By Vince LaBarbera
FORT WAYNE — The Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ (PHJC) Sisters are organizing several events called “PHJCs Coming Home” in various cities over the next few years with the purpose of reconnecting with the people in those areas in which the Poor Handmaids have ministered.
“PHJCs Coming Home to Fort Wayne-Hessen Cassel” was held this past weekend with several scheduled events, concluding with Mass celebrated on Oct. 26 by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades at St. Joseph Parish-Hessen Cassel.
“This past week, I had the opportunity to read a biography of Blessed Mother Mary Catherine Kasper, the foundress of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ,” began Bishop Rhoades in his homily. “I was really inspired as I read the story of Mother Mary Catherine’s life and her formation of the religious community of the Poor Handmaids in 19th-century Germany. Despite many obstacles, including poverty and persecution, Mother Mary Catherine persevered with deep faith and courage, and incredible confidence in God’s grace and providence,” he said.
Bishop Rhoades cited Blessed Kasper’s great love for God and neighbor, the love Jesus commanded in the day’s Gospel reading (Mt 22:34-40) for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time.
“It was this love that inspired Mother Mary Catherine to accomplish great things,” he continued. “She named her community Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary who at the Annunciation called herself the handmaid of the Lord and said ‘Let it be done to me according to Your word.’”
Bishop Rhoades also cited the liturgy’s first reading (Ex 22:20-26) as appropriate wherein God commanded justice for the poor and the care of orphans and widows. “In their early years, Mother Mary Catherine and the Poor Handmaids began with the mission of serving the poor, nursing the sick and caring for orphans … in the Dernbach region of Germany.”
“As you know, this parish was the first mission of the Poor Handmaids in the United States,” said Bishop Rhoades. “In 1868, 146 years ago, at the invitation of Bishop (John H.) Luers, our first bishop, Mother Mary Catherine sent eight Poor Handmaids to serve the German immigrants here in Hessen Cassel. On Aug. 30, 1868, the sisters arrived here and were welcomed with much joy by the St. Joseph parishioners. They quickly got to work. Three of the sisters were nurses and visited the sick in their homes. The other five sisters taught in St. Joseph School,” Bishop Rhoades related.
The Diocese of Fort Wayne purchased a hotel in Fort Wayne the following year called the Rockhill House. “It became St. Joseph Hospital and the motherhouse of the Poor Handmaids in the United States,” he explained.
“Mother Mary Catherine Kasper died on the feast of the Presentation, Feb. 2, 1898. By that time, the Poor Handmaids had 160 missions, including 26 houses here in the United States. Mother Mary Catherine was beatified by Blessed Pope Paul VI (April 16, 1978),” he continued. “The guiding principal of her life was to love the Lord our God and to serve Him constantly. And this is the lesson from today’s Gospel,” he reiterated.
“The saints are examples for us of living the two great commandments. Blessed Mary Catherine Kasper is an example, not only for the Poor Handmaids, but for all of us, of love of God and neighbor. I finish this homily with the famous words of St. John of the Cross — for all of us to ponder: ‘At the sunset of my life, I will be judged on love.’ This is true for all of us: at the sunset of our lives, we shall be judged on love!” Bishop Rhoades concluded.
In 1998, St. Joseph Medical Center (formerly St. Joseph Hospital) was sold but with a portion of the proceeds still providing aid to the poor and underserved in Fort Wayne through PCJCs ministries of St. Joseph Community Health Foundation, Catherine Kasper Place and HealthVisions Fort Wayne. In addition to Fort Wayne and Hessen Cassel, the PHJC serves Arcola, Avilla, Columbia City and Huntington. There are more than 600 PHJCs worldwide ministering to people of all faiths in the U.S., Mexico, Germany, England, the Netherlands, India, Brazil, Kenya and Nigeria.
Several local events were part of the extended weekend of activities to reconnect with people of the area, former PHJC Sisters and students of Ancilla Domini High School, Donaldson, Indiana (where the order has been based since 1923), people they taught in multiple schools in the area, children they cared for in St. Vincent Villa and former co-workers and patients from the local hospital.
On Oct. 23, Poor Handmaids joined with young adults at Fortezza Coffee in Fort Wayne for a “Night of Discernment.”
On Oct. 24, Poor Handmaids spent a “Get to Know a Sister” day with students in various schools.
On Oct. 25, former Poor Handmaids and Ancilla Domini High School alumnae met in the afternoon for a high school reunion and at an evening reception celebrating local PHJC ministries and partnerships at Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, Fort Wayne. A Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception celebrated the PHJC presence and ministry in the Fort Wayne area.
On Oct. 26, a prayer service took place at Catholic Cemetery preceding the Mass at St. Joseph-Hessen Cassel, which was concelebrated by Father Bill Kummer, parish administrator, and Msgr. Owen Campion of Our Sunday Visitor, Inc. Following the blessing after Mass, Bishop Rhoades recognized Poor Handmaid of Jesus Christ Sister M. Julienne Smith, a member of the parish since childhood. The oldest of seven children, she was raised on nearby Monroeville Road.
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