Christopher Lushis
Freelance Writer
August 22, 2018 // Bishop

Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ celebrate 150 years of ministry in the US

Christopher Lushis
Freelance Writer

Among the many religious communities established to help revitalize the Catholic faith in the wake of the French Revolution, the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ stand out with particular prominence for their profound legacy and influence, both locally and globally.

In 1868, only 17 years after their order’s initial founding, eight Poor Handmaids courageously embarked on a missionary journey to the United States in response to an invitation from Fort Wayne Bishop John Henry Luers. Now, 150 years later, this community of sisters gathered for three days of celebrations to reflect upon their heritage of dedicated apostolic efforts, while also to look forward in hope for the future.

Culminating in Mass held in the Ancilla Domini Chapel at The Center at Donaldson, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades shared his admiration for the women who bravely responded to the request for assistance in spreading the Catholic faith in a foreign land. He remarked, “It’s amazing to think that 245 of the 297 professed sisters of the community had volunteered for the difficult mission to America, evidence of the faith-filled and self-sacrificing spirit of the early Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, a spirit that lives on today.”

Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades addresses the congregation during the “Coming Home” eucharistic liturgy Aug. 19 at Ancilla Domini Chapel, Donaldson, which celebrated 150 years of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ in America. — Joe Raymond

After acknowledging each of the first eight sisters by name, the bishop continued, “Within a couple weeks of their arrival, they were teaching at schools and nursing the sick in local homes of the area. Education, health care, the care of orphans, and other apostolate of service to the poor and needy – these are the works of the Poor Handmaids which left such a great mark on the history of the Church in our diocese and beyond.”

Providentially, the 150-year celebration also occurs only months before the founder of the Poor Handmaids, Blessed Mary Catherine Kasper, will be declared a saint by Pope Francis on Oct. 14. She will be canonized alongside Pope Paul VI, who beatified her in 1978.

Further reflecting upon the community’s spirituality in light of Christ’s Bread of Life discourse, Bishop Rhoades commented, “Mother Mary Catherine and the pioneer Poor Handmaids had a beautiful devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. Undoubtedly, it was the love of Christ and being nourished by the Eucharist that they were able to live such extraordinary and courageous lives of self-sacrificing love. We can call them “women of the Eucharist” because there was no disconnect between their lives of prayer and of active service. They lived what they received in Holy Communion, the grace to love others as Jesus has loved us. They remind us of our calling to live what we receive – the self-giving love of Jesus Christ.”

He concluded by recalling the last words of German Bishop Joseph Blum to Mother Mary Kasper before his death, “My wish for you and the whole congregation is that you and each individual sister may seek nothing but God alone in all things and in all places, and that you may always love and serve Him as His Poor Handmaids.”

Sister Rosemary Snell of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ carries the shoes of the order’s foundress, Blessed Catherine Kasper, during the “Coming Home” eucharistic liturgy Aug. 19 at Ancilla Domini Chapel, Donaldson, which celebrated 150 years of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ in America. The Poor Handmaids of today continue to walk in the footsteps of Blessed Catherine. — Joe Raymond

During the presentation of the gifts, additional symbolic items were brought forward which held special significance in the life and ministry of Mother Mary Catherine Kasper, including the shoes she wore for much of her life, a loaf of bread and a Bible. Following Communion, a liturgical dance was performed by Margaret Liechty.

After Mass, a reception was held where community leaders from both the United States and Germany shared their gratitude and joy for the occasion. Sister Gonzalo Vakasseril, general superior of the Poor Handmaids, exclaimed “This is the time we come to know once more that it was Mary who first said ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.’ This is the motto of the Poor Handmaids. Both Mother Mary Catherine and our name say it, we are Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ to love and serve all people. Here together, let us have deep faith and thank God for our blessed past, be very hopeful in this present, and in the words of Mother Mary Catherine, let us face the future ‘calmly, courageously, and with deep faith in God.’”

Sister Judith Diltz, PHJC provincial, addresses those gathered at a reception in the Ancilla College auditorium Aug. 19 in celebration of 150 years of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ in America. — Joe Raymond

She further shared that her greatest wish “is for the community to grow more and more; that those who are associated with the Poor Handmaids, both as religious sisters and lay collaborators, will increase, so that Christ’s mission will continue to come to life.”

Planning for the 150th “Coming Home” anniversary, which welcomed many Poor Handmaids from across the world, as well as lay co-workers, family members, former sisters, and graduates of Ancilla Domini High School, began in 2016. The festivities included tours of the Donaldson campus, social activities, religious processions, a cemetery prayer service, displays indicating the many places Poor Handmaids have served throughout America, and more. It was only after preparations had been underway that the announcement was made concerning Mother Mary Catherine Kasper’s canonization this fall.

Sister Judith Diltz, who serves as provincial for the Poor Handmaids in the United States, expressed her enthusiasm at learning of this providential news. “My greatest joy is the elevation of our foundress as a saint. She has been so special to each of us with her humble, caring way; reminding us to be who we are with simplicity and joy. When she was beatified there was a great grace, now that she will be canonized we know there’s going to be new graces, especially of being able to share her with the whole Church.”

She concluded, “We thank God for the graces and the wisdom of soon to be St. Mary Catherine Kasper, who said “all is great that is done in God’s love, nothing done for God is small.” We praise God for the energy to do all in God’s name and we count on those graces to continue to move us forward.”

The Poor Handmaids will honor Mother Mary Catherine Kasper’s canonization with another celebration at The Center at Donaldson on Nov. 4. All are invited to attend and participate.

Posters describing the history of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ in America draw interest from visitors prior to a “Coming Home” eucharistic liturgy Aug. 19 at Ancilla Domini Chapel, Donaldson. — Joe Raymond

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