November 23, 2022

A Sister Servants’ Jesse Tree!

After a hiatus of two and a half years, we resumed our weekly Come, Follow Me class at the convent in September. Come, Follow Me is a catechetical journey with young children that uses prayerful reflection and dialogue on the Scriptures to provoke a free response of the children to follow in Jesus’ footsteps as His disciples. The year is divided into three parts: Welcoming the Love of God, Living in Communion with Jesus, and Acting and Living as a Child of the Church with the Holy Spirit.

For the past few weeks, we have been finishing up the first part of the year by looking at the History of the People of God, particularly through the figures of Abraham, Moses, Samuel and David. Each lesson includes a practical activity that reinforces the session and gives the children both something to help them grow in their private and family prayer life.

This past week’s lesson coincided with the Feast of Christ the King, and we talked about Samuel being called by God to go to Jesse’s house in Bethlehem to anoint the future King of Israel (cf. 1 Sam 16). We discussed how Jesus, the descendant of David, is the true King sent by God to His people to be not only the king of the universe but also the King of our hearts.

As I planned this lesson, I thought of the Jesse Tree, a custom I first learned about in the first grade at my parish grade school. I looked around at various sets available, and I asked Sr. Ave Maria if she could make a set based on the reflections found in Sara Estabrook’s The Mosaic Jesse Tree. Different sets of ornaments highlight different aspects of salvation history, and I chose these because it included meditations on the “O Antiphons” during the last days before Christmas–a particularly Catholic touch that also ties this practice into our liturgical life and customs at Casa Maria. This set’s meditations also take the Old Testament figures and relates them directly to the person of Jesus.

In our life as Sister Servants, we can attest to how a renewed study of Salvation History completely changes the way we approach Christmas. The tradition of the Jesse Tree does just that. Each day of December, the child or family reads about one part of Salvation History leading up to the birth of the Savior. Often the Jesse Tree is a dead tree branch symbolizing Isaiah’s prophecy of the shoot that will spring up from the stump of Jesse (Is 11:1). Though this tree (or branch) looks dead, it is the instrument God will use to bring forth a curious sequence of events, making way for the greatest Event of all: the Incarnation and Savior’s birth. Familiarity with the ups and downs of Israel–their hopes and failures, God’s promises and the Chosen People’s anticipation–gives us a greater appreciation of God’s great gift of His own Son at Christmas.

As a gift to you, we wanted to make a PDF of Sr. Ave Maria’s ornaments available to any families or individuals who are interested in adopting this custom. You can print your own copies to make your own ornaments with the matching name or Antiphon on its reverse side. If you are able, you may give a $5 contribution to help us make more resources like this available in the future. To download the instructions and Scripture passages that correspond to these ornaments, click here.

When I made these with my students, we printed these using a good color copier and color printer paper (you can take these to a print shop for good results). I purchased these wooden ornaments in bulk and painted them with metallic gold spray paint (available at craft and hardware stores). Craft paint also works, but the spray paint had an even finish and was much faster.

Using a foam brush, we applied a thin layer of Mod Podge to one side and attached the image to the ornament. To avoid bubbles, you will want to smooth out the paper. We repeated the same process on the other side with the matching name or description.

When these dried, we put a thin layer of Mod Podge over the pictures, one side at a time. Note: this is a craft that is best done by 9 year olds and up, although our young students were able to do it (and had a great time doing so) with their parents’ help. If a child is doing this project, you may want to cover the workspace with a plastic bag or disposable table cloth and keep a damp rag nearby.

Alternatively, while the PDF isn’t formatted to be printed double-sided, you could print them on cardstock, match up the two sides, and laminate them for sturdiness. You can then hang them with ribbon, yarn, or a string.

We have heard that families have different ways of creating their Jesse Trees. Some arrange a fallen tree branch in a pot with rocks or sand, covered with a cloth. Others hang them from the Christmas tree before Christmas decorations go up. They can also be hung from a garland on a fireplace mantel or stair railing so that it becomes a timeline of Salvation History.

We hope you get as much joy out of these miniature glimpses of Salvation History as we have! We pray for you and your families daily as you spiritually prepare for the coming birth of Our Lord!

November 19, 2022

We Give Thanks – For Souls!

(Photos are from the All Souls’ Day Mass celebrated by Bishop Raica at Elmwood Cemetery for the deceased priests of the Diocese of Birmingham. The Sister Servants were honored to provide the altar and all accompaniments for the Mass.)

Praying at Father Lambert’s grave

The month of November holds a special place for many, as the month dedicated to prayer for the Holy Souls in Purgatory. Half-way through the month, we are reminded to persevere in these prayers with the feast of St. Gertrude, who was especially devoted to them.

Yet now at the end of the month, it is so easy to have our thoughts taken up with preparations for Thanksgiving! As reminders to be thankful start appearing, the two themes can be joined to make a beautiful opportunity for reflection.

This Fall, our community has suffered the loss of some very dear, long-time friends, and the father of one of our Sisters. They will be much missed by us all. But their lives have given us so much to be grateful for! Such friendship, love, generosity, and examples of virtue and striving for holiness! Such dedication to God’s will and fidelity in following in His footsteps. We thank God for having been blessed to know such persons! And also, that once they have attained to the joys of Heaven, they will be mighty intercessors for us, the Church Militant.

Each of the Priests’ graves were marked with a white flower

As we approach the next few weeks’ festivities, let us pay our debts of friendship, and pray for the Holy Souls!

October 31, 2022

‘Why Go On Pilgrimage?’

by Sister Joseph Marie, SsEW

Pilgrim – a foreigner

At the end of September/beginning of October, I and four of my religious sisters were given the opportunity to go on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France. Never having been on a “pilgrimage” to anywhere, much less overseas, I had no idea what to expect. I looked up the word “pilgrim” in the dictionary; it comes from the Latin “peregrinus”: “foreigner, stranger.” Pilgrimage is derived from this same word and has come to mean “a stranger on a journey to a sacred place.” This set me to thinking on what I was about to do, where I was going. 

In 1858 Our Lady appeared to a fourteen-year-old peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, standing in a niche in a cavern on the banks of the River Gave in southern France. She appeared to Bernadette a total of eighteen times, asking her to pray the rosary for poor sinners, that a chapel should be built there in her (Our Lady’s) honor and that processions should come there. She revealed herself to Bernadette as “I am the Immaculate Conception,” reiterating the dogma recently proclaimed by Pope Bl. Pius IX in 1854. 

Arriving in France after an all-night flight, I understood what it meant to be a “pilgrim”. A person in a foreign place, without understanding the language, trying to keep up with our group while shuffling luggage up and down escalators, waiting in line to go through customs and praying earnestly I didn’t “beep” while walking through the metal detectors, I realized how important it is to fulfill the Old Testament mandate “be kind to the foreigner in your midst!” My longing to arrive in Lourdes where Our Lady was surely waiting for me became ever more earnest. 

Life is a pilgrimage

As the sisters and I prayed together at Our Lady’s Grotto and washed in the miraculous spring, the line from Psalm 84 came to me: “As they go through the Bitter Valley, they make it a place of springs…” While we attended the Devotions at the Basilica and took part in the Rosary processions with thousands of other pilgrims from all over the world, I realized in a tangible way, the gift of unity of the Body of Christ. Together we prayed the Rosary for the Church suffering on earth and in Purgatory. As we took extra care of the sick among the pilgrims, we sensed the encouragement of the Church Triumphant seen in the banners of the Saints as we processed by them, following Our Queen with our lighted candles. All of us praying to her together, offering our petitions and bringing the intentions of all those we love, brought home to me the reality of the Communion of Saints. 

Some may wonder, as I did before I left, “why travel to these places when I can just ‘google it’ and see better pictures anyway?” “Why go through all the expense and inconvenience of traveling to a foreign land when I can pray here at home, in our own convent chapel?” I found the answer when I arrived in Lourdes, but also as I pondered on my experiences when I came back home. 

The second reading in the Office of Readings for Thursday of the 38th week in Ordinary Time is from “A Treatise on John” by Saint Augustine. He writes of our being drawn to God by our longing for Him -that our will is drawn to God by our desire to love. Hearing Augustine’s examples of “desiring”, this sentence caught my attention: “Show me one who is full of longing, one who is hungry, one who is a pilgrim and suffering from thirst in the desert of this world, eager for the fountain in the homeland of eternity and he knows what I mean.” 

When I heard the word “pilgrim” it dawned on me: THIS is why we travel to the sacred places. Because they remind us that our whole life is a pilgrimage to the Holy City, the New Jerusalem where Jesus and Mary await us; where the saints lead us into the joy of the Heavenly Father who waits to welcome us after the arduous journey of life. May we be welcomed by that same presence of Our Lady that I was welcomed with in the Grotto of Lourdes. 

After Lourdes, the Sisters were also able to visit other holy sites in France. A few photos of these shrines are below.

October 4, 2022

Singing the Praises of the Lord!

A Blessed Feast Day of St. Francis to all!

In honor of the Troubadour of the Lord, St Francis, who continually sang the praises of his Lord in joyful charity, we give you this song on his Feast Day.  Let us make our pilgrimage together on the Road to Zion as we journey towards the dwelling of our King!


I am a pilgrim in a bitter valley 

But as I travel, my spirit sings

‘Cause in my heart is the road to Zion 

So this poor valley becomes a place of springs 


Come, let us climb the mountain of the Lord 

Lift up your voices and we’ll sing 

Strength grows within us as we walk toward heaven’s door 

Longing for the dwelling of the King

Even the sparrow has found a home there 

Beside Your altar, she joys to be 

Lord, You said I am worth more than sparrows 

And so I hope you’ve saved a place for me


So as I travel this road to Zion 

I will not wander to either side 

I’d rather live on the Lord’s front doorstep 

Than in a mansion where He does not abide 


(copyright Sister Servants)

September 27, 2022

Walking in Jesus’ Footsteps in the Holy Land

Walking in Jesus' Steps in the Holy Land

A Reflection by Sr. Madeleine Marie, SsEW

Last month, some very generous benefactors provided an opportunity for Sr. Marie Francesca, Sr. Clare Marie, and I to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a group from St. Francis of Assisi in Tuscaloosa. None of us had ever been before, and we were profoundly struck by what we encountered.

The Sister Servants on the rooftop of the Notre Dame of Jerusalem center overlooking the entire city.

Sr. Clare Marie said, “My pilgrimage to the Holy Land was life-changing. Until I experienced the culture and the geography firsthand, I did not realize how much I was missing in my understanding of the Scriptures. I now feel like I know Jesus as the people of his time knew Him. I have truly walked in the footsteps of Christ.”

The Grotto of Eremos near the Sea of Galilee where Jesus would go to pray.

I wholeheartedly agree with Sr. Clare Marie. We saw a good number of sites where Jesus walked, taught, and healed people. We saw the places he loved visiting, such as Galilee and Bethany. But most importantly, we visited the sites where the Incarnation happened and walked the Via Dolorosa, culminating with the Mass of Easter at daybreak in the empty tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. All of these supplied images of and insights into the Scriptures that have–and will continue–to bear fruit in our prayer and spiritual reading.

At the Church of the Annunciation: the Word was made flesh here!

For example, our guide, George, took us to what is known as the Valley of the Shadow of Death. This valley is parallel with the road that connected Jericho and Jerusalem. Our guide said that the Holy Family would have walked this road every time they went to Jerusalem for the feasts. From our vantage point, we could see the city of Jerusalem to our left on top of a hill, and then to our right was a big mountain concealing the city of Jericho below. Those opening words of the parable of the Good Samaritan suddenly came alive: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…” We saw the road itself and how treacherous the surroundings were, and we saw the monastery of St. George carved into the rock that provides hospitality to those on the road just as the Good Samaritan did.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death
The Valley of the Shadow of Death

When asked what impressed her the most, Sr. Marie Francesca remarked: “What impressed me most about the Holy Land? Perhaps that’s the wrong question. When I think about our trip the one word that comes to mind is, “Wow!” It was educational on an exciting level and being in the actual physical places where Our Lord lived was really more than I had anticipated. It was a pilgrimage to be treasured and shared with others.”

From start to finish, George told us that this trip wasn’t just for us. We would carry these memories in our hearts and share them with those people we encounter in our daily lives. We brought our fellow sisters, family, and friends along with us in our hearts–remembering them along the way at certain places. Coming back to Birmingham, I can’t count the number of people who, knowing I had gone to the Holy Land, have stopped me and asked what moved me the most during our pilgrimage. With our apostolate of evangelization through catechesis and retreats, this question always gives me the opportunity to stop and ponder anew what I experienced and often a new dimension or insight into something we saw or heard comes into focus. I am then able to share an aspect of the person of Christ–the heart of catechesis–with another and lead him or her to the threshold of encounter and intimacy with Jesus.

Praying in the upper Church of St. Lazarus before Mass.

Recently, I have been reading a meditation on Martha and Mary by Fr. Mauro-Giuseppe Lepori where he describes the new community that sprung up among the siblings after they encountered Jesus. Previously they had been merely siblings, but he remarks: “The three [now] looked at each other in a way that they had never done before, with a tenderness in their gaze they had never had before…It was evident to all three, even without saying it–though later they must have said it–that things were no longer the same among them, that they had entered into a different fraternity, a different familiarity and that their home, so familiar to them, where maybe they had lived with their parents and grandparents since they were little, where they had grown up together, had become a new place, a new space, something holy like a temple, a space to live in like a temple” (Christ, the Life of Life 48-49)

Fr. Rick celebrating Mass in the Crusader church at Bethany.

As I read those lines, what hit me after having been there is that Bethany is indeed a place of both peace and friendship. Those same things that drew Jesus to Bethany are still present and palpable there–not because Mary, Martha, and Lazarus still live there, but rather because Jesus still dwells in that house. Their house truly became a temple in the fullest sense of the word, and Bethany is now the place where we are invited to experience the same intimate friendship with Jesus that the three holy siblings enjoyed!

Christian families in Bethlehem opened the doors of their houses so that we could share a meal with them.

I also gained a new insight into the universality of the Church. Being able to speak French (and this ability improved as I used my French everyday), I had the opportunity to speak to religious and pilgrims from around the world: a Franciscan Friar from Togo, a group of pilgrims from Senegal, some Brazilian priests currently serving as missionaries to France, and a French Benedictine monk living at the Abbey of St. Mary of the Resurrection in Abu Ghosh to name a few. We also met pilgrims from Mexico, Italy, Spain, Canada, Portugal, India, Poland, Ukraine, Nigeria, Austria, and even another group from Alabama! All of us joined the millions of saints and everyday people who through the millennia have come to the Holy Land to walk in the footsteps of Jesus–and still continue to come everyday!

We are grateful to our benefactors who made this trip possible for the three of us, for Fr. Rick Chenault who provided for all of our sacramental needs, and to Deacon Bill and Patti Remmert who organized and kept the whole pilgrimage running smoothly!

Click to see a gallery of more photos from our pilgrimage.