150th Anniversary Mass of Sisters of Saint Francis

Author Image

The following is the homily delivered by Bishop Rhoades at the 150th Anniversary Mass of the Sisters of Saint Francis of Perpetual Adoration on September 17th.
On this day, September 17th, your holy foundress Mother Maria Theresia Bonzel was born in the year 1830.  It is wonderful to celebrate this 150th Anniversary Mass of the Sisters of Saint Francis of Perpetual Adoration on Mother Maria Theresia’s birthday.  And not only is this Mother Maria Theresia’s birthday:  it is also the feast of the Stigmata of Saint Francis (on the Franciscan calendar).  This fact always had deep significance for Mother Maria Theresia.  She referred to her birth on the feast of the Stigmata in terms of her life proceeding or coming forth from the wounds of Saint Francis.  Throughout her life, her heart, like that of Saint Francis, overflowed with love of the Crucified Jesus and with love for all suffering humanity.  She embraced much suffering in her own life, and like Saint Francis, with great faith she shared in the suffering of Jesus for the salvation of the world.

The principal reason the Sisters of Saint Francis of Perpetual Adoration were founded as a separate congregation in 1853 was because Mother Maria Theresia felt so deeply the call to live the Franciscan rule, rather than the Augustinian rule of the congregation that was begun three years earlier.  The saintly bishop of Paderborn, Conrad Martin, saw God’s hand in Mother Maria Theresia’s vision and thus proclaimed the Sisters of Saint Francis of Olpe, Germany an independent community.  He appointed Mother Maria Theresia the superior.  The rest is history. 
For 150 years, the Sisters of Saint Francis of Perpetual Adoration have striven to be faithful to the charism of their holy foundress as spiritual daughters of Saint Francis according to his Third Rule, uniting the active and contemplative life, and living the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  The specific charism is that of Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament along with the service of charity.  In the beginning, this involved the education and care of poor orphaned children and the care of the sick in their homes.  In the very first words of the original Constitution of the Congregation, Mother Maria Theresia wrote: “After the example of Holy Father Francis, the Sisters shall endeavor to combine the contemplative with the active.”  And this is what this congregation has been doing, with the help of God’s grace, for 150 years.

The contemplative mission of this congregation has its center in the Most Holy Eucharist:  in Holy Mass and adoration.  Following Saint Francis, Mother Maria Theresia understood that the active apostolate would only bear fruit if the sisters were steeped in a life of prayer.  Therefore, she organized the community life so that the sisters would pray before the Holy Eucharist in hourly rotations, day and night.  The chapel was also open to the people of Olpe, thus fostering the Eucharistic devotion of the local community.  I think of how this continues here in Mishawaka today.  We cannot count or calculate the many graces bestowed upon this congregation and upon the world through the Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament by so many sisters these past 150 years.  The soul of the spiritual life of Saint Francis of Assisi and of Saint Clare was devotion to the Holy Eucharist.  It was also the soul of Mother Maria Theresia’s spiritual life.  Whenever she opened a new convent, her first priority was the chapel and the enthronement of the Blessed Sacrament.  Her Eucharistic devotion naturally led her, as it did Saint Francis, to have special respect for priests.  I have personally experienced this community’s beautiful support, love, and prayers for priests.  On behalf of all our priests, I thank you for your outstanding support of our priestly vocation.  And I thank you for your loyalty and love for the Church, another characteristic of your congregation that also reflects the spirit of Saint Francis and Mother Maria Theresia.  Your community continues to attract vocations because you believe, pray, live, work, think, and feel with the Church. This was fundamental for Saint Francis and for your holy foundress.  Loving attachment to the Eucharistic Body of Christ is connected always to loving attachment to the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church.

With prayer at the center of daily life, Mother Maria Theresia then devoted this congregation to the active apostolate of charity.  In the beginning, this work was principally the education and formation of youth, especially poor, neglected, and orphaned children.  The care of the sick soon followed.  Though time does not allow me to recount the amazing accomplishments of the Sisters of Saint Francis in the active apostolate these past 150 years, I wish to mention the providential expansion of the Sisters here to the United States because of the Kulturkampf in Germany.  At the invitation of the second Bishop of Fort Wayne, Joseph Dwenger, Mother Maria Theresia sent the first sisters to America, to our diocese.  Their mission began with the care of the sick in Lafayette, at that time part of the Diocese of Fort Wayne.  Though poor and with little knowledge of English, those first missionary sisters trusted deeply in divine providence and began immediately their active apostolate of charity:  educating children and caring for the sick.  Rather quickly, they attracted American vocations.  With a great pioneer spirit, the sisters, anchored always in prayer and Eucharistic adoration, engaged in the active apostolate, beginning in Lafayette teaching in the German Saint Boniface School and opening their first hospital, named in honor of the Franciscan saint, Elizabeth of Hungary.  The apostolic labors of the Sisters of Saint Francis expanded quite rapidly here in the United States.  These labors have been a great contribution to the building up of the Church in this diocese and in our country.  With true Christ-like charity, the Sisters of Saint Francis have accomplished so much in the past 150 years in their care of the sick and the education of youth.  With steadfast love for the poor and the suffering and with great self-sacrifice, the Sisters of Saint Francis have served and continue to serve the Church and her charitable mission with the humility and courage of Saint Francis and Mother Maria Theresia Bonzel.  We thank the Lord today for the many blessings bestowed upon the Church these past 150 years through the witness and work of Christian charity of the Sisters of Saint Francis. 

On this feast of the Stigmata of Saint Francis, it is good to reflect on that amazing event that took place on Mount Alverno two years before Saint Francis died.  It was an amazing miracle of God’s grace.  Saint Francis had a deep devotion to the Passion of Jesus and, for years, he had prayed to share in that Passion.  As his earthly life was drawing to a close, God answered his prayers in a way Francis never would have imagined.  The wounds of Jesus appeared on his body.  Saint Bonaventure described this event as follows: 
As he was drawn aloft through ardent longing for God one morning near the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, and was praying on the mountainside, he saw what appeared as a seraph with six bright wings gleaming like a fire descending from the heights of heaven.  As this figure approached in swift flight and came near the man of God it appeared not only winged but also crucified.  The sight of it amazed Francis and his soul experienced joy mingled with pain.  He was delighted with the sight of Christ appearing to him so graciously and intimately and yet the awe-inspiring vision of Christ nailed to the cross aroused in his soul a joy of compassionate love.
When the vision vanished after a mysterious and intimate conversation it left Francis aglow with seraphic love in his soul.  Externally, however, it left marks on his body like those of the Crucified as if the impression of a seal had been left on heated wag.  The figures of the nails appeared immediately on his hands and feet.  The heads of the nails were inside his hands but on top of his feet with their points extending through to the opposite side.  His right side too showed a blood-red wound as if it had been pierced by a lance, and blood flowed frequently from it.  Because of this new and astounding miracle unheard of in times past, Francis came down from the mountain a new man adorned with the sacred stigmata, bearing in his body the image of the Crucified not made by a craftsman in wood or stone, but fashioned in his members by the hand of the living God.

What can we learn from this extraordinary event?  It is the lesson that Mother Maria Theresia learned:  the importance of heeding the words of Jesus in the Gospel:  “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.”  To do so means we renounce self-centeredness.  Like Mother Maria Theresia, we must not be afraid of the cross.  Trusting in Christ’s love and entrusting ourselves to Him, we embrace his cross, whatever that might be each day.  This involves first and foremost love, true love, sacrificial love.  With God’s grace, we strive to love one another as Christ has loved us.  When we do, it will involve the cross.  Like Saint Paul, the cross must be our glory.  “Far be it from me,” he says, “to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”  Saint Paul was thus able to say that he was bearing in his body the marks of Jesus.  He belonged to Jesus.  Saint Francis and Mother Maria Theresia belonged to Jesus.  So do we.

Jesus teaches us that “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for (his) sake will save it.”  Sisters of Saint Francis, your life as women religious is to be a witness to this truth.  Like your holy foundress, you lose your life for the sake of Jesus in order to save it.  You deny yourselves and carry the cross of Jesus.  You teach us the joy of following Jesus, the joy that Saint Francis and Mother Maria Theresia knew even in the midst of suffering and pain.  I do not mean to idealize your religious life since none of us is perfect.  We are all still sinners who depend on Jesus and His mercy.  Yet we thrive to grow in holiness.  To do so, we must rely always on the Lord’s grace.  We depend on Him.  We cannot carry His cross by our own strength any more than Saint Francis could have received the stigmata by his own efforts or power.  So we must humblyfollow the Lord, relying on His grace.  In two months the humble Maria Theresia Bonzel will be called “Blessed” because of her heroic virtues.  It is especially the virtue of humility that allowed her to advance along the path of holiness.

May the Lord help us on our journey!  May He help us to carry His cross each day!  May He continue to bless the Sisters of Saint Francis with the gift of holiness and stir up many more vocations in this congregation!

With Saint Paul, Saint Francis, and soon-to-be Blessed Maria Theresia Bonzel, may we glory only in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ!