Regional Mass celebrating 150th Anniversary of Sisters of Saint Francis – USF

Author Image

            Today we gather for this regional Mass celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Sisters of Saint Francis of Perpetual Adoration.  We gather to give thanks to God for the gift of this religious community and for the gift of their holy foundress, Mother Maria Theresia Bonzel, who will be beatified in November. 
            The theme of thanksgiving is prominent in today’s readings.  In the second book of Kings, Naaman the Syrian, who suffered the terrible disease of leprosy, was cured by the prophet Elisha.  The Scriptures tell us that “his flesh became again like the flesh of a little child.”  The cure brought this man, a foreigner and enemy of God’s people, to faith.  Naaman said to Elisha: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel.”  His profession of faith was really the greater miracle in this story.  And he makes an act of thanksgiving.  Naaman’s cure was an unmerited gift from God.  Naaman in his deep gratitude tried to give Elisha a gift in thanksgiving, but Elisha refused the gift because it was truly God who cured Naaman, not himself, God’s prophet.  So instead, Naaman took two mule-loads of earth from that place so that he would later offer a sacrifice to God on soil from the holy land of Israel.
            In today’s Gospel, one very familiar to us since it is often read on Thanksgiving Day, we heard about Jesus’ cure of the ten lepers.  After the cure, only one of the group, the Samaritan, went back to thank Jesus.  Like Naaman in the Old Testament, he was considered a foreigner, of another religion.  But he received the gift of faith.  The Gospel tells us he returned to Jesus, “glorifying God in a loud voice.”  He fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked Him for the cure.  This was a beautiful gesture of humility and gratitude.  Our Lord was delighted by the gratitude of the Samaritan, but disappointed that the other nine did not return to thank Him. 
            The message for us today is very clear.  Do we practice the wonderful virtue of gratitude in our lives or are we at times remiss or even ungrateful?  Perhaps the nine lepers just forgot about Jesus in the midst of their excitement at being cleansed.  Perhaps we forget or take for granted the many gifts we receive every day from God. 
            How do we give thanks?  First, of course, is our prayer of thanksgiving.  Saint Paul wrote: “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  Of course, the Mass is our ultimate prayer of thanksgiving to God.  In the Preface dialogue at Mass, the priest says: “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God” and we respond: “It is right and just.”  Yes, it is right and just to give the Lord thanks and praise for all that is good and beautiful, for God’s manifold gifts to us, for our life, and most importantly, for the gift of His Son as our Redeemer, for the new life we receive in Christ and the gift of redemption. 
            We also give thanks by being generous to others, imitating God’s generosity to us.  A grateful person is a generous person.  This is stewardship: recognizing that all we have and are is God’s gift to us and then giving back to God of our time, our talents, and our treasure to Him and His Church.
            Mother Maria Theresia Bonzel was a woman filled with gratitude to God.  She was a woman of great faith who had encountered God’s love in her life.  She received the call to follow Christ and to found the congregation of the Sisters of Saint Francis of Perpetual Adoration.  Filled with gratitude for God’s love, she set out courageously to spread that love to the sick and the poor.  She realized very deeply that this calling was a gift from God.  She knew that all gifts and talents, every good, come from God.  And she wanted to make a return to the Lord for His goodness.  It was the deep experience of God’s love that inspired her to respond in gratitude by leading a new religious congregation.  In her writings, she continually offered praise and thanks to God for his kindness, goodness, and mercy.  She was much like Saint Francis, who never tired of singing the glories of God.  She never praised herself.  Her heart was filled with gratitude to God.  Allow me to quote Mother Maria Theresia’s own words.  She wrote:  “The love, the extraordinary love God has shown me, demands that I love and honor God perfectly, and live with a view to the goal and end of my life.  God has proved His love for me in the great grace of the vocation to the religious life.  He has called me regardless of His own benefit.  ‘You have not chosen me; I have chosen you’.” 
Mother Maria Theresia acknowledged that all good found in her and in her actions did not proceed from her, but was a gift of divine love.  That allowed her to serve the Lord with such selfless dedication, even in the midst of huge challenges and much suffering.  She was able to persevere because she turned to God in all situations, in joys and sorrows.  She knew that the Lord was with her.  She surrendered herself totally to Him.  She had a beautiful interior life, a life of prayer and contemplation, that then bore fruit in the beautiful works of the apostolate.  And the Holy Eucharist was the center of her religious life.  This is the inheritance received by the thousands of Sisters who, for the past 150 years, have embraced the contemplative and active life of Mother Maria Theresia Bonzel as Sisters of Saint Francis of Perpetual Adoration.   And this is what we celebrate today.  In particular, we celebrate the Sisters’ presence in our diocese. 
The Sisters of Saint Francis came to the Diocese of Fort Wayne in 1875 at the invitation of our second bishop, Bishop Joseph Dwenger.  At that time, the diocese included the whole northern half of the state of Indiana.  Bishop Dwenger, during his ad limina visit to Rome in 1874, made a side trip to Olpe, Germany to meet Mother Theresia at the motherhouse of the congregation.  The congregation was still very young, founded just 11 years earlier.  At the time of Bishop Dwenger’s visit to Olpe, the Church was suffering from the anti-Catholic Prussian government’s persecution.  Catholic religious orders were being suppressed.  Under the circumstances, Mother Maria Thersia accepted Bishop Dwenger’s invitation to come to the Diocese of Fort Wayne to open a hospital in Lafayette.  That was the beginning of the long history of service of the Sisters of Saint Francis of Perpetual Adoration in our diocese.  The community grew pretty rapidly.  The sisters’ motherhouse was in Lafayette and in 1885, The Sisters became a separate American province, that is now, as you know, located in Mishawaka.  Through the decades, the Sisters of Saint Francis have had a huge part in the life of the Church in our diocese, especially in the teaching apostolate and in health care. 
            The soon to be “Blessed” Maria Theresia Bonzel visited the Diocese of Fort Wayne three times during her life.  I know that at least on her first visit, she came here to the city of Fort Wayne to visit with Bishop Dwenger.  The Sisters’ apostolic works in the first decades were in areas that are now part of the dioceses of Lafayette and Gary.  I believe the first apostolate of the sisters in the territory that is now the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend was at Saint Patrick School in Lagro in 1889, followed by Saint Andrew School in Fort Wayne in the year 1911, Saint John School in Goshen in 1917, and Saint Mary’s School in Huntington in 1921.  Over 100 Sisters of Saint Francis were teaching in our diocese by 1924. 
            The presence of the Sisters of Saint Francis here in the city of Fort Wayne became quite prominent in 1944 when the community decided to relocate Saint Francis College from Lafayette to Fort Wayne.  This college, which began as a school to train the sisters to be teachers, had been accredited in 1923.  A few years before moving to Fort Wayne, the college had expanded from a two-year to a four-year program and also had begun to accept lay women as students.  When Saint Francis College opened in Fort Wayne, it had 62 lay women and fourteen sisters as students.  Eventually, the college became coed.  Enrollment grew.  Academic programs expanded.  New buildings were constructed.  In 1998, it became the “University of Saint Francis.”  It is very appropriate that this regional celebration today is here on the campus of this university, a blessing to the city of Fort Wayne and to our diocese for the past 69 years. 
            In this Fort Wayne area of our diocese, the Sisters of Saint Francis have taught at Saint Therese School and at Bishop Luers High School.  In the South Bend area, they have taught at Saint John the Baptist School in South Bend and Queen of Peace School in Mishawaka.  I am very grateful that today the Sisters of Saint Francis teach at Marian High School in Mishawaka and at Saint Anthony School in South Bend.  I celebrated Confirmation at Saint Anthony’s this past Friday evening.  The candidates were very well prepared, clear evidence that they were taught by the Sisters of Saint Francis.
It is a special joy for me that the Sisters are receiving vocations among the young women of our diocese.  And it is a great blessing to have so many sisters at the provincial motherhouse in Mishawaka, over 30 Sisters of Saint Francis at Saint Francis Convent and over 30 retired sisters in residence at Our Lady of the Angels Convent, a real oasis of prayer in our diocese.  Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament at Saint Francis Convent is a great blessing for our diocese. 
Though we don’t have any hospitals of the Sisters in our diocese, the corporate office of the Franciscan Alliance, the Sisters’ health care system, is located in Mishawaka.  The Sisters’ health care apostolate continues the beautiful commitment of Mother Maria Theresia to the sick and the suffering.
            I began this homily reflecting on the theme of thanksgiving.  Of course, we thank the Sisters of Saint Francis of Perpetual Adoration on this 150thanniversary.  But I know Mother Maria Theresia would want us to offer our thanks first to God, the source of all blessings.  That’s what we do now as we celebrate the great sacrifice of thanksgiving which is the Holy Eucharist. 
            May Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament continue to pour out His love and grace upon the Sisters of Saint Francis and upon our diocese!  May Saint Francis of Assisi and Mother Maria Theresia Bonzel pray for us!