March 3, 2021

Snow at Casa Maria

It is very rare that we see any snow in Birmingham, and for our winter-loving sisters, even snow flurries are a treat! On February 15, we woke up to a surprise: the air was filled with flurries, and they were actually sticking to the ground! When it finished, we had gotten about half an inch. The Lord blessed us in Alabama because we didn’t have any of the traumatic experiences that many in the nation suffered. Our prayers remain united to all those who continue to suffer from the effects of the recent snow and cold in Texas and other parts of the South.

February 10, 2021

Sisters All In for SEEK21!

Each year FOCUS hosts their “SEEK” conference for their missionaries, students, and those who wish to experience FOCUS’ work in person.  This year, due to COVID, the keynotes and impact sessions were virtual.  However, numerous college campuses hosted their own live gathering, organized by their local FOCUS missionaries, to provide students with a opportunity to experience together the amazing talks, small group discussions, and celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, which make SEEK such a life-changing experience.  One opportunity SEEK provides is the chance for students to meet priests and Religious from across the country and the world.  We happily responded to a series of invitations for our Sisters to attend these smaller campus gatherings:

Georgia College & State University:

Sister Rita Marie and Sister Madeleine Marie traveled to Milledgeville, GA, to join the FOCUS missionaries and students of Georgia College & State University for their SEEK21 venue.

Sister Rita Marie shares with the students in a small group discussion

“We brought books, medals, and other items from our bookstore, and we joined the students in their small groups as they discussed the content from the many talks we heard together.  The missionaries had encountered several roadblocks as they planned the conference (from a car crashing through the original venue to extremely wet and cold weather), but everything came together beautifully and it bore much fruit in the lives of all whose who attended.” ~ Sister Madeleine Marie

 

Adoration on Saturday night at the Georgia College SEEK21 venue

University of Alabama (Tuscaloosa):

Sister Joseph Marie joins in a small group discussion

Over the weekend, Sister Joseph Marie and Sister Mary Faustina traveled to both the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and at Birmingham.

“I was very edified by the zeal of the students at the University of Alabama.  What I took away from SEEK21 was a great hope for the future of the Church.” ~ Sister Joseph Marie

 

 

University of Alabama at Birmingham:

The Sisters listen in on the students’ reflections

 

Louisiana State University:

Sister Marie Therese and Sister Margaret Mary took the longest haul of all to Baton Rouge, LA to join the students from LSU.

The Sisters’ booth at LSU

“We had a wonderful time at LSU’s SEEK21 venue!  The students were impressive in their spiritual insights, their openness to share with each other, and their love for Catholicism.  We were happy to see 200 students join in for the weekend.  The FOCUS missionaries did an excellent job at planning and providing for everyone’s needs.   They created an environment as close as you can get to the feel of a real SEEK conference experience.” ~Sister Margaret Mary

 

Sister Marie Therese plays a game with some students on Friday night

 

Sister Margaret Mary joins in tossing a football with a FOCUS missionary, two Mercedarian Sisters, and a few students (after a good throw, one bystander said, “from Alabama – of course!”)

 

 

Saturday night Eucharistic Adoration and Procession in Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Baton Rouge

 

Sister Marie Therese and Sister Margaret Mary bid farewell to two of the LSU FOCUS missionaries

And Back at Home:

Sister Mary Michael watched over our “Virtual Booth” for the entire SEEK conference and was able to engage with several people who checked-in via Zoom.

A Screenshot of our “Virtual Booth” and the times for “ZOOMing-in” with us

“It was a blessing to be available during the weekend for so many fruitful Zoom conversations with students and sponsors alike.  Although we’re not together in-person, our intentionality, accompaniment, and prayers are just as present for all who reach out to us.  We can’t wait to see you all in person in Salt Lake City next year!” ~ Sister Mary Michael

 

Photo Gallery on our Virtual Booth

Sister Mary Philomena participated in the SEEK21 online platform, including the Christlife small group.

A view outside Sister Mary Philomena’s office…

A view inside Sister Mary Philomena’s office!

“I was very impressed with FOCUS’ excellent virtual platform.   Their emphasis on small group participation throughout the weekend allowed this virtual conference to impact us personally.  I hope that future SEEK conferences provide virtual participation for those unable to attend in person.” ~ Sister Mary Philomena

 

What about the other Sisters at home?  They “held down the fort”!  And, many had the opportunity to watch some of the keynotes and impact sessions over the weekend and benefit from the amazing speakers of SEEK21.

We are delighted to be friends of FOCUS and to be able to support them with our presence and our prayers!

January 30, 2021

Come, Follow Me… to South Dakota!

By Sister Madeleine Marie, S.s.E.W.

(Feeding treats to the Lammers’ horses in South Dakota)

Two weekends ago, I had the opportunity to travel to the diocese of Sioux Falls, SD, to speak to the catechists of St. George parish in Hartford about Come, Follow Me As a native St. Louisan, I am always happy to be back in the Midwest! This trip was full of surprises at every turn. As my first flight to Dallas was about to land, I got word that my second flight to Sioux Falls was cancelled due to an impending blizzard. The gate agent rerouted all the Sioux Falls passengers to Omaha, saying that the flights there were “wide open” and not yet cancelled. I beat the blizzard by about four hours, so I stayed overnight in Omaha. The next afternoon, Leona and Richard Kavan, our longtime friends and volunteers, generously drove me to Sioux City, IA, where Shane Van Diest, the St. George DRE picked me up.

 

(Leona and Richard Kavan enjoying our mild winter weather on one of their past trips to Casa Maria)

I was blown away by the kindness of St. George’s parishioners. Fr. Paul King arranged for me to stay with the Lammers family at their acreage in Hartford. Barry Lammers’ family has been involved in rodeos for quite a while, and he taught me the basics of roping (see video!) while I was up there. Patty and Barry showed me around the city of Sioux Falls, and we hiked around the Falls.

(At Sioux Falls with Patty Lammers)

I also spent time with Todd and Julie Ernster and the family of Rechelle Dissing. I am especially grateful to Rechelle’s mom, Mrs. Burggraff, who made her famous chicken necks for dinner. I was hesitant to eat them when I heard her say, “chicken necks,” but they were really good!

(A South Dakota sunrise at 7:36 in the morning—quite a bit later than in Alabama!)

St. George employs a monthly family catechesis model and has integrated Come, Follow Me into the monthly meetings for the K-6th grade students. Joining us via zoom from England, Sr. Hyacinthe Defos du Rau, a member of the Dominican Sisters of St. Joseph and translator of Come, Follow Me, explained the background and pedagogy of the program and led a sample session for the catechists. After she spoke, I related some of the stories from my teaching of Come, Follow Me and gave some advice for how to prepare the sessions based on my experience. 

(The Dominican Sisters of St. Joseph in Lymington, England. Sr. Hyacinthe is in the back row on the far right. She has been a great source of encouragement and support as I have implemented Come, Follow Me.)

On the following day, I went to St. Lambert’s parish in Sioux Falls where I taught a lesson of Come, Follow Me to a small group of students. They were a very receptive bunch, eager to listen, answer, and pray. I am grateful to their DRE, Ellen Bauman, for this opportunity, as well as to Fr. Robert Wullweber, the associate pastor, who joined us for the class and lunch. 
I first learned about Come, Follow Me through an article in The Sower (now The Catechetical Review). This article, The Child’s Potential for Contact with God, was a translation of a 1959 conference given by Bl. Marie Eugene of the Child Jesus, the founder of the secular institute Notre Dame de Vie. He pointed out how a baptized child who has not yet reached the age of reason has none of the obstacles to prevent him from communicating with God in prayer. Bl. Marie Eugene continued by explaining how serious education in prayer is important for these little ones: “It is important to make the most of this age, of the child’s innocence and purity of heart, to create in him spiritual reflexes that will carry him to God later on, as if they were second nature. Thus will the movement of grace and divine life be inscribed along with his natural reflexes in order to enrich his soul already with supernatural life.” This was something that I had never considered, but it made perfect sense given what we believe about the sacrament of Baptism and its transforming effects on the soul!

(Photo of Bl. Marie Eugene of the Child Jesus from: https://www.notredamedevie.org/fr-marie-eugene/his-life/photo-gallery/)

The end of the Bl. Marie Eugene article mentioned Come, Follow Me, a catechetical program developed by members of Notre Dame de Vie. This program, tied to the Church’s liturgical year, offers an opportunity to encounter the person of Jesus through contact with the Word of God, the Scriptures. The lessons are structured according to the maturity of the children and consist of a prayerful reading of a passage and employs carefully selected questions. 
 
For the next several years, Come, Follow Me kept popping up to me in different places. There were several more articles in The Catechetical Review highlighting various aspects of the program. Later, I attended a diocesan in-service day where Dr. James Pauley of Franciscan University spoke about how a diocese in France was radically transformed by switching to Come, Follow Me. The more I learned about it, the more I was convinced that this fit in with our community’s charism of “teaching spiritual things spiritually” (1 Cor 2:13). This was confirmed when I visited the Nashville Dominicans’ motherhouse in April of 2018, and one of our foundress Mother Mary Gabriel’s friends, Sr. Luke, came up to me and told me, “You should do Come, Follow Me! It’s a program that Mother Mary Gabriel would have loved when she was teaching.” I answered, “Sr. Luke, you are the voice of the Holy Spirit right now because I was just thinking of asking if we could look more into this program!” Shortly afterwards, we began teaching a small class of 4-8 year olds, and our sisters introduced it to the younger students at St. James School in Gadsden. Last year, we also taught the K-2 students at St. Barnabas, an inner city Catholic school in Birmingham.

(One of our Come, Follow Me sessions at Casa Maria)

The program makes use of silhouettes to assist the children in interiorizing and responding to the passages. When I went through the lessons on Moses with my St. Barnabas students, the silhouette illustrated Moses’ posture of prostration before God. The next lesson was the call of Samuel, and we discussed how we can dispose ourselves to hear God speaking to us. The children immediately connected the idea of silencing our bodies with the silhouette of Moses, and one of them asked, “Can we pray like Moses?” The children, who all had problems focusing, spent about 5 minutes in silent prayer. The next week when I came, one of the boys asked, “Can we pray like that again?” They ended up asking their regular teacher if they could spend 5 minutes in silent prayer everyday!

(Making use of the silhouettes in a Come, Follow Me lesson that I incorporated into a retreat day for children in Tuscaloosa)

The beauty of Come, Follow Me is precisely this formation in prayer. Each session ends with a time of group prayer, and the children are free to stay as long as they wish. They are encouraged in the first year as 5 and 6 year olds to stay in prayer long enough so that God can speak to them and transform their hearts. The natural fruit of this time is that the children often decide to set up places of prayer in their own homes. We gave the children who came to the Come, Follow Me class at Casa Maria small San Damiano crosses for their prayer spaces. One of the little boys made himself a prayer room in a large box. A set of twins set up a chapel behind their dad’s chair, where they once prayed a whole rosary (One of them said, “Except that we couldn’t remember the Hail Mary so we just kept praying the Angel of God prayer”). Another little boy said that he was going to wear his cross around his neck so that he could take his prayer space with him wherever he was and make time to pray.

(Children praying in the chapel after one of our Come, Follow Me lessons at Casa Maria)

If you are interested in learning more about this program, please feel free to contact me through our website I am happy to help in any way that I can. 

January 23, 2021

Back to Live Retreats

Retreatants are social-distanced in the Conference Room for Mass and for the talks (Sister Mary Anthony is pictured here giving instructions on the retreatants’ first night.)

Over the past year we have been considering how we can renew in-person retreats and meet all the safety standards for COVID19.  Much thought and prayer has gone into the decision to begin inviting retreatants again to Casa Maria Retreat House.  We are required to limit the number of retreatants who can attend and follow the guidelines concerning the virus.  These requirements, while a burden in many ways, are well worth the effort to provide in-person retreats again!  Although we still have to visit with masks and distancing, the gift of being in the presence of our retreatants and in the same Chapel for prayer is a blessing beyond words.  One of our Sisters shares her thoughts with you:

The Sisters plate the meals…

“I’m an extravert and our apostolate of catechesis and retreats is right up my alley.  I’ve always enjoyed visiting with retreatants whenever I could, engaging in joy-filled conversations.  But this has not been possible with COVID19.  We had only been in lock-down a couple of weeks before my dreams at night became filled with crowds of people!  I know it has been hard on a lot of people. At least in the convent, we have our community of Sisters; but I miss interacting with our retreatants, old and new. 

A retreat is a time and a place provided for people to come and get away from daily distractions – and hopefully worries, though we always bring those with us – and spend time with God in prayer.  It is also an opportunity for retreatants to connect with other like-minded people. They can discover they aren’t the only ones in the universe who believe as they do, though sometimes they may feel like the odd ones out!

 

and deliver them to the retreatants at tables in the Reception Room

Finally, this last fall, we were able start up live retreats – just not in our usual way.  There is social-distancing and we wear masks, taking the precautions we must.  Nonetheless, now we can invite people to come back and have the rich experience of time away with God in a holy place largely without distractions.  (Have you ever felt that the term “social-distancing” is an oxymoron?)  We can only accommodate about 15-20 people with the COVID regulations, but now at least some can interact live with the retreat priest, other retreatants, or us sisters (socially-distanced, of course).  And we live-stream the retreat, but I feel that a “live studio audience” has to be better than a zoom meeting any day of the week.

This reflection is from Sister Marie Francesca who, besides engaging with retreatants and Community friends, loves to be outdoors among the flowers!

For my part, I am happy to have even limited “real” retreats (as we’ve taken to calling them) and we pray for an end to this pandemic and look forward to seeing all of you again at Casa Maria!”

 

 

 

 

A retreatant takes advantage of our new Marian Shrine

We are so blessed to still be able to provide a time and place for a prayerful retreat with Our Lord

The reverent celebration of the Sacred Liturgy at Casa Maria deeply enriches us and those who attend Retreats here

January 9, 2021

Winter Repairs and Improvements

A typical scene from Fall 2019…  Mother Louise Marie rakes back loose gravel from the drain that struggles to keep up with flooding rain water

Now that Winter is upon us again, our friends at Nature’s Edge Landscaping have begun our next stage of property improvements.  After they did such a beautiful job restoring the lawn outside the Convent wing and adding new drainage lines, we asked them to do similar work outside the Retreat wing.

 

Nature’s Edge at work

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A beautiful transformation and no more water problem! (Summer 2020)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The lawn outside the Retreat wing has long needed additional drainage work.  Over the years the ground has settled and eroded, and often retains standing water after a hard rain.  We are working to control the water in this area and then we will relandscape around the building.

Beginning the project

Installing French drains and additional inlets

New gravel drip edge

We also had a fence installed to screen our air conditioning units and transformer, making the area safer and more sightly.

(Before)

(After)

The drainage in this area is difficult and necessary and we pray the results of this project will be a blessing for both the Sisters and our retreatants!  (To see pictures from previous projects, visit our Photo Gallery.)