Tuesday, December 18, 2018
First Christmas at the convent reveals a lesson in hope in a makeshift chapel
My favorite theology teacher once told our class that every time we read or hear the Gospel we should ask ourselves two questions:
- What in this passage disturbs me?
- What gives me hope?
It is disturbing that there was no room for Jesus the night of his birth in Bethlehem. Someone finding a place for him gives us all hope.
This Christmas, as the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross conclude a year-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of their beginning as a religious community, I can’t help reflecting on my first Christmas in the convent. As the season approached that year I was feeling very disappointed. Our convent chapel was undergoing a renovation, and it became clear that the project would not be finished by December 25. Our large community room had been made into a makeshift chapel. Rows of folded chairs took up one-third of the room. When it was time for Mass or community prayer, the doors to the small television room were opened, and we sat before the altar and tabernacle. As we entered into the fourth week of Advent we were told that the TV room was much too small for Christmas trees or the Nativity Scene.
I remember so well that morning of December 24, 1964, when I sat in our “chapel” meditating on the sacred story and focusing on the innkeeper. I kept asking myself if he really knew what was really going on that day. By that time a scrawny tree had appeared next to the altar. In the evening, when we gathered to pray Vespers, there was a manger with the Christ Child in front of that tree. That was it – no statues, no lights, no additional decorations. But something lit up inside of me. To be with a community of Sisters, each one having committed her life to God, to be praying and singing with them in the context of the story of the Incarnation, touched me very deeply. It far exceeded my expectations of Christmas in the convent. I was becoming aware of what was really going on within me.
A couple of days after Christmas our parents came to visit us. My father took me aside and told me that he thought I would never be able to be away from home for Christmas, but now that I had done it, he thought I would stay in the convent. He was right; I was home. That empty place in the building had opened a space in my heart.
Thursday, December 6, 2018
Sharing the Gospel as vowed religious women is a chance to witness how Jesus shines through each of us
In my parish I participate in a small group that meets periodically to view a video and engage in a discussion about its message. Recently one of the questions focused on people who were influential in our lives. One of the men reflected for a moment and then recalled how, when his brother died several years ago, a Sister in his brother’s parish had been exceptionally kind in helping the family cope with their loss and prepare for the funeral. As pastoral minister in that parish, the Sister had shown great compassion and gave the family as much of her time as they needed. When the man mentioned the name of the parish, I immediately recognized the Sister as one of our own.
The day before the First Sunday of Advent this year, our Community sponsored a day of reflection for women in our diocese. Two Sisters shared an imaginary reflection on Mary’s experience of the Annunciation. Another Sister gave a very informative presentation on the women in St. Matthew’s genealogy. A Sister and two associates told stories of their times of waiting. Those attending the day found it to be a rich beginning to the new liturgical season.
On the first Sunday of Advent I found myself at St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere, conducting a Confirmation retreat for high school students from a small parish near our St. Francis Convent in Green Bay. When I was speaking on the topic of prayer, one of the girls interrupted me and started asking me questions about my personal prayer and about praying the Liturgy of the Hours. Our tour of the abbey later in the day lasted longer than scheduled because the candidates were asking the young Norbertine guiding the tour about his life at the abbey and his preparation for the priesthood. Toward the conclusion of the retreat one of the boys remarked to an adult facilitator that this retreat was “really kind of cool.”
On the first weekday of Advent the Church presents to us a reading from Isaiah (2:1-5) which pictures the city of Jerusalem, with its magnificent Temple, shining on a mountain and drawing all peoples to itself. This is an image of the Church, called to be the Light of All Nations. Is this not what religious life is to be, for the Church and for the world? In this time of tremendous darkness, I look back at what I have heard and what I have witnessed in the past week, and I ask, with a deep sense of conviction: Is religious life not still that city on a hill?
Monday, November 5, 2018
God's loves for us and ours for God paves the way to serving others
by Sister Laura Zelten
This week is National Vocation Awareness Week. A good question for each of us to ask is, “How am I being called to respond to the love of God in my life?”
The answer is to love God in return. This is what is meant by the Second Vatican Council’s “universal call to holiness.” Holiness is allowing the love of God to live in us and through us to others. The more we allow God to love us, the more readily we will give ourselves in loving service to others.
Every person is called to serve God and neighbor in some particular way; in the Church we call this our vocation. God calls some to marriage, some to ordained ministry, some to consecrated life, and some to single life. It is important that we ask God how to receive His love and how to share it with others. In living out this two-fold call to love God and to love our neighbor that we come to know God’s will for our lives, which is our surest path to joy. Our lives become a living responsorial psalm, as it were, because we recognize God’s love will see us through any difficulty, any challenge, and any situation in life. With the psalmist we then simply respond, “I love you Lord, my strength.”
Saturday, November 3, 2018
Companions on this journey come and go, leaving indelible marks on our lives
by Sister Elise Cholewinski
Some people come into a person’s life at just the right time, and they make a lasting impression on the person’s soul. Many years ago I was having a very difficult summer. I felt, as some people say, that I just didn’t have my act together. One evening a Sister walked into my room and we began to talk. That Sister listened to my pain and my questions. She shared a bit of her story with me, assuring me that I could get through the present crisis, that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. She reminded me that no Sister is perfect, that matter what her title or position, each Sister has a shadow side, has her personal issues to deal with. That Sister was Sister Regina Le Mere.
I did not know Sister Regina very well. She had been, among other things, a cook, a food supervisor, and an administrator of a community based residential facility. I was a teacher and a religious education coordinator. Our paths seldom crossed. We did not know each other on a professional basis, but that summer we became dear friends. From that time on Sister was so happy to see me, always greeted me with a warm smile, and continually asked me how life was going. Her gentle spirit made me feel so welcome in her presence.
Sister Regina died this year, a year in which she would have been honored for living 75 years as a Sister of St. Francis of the Holy Cross. November always begins with the Solemnity of All Saints and then All Souls Day, giving us these words from the Scriptures for one of those feasts: “The souls of the just are in the hand of God," "God tried them and found them worthy of himself," "In the time of their visitation they shall shine."
The sky above St. Francis Convent is a little more bright and a little more beautiful this year as we celebrate these special days of autumn.
Sunday, September 30, 2018
Yes, St. Francis of Assisi loved God's creatures but he also recognized Jesus in the lowliest of people
Tucked away at the bottom of a carton in my bedroom closet is a box containing a very old pair of shoes. Twenty years ago I had the wonderful experience of visiting the country of Israel. At one point on that trip, when we were about to climb the steps to the high priest’s house, we were told that although many things in the Holy Land have been replaced over the years, the large stones that formed these stairs were the original ones. Our guide said that we were then literally walking in the footsteps of Jesus. At that moment I promised myself that I would never throw my shoes away. Today they are tangible reminders of how closely I was in touch with the reality of Jesus’ life during those precious days.
On October 4 the Church celebrates the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. How much the love of animals has been associated with St. Francis, and yet that’s not where his spirituality began. As Francis contemplated Jesus on the cross, he was overwhelmed with the mystery of God sending his Son to be present to us in human flesh and to undergo every kind of human suffering. There was in Francis an urgency to enable the people of his time to deeply comprehend the story of God’s dwelling among us. One of the things he did was create the first Nativity scene. It was a live re-enactment of the first Christmas, outside the church in the town of Greccio. Within himself Francis felt a strong desire to be physically conformed to the crucified Christ. On Mount LaVerna, not long before he died, Francis received the gift of the stigmata, the wounds of Jesus imprinted in his hands, feet, and side. His focus on the poverty and humility of the Lord led him to recognize Jesus in the lowliest of people and then to embrace all things in the natural world as God’s beloved creatures. His was truly an incarnational spirituality.
For 35 years, as teacher and director of religious education, I conducted a children’s Christmas pageant before Mass in the parish church on Christmas Eve. In my heart I couldn’t help feeling that St. Francis was proud of me! My present ministry has taken me to spending time with a man who is mentally disabled, sitting through the night in a nursing home as a companion to the dying, and giving Twelve Step retreats for men and women in recovery from addictions. All of these special experiences have helped me realize how in touch I can be with St. Francis’ spirituality and how closely I can walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
The reality of the Incarnation cannot be relegated to a box in the back corner of a closet.
Thursday, August 9, 2018
Ordinary encounters are now treasured memories and examples of living religious life
|Sister Mary Paul
by Sister Elise Cholewinski
I remember how, when I had the opportunity 20 years ago to visit the Holy Land, Sister Carolyn Zahringer was my roommate. Although we had never lived together and I didn’t know her very well, I found her to be a wonderful companion, someone with whom I could easily share the special joys of each day. She took a real interest in what impressed me as we traveled from one site to another, and did not hesitate to share her feelings about what touched her deeply.
I remember going through a very difficult summer program many years ago. I arrived home at the convent on a July day, just before dinner. As I anxiously entered the dining room, out of nowhere came Sister Virginia Churas. She put her arms around me and gave me a big hug, and I have cherished that moment ever since.
I remember lying on a gurney in a hospital, waiting to be wheeled into the operating room for knee surgery, and I was a basket case! Sister Mary Paul Thetreau, with a background in nursing, sat by my side, and in a gentle manner, along with a little teasing, calmed my fear, at least a little!
I remember bringing a friend to see our convent, and we concluded our tour in the library, where we met Sister Bridget Stumpf. Before I knew it, she was holding open a book about icons and explaining them in great detail in a way that revealed the depth of her spirituality.
I remember finishing giving a retreat and being ready to leave the retreat house on a Sunday afternoon, when I bumped into Sister Jeanne Jarvis. She had come from some distance, just to spend time in prayer. Sometime later I would hear her say that she just wanted to be “saturated with Jesus”.
On this Sunday, August 12, we will celebrate our Jubilee Day and will honor these five Sisters. The convent chapel will be filled, the liturgy will be beautiful, and wonderful words will be spoken about the 345 years of service that these Sisters have collectively given to God’s people. As big as the number is, as impressive as the celebration is, I will treasure those one-on-one moments when each of these Sisters touched my heart and spoke to me with great clarity the meaning of religious life.
Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Our lives are forever changed by God, Mary and our 90 years of ministry at the Shrine
by Sister Elise Cholewinski
Where is the Shrine? For the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross, the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help is located just a few miles from our convent, near a town called Champion, Wisconsin. It is holy ground where, in 1859, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a young woman named Adele Brice. In 2010 the apparitions received ecclesiastical approbation (official church approval), and the place has now become a national shrine, visited by thousands of people each year.
For 90 years following Adele’s death our Sisters took care of "The Chapel" (as it was known then) in the midst of Belgian farms. We operated, at succeeding stages in its history, a boarding school, a crippled children’s home, a girls’ high school, and a retreat house. In 1992 the Community relinquished the property to the Diocese of Green Bay.
Continuing the celebration of our Community's 150th anniversary, the Sisters and Associates gathered on Mother’s Day to honor Mary and to honor the time that the Sisters spent at "The Chapel". Many stories were shared about healings that occurred at the shrine, lives that were touched by prayer at that holy place, and the ministry that the Sisters carried on there, reflecting the Blessed Mother’s devotion to her Child. As we moved through the events of the afternoon, I sensed within me something of the aura of the Shrine that is still with us. It is so much a part of who we are today, as we identify prayer, presence, and hospitality to be the essence of our charism.
We leave some places, but some places never leave us. The Shrine will be enshrined in our hearts forever.
Tuesday, March 13, 2018
While not always evident, especially in times of uncertainty, God is with us always
by Sister Elise Cholewinski
When I first entered the Community of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross, I only knew one of the Sisters. I was focused on developing new prayer forms, studying theology, and learning the fundamentals of living religious life. After making my religious profession, I was sent out to teach. Eventually I would pursue advanced degrees in education and receive training in spiritual direction. My ministries would evolve.
All along the way I heard stories of the founding of our Community and the ways in which the Sisters continually adapted to changing times and circumstances. As I recall those stories now, I can appreciate to a degree that I couldn’t before, the awesome ways in which they compassionately responded to the needs of the times in the Diocese of Green Bay.
During 2018 our Sisters celebrate the 150th anniversary of their beginning. In 1868 Father Edward Francis Daems, a Crozier priest from Belgium, along with three women who departed from their Dominican Order in Racine, responded to the need for Catholic education in the wilderness of northeastern Wisconsin by opening a school at Bay Settlement, a few miles from Green Bay. Over the years the Community would experience tremendous growth and great loss, expansion of ministries and diminishment of members, clear vision and unanswered questions. Looking back over their history, the Sisters realize how profoundly graced they have been. God’s faithfulness to them has been the thread winding its way through the decades of their service to God’s people.
We live our lives forward; we understand them backward. It is in viewing the past that we obtain a vision for the future. It is said of Father Daems that he came and he stayed. As we move forward in the wilderness of the modern Wisconsin, our challenge is to do the same. We have come. We will stay. Our fidelity will be another thread winding its way along an unknown path.
Monday, January 8, 2018
For today's Baptism of the Lord, be aware of God's relentless call and the endless possibilities when we say 'yes'
by Sister Elise Cholewinski
When Jesus stepped out of the waters of the Jordan, having just undergone His baptism, it must have hit Him like a bolt from out of the blue to hear the words of the Father: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” How did Jesus handle this emotional shock? He spent time in the desert, sorting it out, coming to grips with His vocation.
It was an awesome September morning, my first day of college. The large windows in the auditorium were open, and I could see the bright blue sky and the lush green trees waving in the wind. The orientation was about to begin, and as I focused on the stage, I found myself asking, “What if this room was the chapel in a convent?” A bolt from the blue! My immediate response was, “No! I can’t do it!” My life was planned, but I would spend the next six years sorting it out.
My desert was not the rocky, barren hill country of Judea, but the college campus where I had a full scholarship, my home, and later an apartment and a classroom in a public school. I had money, independence, and a relationship that could have gone somewhere. The questions that eventually arose centered on whether or not I was simply shadowing my twin sister, pursuing her desire to enter religious life.
Jesus came forth from His baptismal retreat a strong and determined person, conscious of His mission. He soon thereafter would announce to the people of Nazareth that the Scriptures were being fulfilled through Him. My own desert experience strengthened my self-knowledge and the awareness of my personal call. On the day I entered the convent I passed my sister on the sidewalk, stepped up to the building, grabbed the handle, and opened the door myself.
The Lord’s invitation opens up a world of possibilities. It truly is like a bolt from out of the blue. All we have to do is open the door and step inside.
Tuesday, December 19, 2017
Do you see the similarities between our Advent-to-Epiphany journey and that of religious life?
by Sister Elise Cholewinski
December leads us from the darkest days of the year to the dawn of that moment when the sun begins to stay out a minute or two longer each day. When January arrives, the sky is distinctly brighter than it was a month before. How beautifully the Church captures this shift from darkness to light in its liturgical year. On the first weekday of Advent Isaiah presents us with a vision of all nations streaming toward the house of the God of Israel, beckoning us to walk in the light of the Lord. On Christmas we celebrate the incarnation of Jesus, the Light of the World, and we hear that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Finally, when Epiphany arrives, we see how the light of the star draws people from foreign countries to meet the Christ. Winding our way through these seasons is like turning on a three-way light bulb.
So is religious life. A person experiences the twinkling of the light of a call in her heart in the midst of the false values of this world. Upon entering religious life, she moves into an environment that fosters the development of a deep personal relationship with Christ. This culminates in a commitment to God through her vows, which fuels the fire that sends her forth to engage in the missionary activity of the Church.
The two journeys are so similar and they continually repeat themselves. We hear the call, we meet the Christ, we make a commitment. Our God keeps turning on the switch!