December 12, 2021

Guest Performers for Mananitas!

For many years, the Sister Servants have celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe with great festivities in honor of our Mamacita, Mary. It is a special celebration which we gratefully offer to our community of local volunteers. The day always includes a conference, Holy Mass, and the singing of Mananitas.

Las Mananitas are Spanish songs traditionally sung to honor a loved one on their birthday or feast day, and on December 12th we sing them to Our Lady herself. Years ago, we began singing the Mananitas with the help of a Mariachi band, but 2021 marks the tenth anniversary of the Sisters leading all the singing.

We wrote this song to tell the story of the apparition of Our Lady to Saint Juan Diego at Guadalupe, but it has been several years since we’ve had a full production! The children acting out the song are family of Sister Marie Therese, and we hope you enjoy this piece of our celebration as much as we did.

You can purchase a CD, DVD, or MP3 recording of our 2011 Mananitas through our bookstore, here.

November 25, 2021

Where have the Sisters been?

   There has been a noticeable decrease in the number of Sister sightings around Casa Maria lately. Aside from regularly scheduled streams to and from the chapel for community prayer (and a few extra pious – or frantic – visits), there has been very little visible activity even within the convent…

… so what have we been up to?

No cause for alarm – we have only been extremely focused on the final stages of our latest expedition into Theological studies! The Fall semester, devoted to Moral and Spiritual Theology, climaxed in what has been unanimously identified as the greatest challenge yet in our community class experience. The last essay and the final exam have seen sisters completing heroic feats of study and memorization, practice essays and drills, quizzing and research! And, reminders to use, I quote, “a ruthless economy of words”.

While the hallways may have been unusually vacant, study locations revealed a flurry of flash cards, layers of open books, a multitude of greatly varied study techniques, and impromptu meetings to discuss the depths of the moral life. Afternoons frequently saw gatherings around the coffee pot, from which fragments of conversations could be overheard, with phrases such as “I missed the section on heteronomy!” … “Actually, that would be directly, materially, cooperating in evil!” … “concommitant what?”… and, “don’t forget to use a doctor of the Church!” 

     In all seriousness, though, this course has been another tremendous blessing. The material feeds directly into our apostolic work, and both our personal and communal spiritual life. It is especially handy that our professors purposely make many of the prompts for assignments suited toward classes, presentations, or articles that we can share at a moment’s notice. Be on the watch for timely articles and talks that contain themes of man’s vocation to happiness, the unity of the Decalogue, and God’s revelation of Himself within it! Plus bonus excerpts focusing on the Church Doctors’ teaching on the Spiritual life – Quiz: According to Saint Catherine of Siena, at what point did the Apostles reach Transforming Union? Or was that Saint Teresa. . . ?

In short, we have an additional reason to be THANKFUL to God this Thanksgiving! Another course successfully completed, and already bearing much fruit. We have so much to be thankful for, including all of you, our dear family and friends. Know that you are in our prayers every day as we head in to the holy season of Advent!

November 1, 2021

“Sister, how did you get your name?”

Happy Feast of All Saints!

     Today is a wonderful feast in the Church, as we celebrate not only the saints we have a personal devotion to, but also all the unknown saints in Heaven! So many faithful in the Church live lives of great intimacy with the Lord, completely unnoticed by those around them. From children to the elderly, from those dying of terminal illnesses to those who sacrifice their lives for others, or who simply bear patiently the ordinary trials of life, without any extraordinary events to bring attention to their sanctity. We praise God for their lives, and ask their intercession in our journey to Heaven!

May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, grant you a spirit of wisdom and insight to know Him clearly. May He enlighten your innermost vision that you may know the great hope to which He has called you, the wealth of His glorious heritage to be distributed among the members of the Church.

— Ephesians 1:17-18 (from Morning Prayer for the Feast of All Saints)
We enjoy trying to identify all the saints pictured in this copy of a mural in the Marian Shrine in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico.
The pastor of Gruta de Lourdes, Fr. Fernando Felices, commissioned the piece and brought this copy for our community when visiting.

In our community, a Sister receives her religious name and new patron when she receives the religious habit, after her year of postulancy in the community. As a postulant, she prayerfully considers saints she has devotion to, and submits three names to the Superior. But the Superior has the freedom, listening to the Holy Spirit, to choose a name not on the list! The days and minutes leading up to the moment each Sister hears her religious name are very suspenseful! We thought you would enjoy hearing Sister Marie Francesca’s story of being named for St. Francis.

      “Hello! My name is Sr. Marie Francesca and my patron saint, who I am named for, is St. Francis of Assisi. The first time I read any in-depth biography on him was early on in my college years. I loved his zeal for God and that he was Our Lady’s Troubadour. His zeal and love of God led him to live fully and not half-heartedly. I also read in this biography about St. Dominic meeting St. Francis and how St. Dominic attended St. Francis’ first Chapter of Mats (a rather famous Chapter in Franciscan history). I saw their similarities and how St. Dominic wanted to combine the two communities. At the time I thought it would be wonderful if both communities were combined. I forgot I thought this until years later.

Sister Marie Francesca with Mother Mary Gabriel on the day of Sister’s First Profession

                Well, time passed and as things go, I forgot how much I loved St. Francis. I entered the Sister Servants and during my postulant year I was reading about all kinds of saints, trying to get ideas for what names I could suggest to Mother for my religious name. When asked whom I was devoted to I always responded, ‘The Blessed Mother’. It wasn’t until I read Louis de Wohl’s novel The Joyful Beggar about St. Francis that I remembered how much I liked this saint. I thought about taking his name. But I did not want a masculine name. What feminine versions did I know? Well, there is Frances, but that gets confusing, after all there is a St. Frances of Rome. She was a wife, mother and mystic and lived in the 1300’s. AND she was Benedictine.

                Then, there is Francine, but I’ve never been really crazy about that name. So, then I thought about Francesca. I liked that! So, what about the ‘Mary’ part? All of us have Mary or Marie as part of our name. I played with various versions of that for a little while, settling on Marie Francesca.  I liked that, a lot.  But…

                Well, then I thought Marie Francesca has a lot of syllables and doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily as some of the other names in our community at that time. THEN, I considered that St. Francis is one of our communities’ patron saints, a big feast day in our community. ‘I won’t likely get this name’, I thought.  So, without telling anyone about my thoughts I went about choosing three different saint names for Mother Mary Gabriel to choose from, even though I wasn’t particularly happy about any of them.

                By the time the day we receive the habit and our religious name came around I had forgotten all about St. Francis and that I liked Marie Francesca as a name. I strained to keep my emotions calm as I waited to find out which of the three names Mother chose for me. Then, I heard her say, ‘You will be called Sr. Marie Francesca…’ Was I excited about this? Honestly, I had so forgotten about this name that I was in shock. About an hour later I remembered THIS was the name I had wanted all along.

It seems that the Holy Spirit works through our Superiors even in surprising little ways. I always take this story as a confirmation that God really did want me here in this community. I remember I wanted a community where St. Dominic and St. Francis were combined. God brought me here without my being completely cognizant of all the details. He works with the thin threads of our life. Never doubt His work in your own life!”

October 18, 2021

Finding Frassati…or How He Found Us!

By Mother Louise Marie, SsEW

We have so many books, devotionals, and pictures of Blessed Pier Giorgio in our bookstore that people often ask us, “What’s the connection between the Sister Servants and Pier Giorgio Frassati?” God’s Providence planted the seeds for our community’s love of Bl. Pier Giorgio through a friendship between two families that began many years ago.

Immediately following the end of World War II, my father, Peter Flanigan (pictured left), was sent to England while working on the Marshall Plan and traveled throughout Europe, becoming close friends with Wanda Gawronska, Bl. Pier Giorgio’s niece. Through Wanda, he got to know the other family members. My father’s friendships were life-long, and during my childhood and young adulthood, our families continued their friendship across the ocean, sharing summers and other vacations together. At the time I knew nothing about Blessed Pier Giorgio and was too busy sight-seeing and riding horses to appreciate the connection and opportunity to get to know about this saint!

Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati’s sister, Luciana (pictured above), carried on the work of making known her brother’s life and heroic virtue. She eventually authored A Man of the Beatitudes and My Brother Pier Giorgio: His Last Days. She also edited a collection of her brother’s Letters to His Friends and Family.

Fast-forward many years to my entrance into the Sister Servants of the Eternal Word in Birmingham, Alabama! My first exposure to Blessed Pier Giorgio was the televised World Youth Day in Denver, 1993. The EWTN coverage of Pope St. John Paul II’s engagement of the youth was deeply moving. Wanda Gawronska (pictured below), who to this day carries on her mother’s work with Bl. Pier Giorgio’s cause, was invited to prepare an exhibit at World Youth Day. Hearing about it piqued my interest in Pier Giorgio!

Wanda has continued the work of her mother, Luciana, in promoting the cause and knowledge of her uncle, Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, throughout the world.

My brother, Tim, has also become a great fan of Pier Giorgio.  Tim loves having fun and spending time in the mountains, so he really appreciates Pier Giorgio’s attractiveness to youth and to all as both a mountain climber and a practical jokester! 

Mother Louise Marie with her brothers, Bob (left) and Tim (center), with a cut out of Pier Giorgio at the FOCUS SLS 2018 Conference.

Finally, during our pilgrimage to Rome in 2007 with Father John Horgan, we had a surprise: Pier Giorgio showed up unexpectedly!  My dad was also on the pilgrimage, and Wanda joined us for dinner one evening. In the course of the conversation we found that Father Horgan is a sort of expert on Bl. Pier Giorgio.  Wanda shared details with us about Pier Giorgio and the process of his canonization.  She invited us to meet her mother, Luciana, who was 104 years old at the time.  An unforgettable meeting!

Luciana showing photographs to Fr. John Horgan during this unforgettable visit.
Luciana sharing stories and chocolates with the Sister Servants.

The stage was now set for the threads of Providence to come full circle. During a retreat at Casa Maria preached by Fr. Jacques Phillippe, we met Christine Wohar, the founder and director of FrassatiUSA.  She has been a friend and collaborator of Wanda for many years and shared with me the story of how Pier Giorgio “called” her from work as a lawyer to her present vocation of making him known to the youth in the United States and beyond.  Learning that Christine needed help with shipping materials internationally, we offered to take on all the mailing for FrassatiUSA through our Casa Maria Bookstore!

In 2009, Christine Wohar and Wanda Gawronska visited Casa Maria together when they recorded the EWTN series on Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, Sanctity within Reach.

It seems that Divine Providence set us up long ago for this work and ongoing friendship with Pier Giorgio’s earthly family and spiritual family!  If you want to get to know Pier Giorgio better, I recommend you watch Pier Giorgio Frassati: Get to Know Him! (below) and read his sister’s books. You may also be interested in Christine Wohar’s new book, Finding Frassati and Following His Path to Holiness.  You will get to know him and pray with him on your own spiritual journey.  And as you “find” Pier Giorgio, you may find that he has first “found” you and has plans for you, too!

September 29, 2021

The Sister Servants in St. Louis

The Sister Servants enjoying the Ted Drewes experience.

By Sr. Madeleine Marie

“It is self-evident that St. Louis affected me more deeply than any other environment has ever done. I feel that there is something in having passed one’s childhood beside the big river, which is incommunicable to those people who have not. I consider myself fortunate to have been born here, rather than in Boston, or New York, or London.”T. S. Eliot

I am a St. Louisan, born and raised in the Gateway to the West. Like T.S. Eliot and countless other St. Louisans past and present, I have a great love for my hometown. I praise it so much that my Sisters at Casa Maria jokingly refer to St. Louis as the Holy Land.

A beautiful St. Louis sunrise from our hotel’s window.

I recently had the opportunity to go back to my roots for my first extended visit since my father died in 2008. Mother Louise Marie and Sr. Ave Maria were attending the annual CMSWR (Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious) National Assembly, and Sr. Marie Therese and I helped with the driving. Never one to miss an opportunity to show off my beloved city, I planned a whirlwind experience to introduce the Sisters to some of the people and places that had the greatest impact on me.

We arrived in St. Louis the afternoon of September 14. After zooming into our current Augustine Institute course on Moral and Spiritual Theology, we headed out to St. Louis Abbey where we joined the monks for Mass and Vespers for the feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross. We had a brief visit with Fr. Augustine Wetta, a good friend of our community who gives retreats at Casa Maria, before heading out to meet my former youth minister, Steve Allgeyer, for dinner.

Fr. Augustine being Fr. Augustine!

Steve is currently the Vice President of Ministry Advancement for Life Teen. During my time at Incarnate Word Life Teen in Chesterfield and even after my high school graduation, he was very influential in planting seeds and encouraging me to embrace my vocation as a religious sister. Steve and his family have always been an inspiration to me, and I wanted to introduce him to the Sisters. This was the first time I had seen him since 2008, and it reawakened my gratitude for the gift that he has been in my life.

Wednesday morning, the four of us went to Mass and took time to pray at the New Cathedral. Mother went back to the hotel to prepare for her board meeting, while the rest of us headed out to the Zoo. The cold front that had brought storms the night before gave way to a beautiful morning in the low 70s with no clouds. We only had two hours and only got to see about half of the animals, but we had a great time enjoying God’s creation and each other’s company.

From the zoo, we headed out to the Shrine of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne in St. Charles. It’s always been one of my favorite places to visit. My patroness, St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, was a close friend of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne and sent her to St. Charles in 1818 to establish schools in the new frontier. Even though the historical parts of the convent were being renovated, Sandy Alheim, the Shrine’s director, gave us and Fr. Anthony Gerber a tour that made St. Rose Philippine’s life come alive.

One of the Sisters praying at the tomb of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne in St. Charles.

We picked up Mother Louise Marie and then went out to meet Fr. Fadi Auro, the director of the pre-Theologate at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary. Fr. Auro, who as a layman accompanied us on our pilgrimage to Rome in 2007, invited us to the seminary to join the pre-theologians for a Holy Hour, Vespers, and dinner. The young men come from all over the Midwest, and we enjoyed getting to meet them and hearing their stories of how God has been leading them to discern a priestly vocation. On our way back to the hotel, we made a detour to Ted Drewes where we got “concretes” (frozen custard) and mingled with the different people who were there.

Visiting with Fr. Mason, Rector of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary and Fr. Auro.

Thursday was a busy day for Mother at the CMSWR, and also for Sr. Ave Maria, Sr. Marie Therese, and me since we left early in the morning to join Fr. Gerber and the students of Sacred Heart in Florissant for Mass and visits to their classes. I visited the younger students who asked really profound questions. Unlike the usual questions we get, one third grader asked me, “What is the ultimate sacrifice?” The other two sisters were equally impressed by the students and their zeal at Sacred Heart.

We then left Sacred Heart and headed to St. Dominic High School, my alma mater. It’s hard to explain to an outsider, but in St. Louis, our high schools are very much a part of who we are long after we’ve graduated. Even though I graduated more than 20 years ago, I am proud to say that I am “Forever a Crusader.” St. Dominic has experienced a resurgence of its Catholic identity over the past several years. By becoming dynamically Catholic, about 1/5 of the Archdiocesan seminarians are now St. Dominic alumni and several former students have entered religious life. I reached out to Fr. Patrick Russell, the new Vice President of Mission and Identity, and Andrew Struttmann, the campus minister, and they put together an event for girls interested in hearing our lives as religious.

Speaking to the girls about our vocations at St. Dominic.

We joined the students for their daily Empower Hour Mass, and then we ate with the girls, shared our stories, and answered questions about our experiences in religious life. 57 girls showed up and were very engaged in listening to us. One student remarked, “I think it’s really amazing because it shows how the St. Dominic legacy of faith is being carried on. It shows just how strong our faith life here can be. It’s just really inspiring for the rest of us that people like Sister have been here before and have come from where we are now. You always think of Sisters as amazing women of God, but it’s easy to forget that they were high schoolers once, too.”

Posing with the Senior Peer Ministers in front of the school’s crest.

I invited Sr. M. Karolyn Nunes, FSGM, the vocation director for her community and one of my household sisters from college, to join us. Sr. M. Karolyn met the Sister Servants shortly after being hired as the DRE in Paris, TN, after after we graduated from Franciscan University of Steubenville. Mother Mary Gabriel had taught her pastor, Msgr. Victor Ciaramitaro, and he recommended that she come to Casa Maria for a retreat. She called me when she came back and told me that I needed to go visit the Sister Servants. At the time, I was more attracted to the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George. Providentially, I visited Casa Maria, and I knew that it was where I was called to be (Sr. M. Karolyn ended up entering the Sisters in Alton). This was the first time since we entered our respective communities that we got to spend more than 20 minutes together. We were able to tell our intertwined vocation stories together, and then afterwards, the four of us went to my favorite frozen custard stand, Silky’s, where we caught up and reminisced about our favorite memories together.

I also had the opportunity to spend time with other friends and meet some of their children for the first time. The highlight of the trip, though, was being able to see a lot of my St. Louis family. Since my mom moved to Florida, I haven’t seen any of my dad’s side of the family in three years, including my last remaining grandma. I surprised her with a visit during her assisted living’s weekly happy hour. We had a wonderful time listening to the music together, and then we went out to eat the next day with all of my dad’s siblings and a cousin’s children. I also got the chance to teach two of my cousins’ religion classes at Holy Child school in Arnold.

While we were in St. Louis, an opportunity arose to go to a Cardinals’ game with donated tickets, and we jumped on it! It was my first ballgame at Busch Stadium since 2006, and I was delighted that the Cardinals were just emerging from an extended slump. Our group included Fr. John Burns who spoke at the CMSWR meeting and 14 sisters from various communities. As the teams warmed up, Fredbird (pictured below) approached us, tipped his hat, and posed for a picture with us. It was a great game with great companions!

On our way home to Birmingham, we stopped at both Ste. Genevieve and the Shrine of the Miraculous Medal in Perryville. Ste. Genevieve, a Mississippi River town founded in 1735, is the oldest permanent settlement in Missouri. We met the priests and seminarian assigned to the parish church, and Fr. Mitchell Baer took us into the Church’s basement where we saw the foundation of the first stone church building. In Perryville, we prayed at the beautiful St. Mary of the Barrens Church, one of the oldest consecrated churches west of the Mississippi River.

Visiting Ste. Genevieve Church

While we couldn’t see everything and everybody, I was happy to share part of my beloved city with my Sisters. As Mother Louise Marie kept saying, “Sr. Madeleine Marie, St. Louis is everything you said it was!”

If you want to hear more about Sr. Madeleine Marie’s journey to the Sister Servants, please check out this interview she did earlier this year with Dr. David Anders on our diocesan podcast!