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!