Addressing the National Meeting of the Daughters of Charity, St. Louis, MO on September 26, 2009 Fr. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M. first recounted his contacts with so many Daughters of Charity over a 30 year period and the spoke powerfully about the challenges faced in this present stage in the journey toward unification of their provinces.
(Text in Word Format Daughters of Charity(2)
Thank you. It’s incredibly humbling to stand in your presence.
I came to the community 30 years ago this year, as a college seminarian at Niagara University. The first Daughter of Charity I ever met was Sr. Martha Ann Gilman, then known as Sister John Francis, when I was still a high school senior and came to Niagara for academic advising. She was chair of the math department and I was hoping to become a math major. I doubt she remembers that meeting, but I remember it well. It was one of a few meetings that day that led me to believe I’d be ok studying at Niagara and joining the Vincentians. I made the decision to enter shortly afterwards.
I first met the sisters from Evansville at the end of my freshman year, when I simply walked into Sarah Fisher Home for Children, near my family home in a Detroit suburb. I knew nothing of the institution, and didn’t even realize it was Catholic, much less run by the Daughters. I was simply looking for a summer job. I met the receptionist, filled out a job application, writing on the paper that I was a seminarian at Niagara University, and moments later Sr. Catherine Paganini burst out of a back room, saying that of course they’d hire a Vincentian seminarian. I met Sr. Anthony Prugger, and Sr. Judy Dusellier as well. It was a great summer.
Sr. Louise Sullivan was also stationed at Niagara in those years, but it was two years later, in novitiate, that I had my first conversation of any length with her. She had been invited to teach the Vincentian novices about St. Louise, and she showed us how very revolutionary Louise had actually been in her day. The women’s movement was still fresh enough in 1982, and Sr. Louise helped us see St. Louise as an example of what a powerful woman could accomplish in the world and in the Church. Unfortunately for him, Fr. Joe Sims was scheduled to give the workshop the next morning, also on St. Louise. Joe came into the classroom room, lit his cigarette, held it thus, breathed out, looked at us and began… “Louise DeMarillac, that sniveling mass of neuroses.” We collectively drew in our breaths, and then burst out laughing in his face, which was not the effect he intended, and made him not a little angry. But Sr. Louise had “ruined us,” and I suspect to this day that our novice director, Tom McKenna, knew exactly what he was doing by having Sr. Louise go first.
And so it went, Daughter of Charity after Daughter of Charity that came into my life. Maura Hobart who led my very first retreat. Faith Colligan who introduced me to a young Joe Tauraso at St. John’s, who she was recruiting for the Vincentians, and who was to become one of my best friends. The sisters in Germantown and Bedford-Stuyvesant who taught me to work with the poor. The sisters in Pottsville, Jacksonville and Carney hospital who introduced me to pastoral care. The sisters of Emmitsburg who taught me about Mother Seton. All the way to the present Daughters in Charity in Chicago and my newest friends and colleagues on the Ascension Health board. Thirty years of “sisters.” I grew up with five sisters at home, but never knew how many more I’d have in my life. “Blessed among women,” indeed.
This morning, I want to pay tribute to a series of intrepid women, (and a few men), some of whose names are familiar, and some whose names have been lost to history. All of them courageous in their own time and space.
I’ve been thinking about Sisters Elizabeth Martin, C1aude Carré, Marguerite Noret, Catherine Bagard, Perette de Sedan, and Antoinette Larcher – the six founding sisters sent to take over the administration of the hospital for the poor in Nantes in 1646. From the beginning, there were hints that this was going to be messy.
There was the woman who was used to “buying the provisions” who Louise tried to get removed before she left the sisters alone there and returned to Paris. Louise had a sense that the woman would be a spy for the people in the area. Writing to St. Vincent, she observed:
I foresee great inconveniences for the tranquility and union of our sisters. This woman … attempts to side first with one, then with another. … I fear disturbances, complaints and lack of proper service to the poor in the interim, which will give people the impression that all these failings come from our sisters (Louise de Marillac, Spiritual Writing, pg. 168)
Spies were indeed a problem, but so was the confessor, the local bishop, the lay board, and the local community. This led to years of inner turmoil among the sisters as well, requiring the change of the local superior, the change of certain sisters, uncountable letters from both Louise and Vincent, and several official visitations. Any number of times, questions were raised about continuing. But Vincent and Louise both advised patience and perseverance for the sake of the sick poor.
At one point, Sr. Jeanne Lepintre, wrote Vincent that things had calmed. He wrote back:
November 29, 1651… I ask Our Lord to be Himself His own thanks for this and for the calm you are enjoying after all the storms and troubles that have buffeted your little bark. We must love Our Lord deeply and, with that, keep ourselves in readiness to endure other upheavals and additional setbacks. [Humanity’s] condition is never the same; [we are] humbled, then exalted; sometimes at peace, sometimes persecuted; enlightened today and plunged into darkness tomorrow. What is to be done? As I said, let us be prepared for whatever may happen. When we suffer, hope that God will deliver us; when He treats us gently, store up the gentleness and patience in order to make good use of the trials that will ensue.
In a word, Sister, we must give ourselves to God in all respects, and hope that His Will may be done. We must conform ourselves to it in both unpleasant and pleasant circumstances, which constantly succeed one another. This requires us to be ready for anything and completely detached from ourselves. (St, Vincent de Paul, Writings, Vol. 4, p. 281-2)
It was sage advice, for within just a short time, the place exploded into trouble yet again for four more years. Why do I tell this story today? Because Nantes is arguably the most frustrating work in Louise and Vincent’s time. The work constantly looked like it was going to fall apart. No one, not even Vincent or Louise, could see where things were going.
History is never fair, because we know that nine years after those first sisters arrived, things finally calmed down and the work took hold. But those were nine years of not knowing. Nine years of faithful service in the midst of a work that seemed it would never survive. Nine years of frustration, but also, faithful service to the poor throughout all of it. I said I wished to pay tribute today to intrepid women. I have enormous respect for all these early Daughters in Nantes who gave daily faithful service to the poor when the future could not be seen and hope was elusive. God bless those women, all of them.
The Present Moment
You’re here today in St. Louis because, in the face of a similarly unclear future, you’ve made a strong decision about how best to organize yourselves. The difference between yourselves and the sisters in Nantes, of course, is that you are making decisions in a context where your numbers are diminishing. It is this simple, unadorned truth that is uniting you, as surely as your growth many years ago led you to divide into separate provinces.
And I admire you for both decisions.
Others before you have made the same strong decisions. Your provinces of Algeria, Persia, China, and several provinces within France are gone, among others. And yet, what does “gone” actually mean in these cases? The sisters of the time transferred to other works and provinces. In some regions, individual works for the poor were discontinued, but the Daughters of Charity have always opened and closed works with an ease and a rapidity that the Congregation of the Mission has never matched. No, it’s not the closing of works itself that’s the issue – you know well how to do that. Even in the earliest days of the Daughters, Louise would send sisters, often in groups of three, to battle sites in the war, or to parishes or to hospitals and then pull them when they were no longer needed.
Certainly, in the U.S., as your numbers have diminished in recent years, you have nimbly and graciously stepped aside from parishes, schools, social service agencies, hospitals and more. You’ve left behind lay collaborators, other religious, wonderful and strong organizations, and plentiful gratitude. No, the Daughters and CM’s will both have to pull back from works in the years ahead, but that’s something you do beautifully and responsibly. That’s not the fear or the caution of this moment together in St. Louis.
No, when I invoke such places as the former provinces of France (there are now only two, but there were once several more), I pay tribute to the sisters who looked with a clear and honest eye into the future and said, this organizing structure isn’t serving us or the poor very well. It’s time for a change. If we mark a loss at this meeting, it’s the loss of structure. Invisible, and yet very real. These are the artificial boundaries that kept you in separate geographic regions, that normally limited your participation in works in other parts of the country, but which also created a human-sized grouping of people who could realistically know one another, build community, and effectively serve the poor.
It’s harder to give up a province than a work – even though “provinces” are invisible, artificial structures and schools, shelters, and hospitals are all too visible. My own confreres know this experience, as we merge provinces in the U.S, and we share a certain amount of quiet fear. We’re men, so of course, we don’t talk about our fears much, but they slip out all the same:
- My confreres are afraid of being assigned to live and work with people we don’t know, or don’t know anymore.
- They’re afraid of being led by leaders who don’t know them personally.
- As we’ve gotten smaller over the years, we’ve been less able to find “best friends” or at least sufficient number of friends within our age cohorts, and so we’ve developed important friendships outside the community. For some, this makes it frightening to expand our geographic boundaries – because we might be assigned away from the people we like and love. It feels lonely to imagine being moved very far away.
- Relatedly, our older confreres are afraid that they’ll be moved for health care to places in the country far away from our families or friends. That too feels lonely to imagine.
- There’s even a certain amount of worries about decisions that haven’t yet been made. The possibility of losing our cemetery, or our beloved place of formation, or important places to our history are hard. Identity for us is partly tied to place, and we don’t realize it until the possibility of giving up a place we love or once loved becomes possible.
Again, the Daughters of Charity are better at this than us. You knew what it was to feel the tug of a provincial house, a college, and even a cemetery when you transferred “The Marillac” in the Normandy area of St. Louis to the University of Missouri. But you also have a beautiful way of honoring and protecting the past from being lost. Daughters of Charity are excellent at museums – at least far better than Vincentians. Saragosa, Rome, Sinenna, Naples, Paris, St. Louis, E-berg, and I’m sure many more. I’ve always loved the DC’s for their “Salles de Souvenirs,” their memory rooms and displays. What came before is honored, protected, remembered, and yet allowed to be set aside so that we can continue what never changes – the service of the poor.
Which brings me to yet another tribute.
Mother Suzanne Guillemin, DC
I’ve been reading about the life of Suzanne Guillemin lately. I suspect most of you know her far better than I. She, of course, was Superioress General of the Daughters through the Second Vatican Council. Brilliant. Good. Holy. Fearless. A born leader, and yet completely approachable, in fact, among the favorites at the Council. For she was an “auditrice,” one of 23 women auditors officially invited to the Council.
Carmel McEnroy, who wrote of Mother Guillemin’s participation in the Council, said it was no surprise that she was invited. “She was already pioneering in the Sister Formation movement and led the Daughers of Charity in the revolutionary act of modifying their habit in September 1964, just in time to bring the ‘new look’ to the Council.” Margaret Kepler observed that “Ma Soeur Guillemin is as well known in European circles as any prominent Cardinal.” James Lord, the famous editor, extolled the Daughters of Charity, but saved his highest praise for Mother Guillemin. He called her “a twentieth-century religious, a modern woman cast in the mold of Pope John 23rd.” (Carmel McEnroy, Guests in Their Own House: The Women of Vatican II, Crossroads Publishing Company, p. 61-2.)
Her life must have been hard, for everything was changing in the Church, and she was charged with changing the order and yet also making sure the order stayed together in one piece. But the structures needed to change, and she took up the challenge with everything she had. Her words are still worth hearing. In her famous speech to the French bishops in Rome, October 26, 1964, she argued that new structures were critical if the Daughters were truly going to accomplish their original mission:
“Entering actively into the movement of the church and adapting ourselves to the world of today are a matter of life or death for a community. … Our manner of going to God, our mode of union with God, and the place of our contemplation, are located within our action, in the meeting of the people we encounter side by side at this moment. As St. Vincent said, ‘A sister who finds the poor ten times in the day will find God there ten times a day… This calls for a renewal of spirit and structures.’” (McEnroy, p.164-5)
In 1967, she spoke her inner fears to the Sister Servants on retreat in Paris.
“I hope, sisters,” she said, “that religious life will be strong enough to retain what is essential, but the difficulty lies in determining the essential. (McEnroy, p.168.)
The sisters understood what she meant by “essential,” including the elderly ones. Beatrice Brown, D.C. told the story of how Mother Guillemin spoke of change to the sisters in the Rue de Bac infirmary:
“Understanding the … sentiments of the elderly concerning the fabled “coronet,” she assured them that in the infirmary there would be perfect freedom about giving up the coronet in favor of the streamlined coif. Indeed, Mere Guillmein told them how General de Gaulle had exclaimed, “What? Changing the cornet of the Filles de la Charité? Well, one might as well propose changing “Le drapeau de la France [the French flag]!” Thus relaxed, the infirmary sisters were asked about the proposed change. With touching dignity, a recognized spokeswoman replied, “We feel that if our cornet is no longer the official habit, we shall not cling to it. We wish to wear whatever our sisters wear, in solidarity with Vincent’s Daughters throughout the world.” (McEnroy, p.166)
God bless those elderly sisters. They deserve their own tribute, for their hearts knew what was important and what was not. Such is wisdom. And wisdom is an individual journey.
Mother Guillemin said it this way:
“In reality, the … renewal of the Community [depends on] the journey and the effort of holiness of each member … All decisions can be made, all the Constitutions can be renewed, revised, updated, nothing else will matter if everyone does not put forth this essential effort, this vital effort of holiness. … The adaptations that we are making are to deepen justly our spiritual renewal, to allow us to have a more authentic relationship with God and to allow … our witness of religious life to be read, to be recognized by the world (Mother Guillemin, August 1966, see url below).
I wish I had known Mother Guillemin personally. I love her fearlessness to change structures where needed and to fiercely protect what belongs to the heart of the mission. She was the right leader for the right time.
And so are you. Like Mother Guillemin before you, all of you are gathered here together to discern and decide what is most important for the service of the poor. To change structures while fiercely protecting the heart of the mission. To actually build the “community” that you live under that invisible structure called a “province.”
Passing the baton
But there is yet another set of individuals who deserve tribute in the Church: those who generously and selflessly pass the baton. I have found myself thinking lately of the religious who preceded both our communities at Angers and Saint Lazare.
Angers, of course, is one of your first hospitals, and the place for which your first detailed rules about working in hospitals were developed. The sisters started working during an outbreak of plague, and effectively turned around a failing hospital, making it available to the poor as well as those with means. It’s an extraordinary turn-around story, filled with challenge, growth, and hard work. Yet, it’s important to remember that the Daughters of Charity were not the first religious community to work there. Sister Louise Sullivan notes in a footnote in the Spiritual Writings of Louise de Marillac that:
“The Hospital of Saint-Jean in Angers was founded and equipped in 1153 by Henry II, King of England, in atonement for the murder of Thomas Becket. The nuns who had the spiritual responsibility withdrew little by little.” (Louise de Marillac, Spiritual Writings, n1, p.60)
“The nuns who had spiritual responsibility.” God bless them. I know nothing more of them than that they once staffed, and prayed, and healed and loved the patients of that hospital. They carried on the healing ministry of Jesus Christ among the sick. But their numbers declined and they withdrew, making room for what would come next.
The story was similar for the Vincentians. We started out in a building known as the Bons Enfants. But in time, we outgrew it and it didn’t serve us well. The property known as Saint-Lazare was controlled by the “Canons Regular of St. Lazare – Order of St. Augustine” and had existed to serve lepers. On January 7, 1632, the canons deeded St. Lazare to this new start-up religious congregation that was growing so strongly. Here’s what they said in the contract:
CONTRACT FOR THE UNION OF SAINT-LAZARE PRIORY’ TO THE CONGREGATION OF THE MISSION
The said Prior and the [Canons Regular] state that they have realized for some years now that, by the grace of God, the disease of leprosy has been less prevalent and the number of lepers not so large as at the time of the institution, foundation, and establishment of the priory, with the result that most often—Even now-there have been no lepers here; thus the charity that was practiced in housing and treating poor lepers has all but ceased. … The above-mentioned Prior and the religious of Saint-Lazare considered also that, since the revenues of the priory had been intended for the corporal relief and assistance of poor lepers, and, since there were no lepers, it would be more normal and in conformity with the intention of the founders to apply those revenues to the spiritual assistance of poor people in rural areas far from the cities, tainted by the leprosy of sin and having no instruction at all in the mysteries of faith necessary for salvation, and that in several places in France the Priests of the Mission were having remarkable success in this, doing it free of charge and with no remuneration; For these reasons, having seriously considered the usefulness and necessity of the Institution of the [Congregation of the Mission] and their great success in giving their missions, and in order to cooperate in the establishment and increase in numbers of the priests in such a way that they might more easily support and continue the works of their mission to the ever greater advantage of the people, they have made, decided, and come to an agreement with M. Vincent …” (Vincent de Paul, Writings, Vol. 13a, pg 263-4)
The contract goes on to detail that ways that the elderly members of the now dwindling religious order would be cared for in their old age, by the revenues from the property. In short, the reason that our Congregation received as a gift the largest and most powerful piece of property on France – outside of the king’s own lands – was because one religious order that was in decline made the decision to hand their work to an up-and-coming religious congregation. It was an extraordinary act of generosity, and clearly played no small role in the growth of the Congregation of the Mission. The previous order could have held on to the past with a tight grip until the bitter end, but they chose to invest in the future. To take what they had and give it freely and openly to help the future succeed.
I tell the stories of the groups that came before us because we stand on their shoulders. They deserve our honor and gratitude not merely for the good work they did in their own time and place, but because they left us institutions through which we could accomplish immeasurable good. I tell you these stories too, because their very personal for me.
For the past 13 years, I’ve been actively researching and writing about the change toward lay leadership at Catholic universities. With Dr. Melanie Morey, I’ve tracked changing sponsorship arrangements. I’ve tracked the new lay leaders themselves to see who’s being hired, and what they themselves say they need. Ten years ago, Kathleen Mahoney, Tracy Schier and I started an institute at Boston College designed specifically for lay leaders of Catholic universities, to help them learn the “Catholic” part of their jobs. The Institute sells out every year, and I still give a week of my life every year to teaching in it and helping to shape it.
I love this part of my life, even though it puts stress on my assigned ministry in the Congregation. I have been the youngest Vincentian at every work to which I have ever been assigned. That is still true at DePaul. There are several men close to my age, and there are several younger confreres from other provinces in the world studying at DePaul. But I’m the youngest Vincentians working there. That’s hard on an emotional level when I think about it, but luckily, I’m a guy, and I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing my life. Yet, even if I can ignore it most days, there are days when it’s not enough for me to simply finish out the back end of something that used to be wonderful. I need to know that I’m helping to build what’s coming next. And in my world of Catholic higher education, that’s lay leadership. And so, I am committed and determined to be useful and helpful to the group that will follow me. That makes my life meaningful and fully engaged in this particular time in Church history. It’s about building the future.
You, of course, have done terrific work on mission identity in your hospitals, so you know what I’m talking about. We’re not just training the lay people who will follow us, we’re experimenting and implementing structures that will serve them in an ongoing way. I love religious life, and, if God permits, I intend to work for many, many years to come. But, I also want to be able to pass something on – and in this time and place, that means working closely with the laity to help them succeed as they take up the important work we’ve done for the Church.
But if that’s a long-range foreseeable future, we are also forced to look at ourselves now. The problem with provinces that have grown too small is that it’s harder to move the expertise of our various sisters and confreres around to the institutions that need it at any given time. The administrative tasks take on too much time and attention for too few. The administrative costs become burdensome as well.
Merging solves those problems. And it offers opportunities too. New friends and relationships. New works to be part of. New geographic regions to enjoy. New adventures. Perhaps there comes a time in life when the word “adventure” is less enticing, and when we want to retreat to the comfortable and known. But almost always, once a new adventure is tried, people’s spirits are renewed in ways they never could have predicted. Mergers are not just about loss and diminishment. They are about new opportunities and adventures. They’re about serving the poor more effectively. They’re about freeing up financial resources for the sake of both the community and the poor.
People fear mergers, but they hardly notice how the present status quo is impinging their lives now. Each year, as you and we have grown a bit smaller, our lives have become a bit more circumscribed than they once were. In some ways, mergers are moments of sudden and surprising freedom after we had hardly noticed that the world had slowly constricted and limited our experiences and opportunities.
But, then, you’ve already quietly, unofficially, begun the work of merging. You’ve shared a formation program for many years now. You’ve grown closer with each other as part of Seton Federation and other shared gatherings of the Vincentian Family as well.
- The canonization of Elizabeth Ann
- Scholarly work and symposia on the Seton legacy through the VSI.
- Ongoing formation opportunities
- Collective NGO status at the United Nations.
- This coming year’s anniversary celebrations of the 350th anniversaries.
These are but a few examples of coming together for the larger mission. And they’ve worked. I have every reason to believe this will be true for your more formal merger as well. At least, that’s what you told me.
For the past few months, I’ve been asking Daughters of Charity to tell me the single message I should speak about in this talk. I’ve been deeply touched by your comments. Most everyone gave the same advice: “Tell us that we need to trust Providence, that in the end this is for the good of the poor, and that we should be courageous.” Some said “Tell us to keep our Vincentian heart, to be generous, disponible, and filled with love for God and filled with hope.” Many said tell everyone that “this is going to be ok, and not to be afraid.” Some said clearly, that “we should simply let go of any fears about self-preservation and just serve the poor faithfully, leaving the rest to God.” Several said “It’s time to go forward, to leave fears behind and trust God.”
One that particularly touched my heart came from a senior sister who looked me directly in the eye and said “We’re doing this for the young ones, you know… the ones below 70.” I loved that response, because it was a window into all of your hearts. You may have lived under the artificial boundaries called provinces, but you are very much alike. You’re individual stories may need to be shared and told, but you will find the themes and convictions and faith underneath them familiar.
Over and over and over again, your sisters told me to tell you to trust. It reminded me of Vincent’s well-known conference to you in 1642. He said that he chose the name “Daughters of Charity” for you, but that he had had a second name in mind that was nearly as good. Here’s what he said:
“Sisters, you should have such deep devotion to Divine Providence and such great love for and confidence in it that if Providence itself had not given you the beautiful name of Daughters of Charity – which you must never change – you should be called Daughters of Providence, for it is Providence that has brought you into being.
“You must also practice obedience to Divine Providence in the difficulties you encounter and in the challenges I mentioned to you, convinced that Providence is allowing those challenges for your own greater good. In this way you wi1l love them and not be upset by any difficulties you may experience.” (Vincent de Paul, “Obedience,” June 20, 1642, Writings, volume 9, pg.62.)
And so I end as I began. I speak in tribute to all of those women and men who have gone before us. Those who have closed provinces and transferred into others. Those who, like the sisters in Nantes, established works for the first time in new territories, often with great difficulties. Those who have lived through and led the community through upheaval like Vatican II. Those religious communities before ours who opened works that we came in time to staff and sponsor. All of those who have ever left one work for another. Or those who have left their province for the foreign missions. All of those who risked change for the sake of the mission. Those remembered by history, or remembered only by the poor that they helped. Every woman or man, like the sisters in Nantes, who went forward without a clear sense of the future, knowing only the challenges and fears ahead, and yet went forward anyway. Everyone who ever trusted in our Good God.
God is indeed Good. Your history shows that, if nothing else. Trust your history. Trust in your Good God who has so blessed you along the way. And trust your Good God to take care of his Church.
And so I leave you with my favorite story of Pope John 23rd. It’s said that every evening before he retired for the night, he went into the small chapel in his papal apartment. He did not sit down, or even kneel. He simply stood in the center aisle, in the dark, and lifted his arm and pointed at the tabernacle, saying “It’s your Church, I’m going to bed.’
God bless you all, and God bless the new province that would hold in one place all of your hearts. It will be a special province indeed.