Rooted in love, the future of religious life

by Emily Brabham


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What does it mean to live the Gospel? If I'm called to live the Gospel, how do I do it?

Women, like the recently canonized Teresa of Calcutta, are shining beacons of this Gospel-centered life for me. While in the process of searching for inspiration and courage to lead a humble life in service of the Gospel, I found inspiration in the history of my own community.

Before I began my personal journey with the Sisters of St. Francis Clinton, Iowa, I knew that Catholic women religious had played a major role in the founding of hospitals and schools throughout the United States. I also knew that beyond that, there is often little credit or attention given to these incredible women.

Being a novice during this 150th anniversary year of my community's founding has provided some unique and blessed experiences. During this time of deep discernment, I am graced with opportunities to go more deeply into the history of the community. One was making a "Roots Trip" this summer to Kentucky where the community was founded.

The journey to the "Roots" of my community uncovered and deepened the very roots of love within me.

Having heard different iterations of the story of our founding, I was eager to go and be there. I wanted to soak in the spirit and inspiration of those first brave sisters.

The community was founded in 1866 by three women with the immediate call to educate young girls at Mount Olivet, next to the Trappist Gethsemani Abbey, south of Louisville near Bardstown.

As I stood at the site of the former motherhouse and school (it had been torn down), it was a hot, humid day and insects abounded. I had been sure to coat myself in sunscreen, and sweat was pouring off of me. In a breezy jersey knee length skirt and T-shirt, the mere idea of a black wool habit nearly made me pass out.

I reflected on how I would have dealt with these hardships. The short answer is, "I'm not sure I would have been able to." The sisters suffered sickness, extreme poverty, and even had to discern whether to be a Trappistine community or to stay a Third Order Franciscan community.

What motivated them? What sustained them? Were they joy-filled? I sincerely hope the answer to the first two questions is the Gospel and the answer to the second is yes. Although all I can do is merely speculate, these women had to have been brave, strong, and determined. Without a rock-solid foundation in the Gospel and commitment to answering God's call in their lives, they would not have even been able to discern joining this group of women.

The times were difficult and several of our earliest sisters left the community for various reasons. But the community continued on seeking to serve God's people and answer God's call. As Romans 8:31 says, "What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?"

By all accounts, the earliest sisters endured significant material and spiritual hardships. At the original school and motherhouse, Mount Olivet adjacent to the Abbey at Gethsemani, the sisters endured the oppressive heat and humidity of a Kentucky summer and the extreme cold of winter in wool habits. Several of the graves we visited at the Archdiocese of Louisville cemetery were of sisters who died as young as 17.

At the site of our second motherhouse in Shelbyville, the infamous story of sisters being directed to not attend Mass by the local bishop was recounted. This stemmed from a dispute with the pastor who was convinced the sisters were trying to poison him. So for a long stretch, the sisters went without the spiritual nourishment that is the source and summit of our faith.

As I visited these sites, the image of seeds came to mind. They have to die in order to produce new life. Those seeds sprout and grow deep roots that are below the surface and are unseen. The roots trip allowed me to experience those roots and examine the seeds that with great faith transformed our community. This in-depth look at the strength, courage, and faith of the earliest members of my community encourages me to respond to God's call in my own unique way. I experience that same call those early sisters encountered: God reaching out to me and helping me to plant seeds that, with care and nurturing, will hopefully bear fruit in the future.

Discerning and answering God's call, the community relocated to Clinton, Iowa in the 1890s. Continuing to answer God's call they broadened their ministry from education to also include healthcare and eventually various other forms of ministry.

With great love and devotion these earliest sisters gave everything, including even meeting untimely death due to the harsh conditions. However, the seeds of their lives and ministry brought forth abundant new life. Their sacrifices never became the big stories that we hear of saints acting with great faith in adversity, oppression and injustice. Rather, they were of the more humble, everyday variety that lack details because of that very humility.

Our early sisters were born in the margins, right where Pope Francis is directing religious and the church to go to today. From that graced space of the margins, these brave sisters gave all they had in the spirit and imitation of Saints Francis and Clare.

Our world and circumstances are very different today than in the earliest years of this fledgling community, but the common thread I found is the uncertainty of the future. The early years were lived in great material, but especially spiritual, poverty. Not knowing what the future would hold, those sisters relied on God — they had to. I can only imagine the hope, faith, and great love they had in order to radically live the Gospel. I am inspired and feel a deep connection to their enthusiastic "yes" to God. Although the precise form that religious life will take in the future is unclear, we each find ways to say "yes" to God. That "yes" has to be strong and steady to respond to the needs of the time and place. Now instead of being in the margins, we have to continually seek out the margins because of the very nature of how the world has changed.

I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me. Those early seeds were transformed into deep roots that continue to feed and nurture a mighty tree, the tree reflected on my community's chapel doors. I continue to be inspired and spiritually nourished by those deep roots of the brave and faithful women who came before me.

One hundred and fifty years from now, there will be future sisters that see this point in the community history as the halfway point. I cannot even begin to guess what life will be like 150 years from now. How will the Sisters of St. Francis radically live the Gospel in 2166? Rooted in the Gospel and rooted in love.