.
“It was a chance to become associated with a community of prayerful people and to experience a deeper experience of God and community,” Camille Brillon, a co-coordinator with Sister Yvonne and a member of St. James Parish in Manville, R.I., said of becoming an associate in 2001.
Associates try to spread in their own environments the spirit of Blessed Marie Anne Blondin, foundress of the Sisters of St. Anne, who sought out the needs of her day, she said.
“You try to see the needs in your own area and what you are being called to,” she said.
“It think the sisters like to see the associates being part of them. It extends their power of prayer. Whatever good they (associates) do, the sisters participate in through their prayer,” especially retired sisters who can’t be as active.