The Heart of the Order

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Oct. 7 – 14, 2004
The Heart of the Order
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Sister Brigid O’Mahoney always knew that she was called to consecrated life. While she knew it in her heart, she struggled with it for years while she went about her professional life as a psychologist, teacher and a director of mental health in Alabama. Her decision to leave her career was not an easy one, but Sister Brigid gave up all of her worldly possessions and became a missionary. For the next 10 years, she worked with the poor in Africa, Asia, China, the Philippines, Australia, Canada and other parts of the world. “I knew the time would come when the Lord would say, ‘Now,’” said Sister Brigid, referring to her decision to change her profession.

After leaving her career, Sister Brigid spent a month on retreat asking God for a road map. “I gave up everything –– my lifestyle, my job, my house. I left the retreat scared and nervous, not knowing what was next. One day after the retreat, a friend of mine who was a missionary, happened to be in the U.S. She told me they needed help in the Philippines. I heard the Lord say, ‘This is what you left your profession for. Go.’” And so she went. Sister Brigid spent the last three years of her missionary work in Africa. “I heard God calling to me to become a professed sister,” said Sister Brigid. “I loved those children in Africa, but I loved Jesus more.” Sister Brigid left missionary work and spent the next year in formation with an established congregation. “Their charisms were exactly right, but their work is not what I wanted to do,” explained Sister Brigid. “As I looked for an order to join, I took another month of retreat and discernment before I planned to go back to Africa. I felt that the Holy Spirit was telling me that the reason I couldn’t find the right order was because I was meant to found one. I thought, nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

While on sabbatical from her missionary work, Sister Brigid visited with her friend, Father Clarence Cerwonka, parochial vicar at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Binghamton. Through him, she met another woman who was yearning for consecrated life. Sister Mary Catherine Cooney was a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet for 24 years. She entered religiousl life at the age of 18 but left the order almost two decades later to take care of her mother and experience life independently. “I thought I needed to grow up and make some of my own decisions,” said Sister Mary Catherine. “But I never regretted being in the convent for those 24 years.” Sister Mary Catherine is currently a teacher at Seton Catholic Central School. Like Sister Brigid, Sister Mary Catherine felt the Holy Spirit calling her to religious life. Through much prayer and discernment and intercession from Father Cerwonka, the two women were brought together for a common cause –– to create a new order of religious. After more than a year of praying to the Holy Spirit for guidance and direction, and with the help of Father Cerwonka and Father Daniel Caruso, pastor of St. Mary’s, Sister Brigid and Sister Mary Catherine wrote a proposal to Bishop James Moynihan explaining their desire to form a new order of religious sisters –– The Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus. “We explained who we are, what we wanted to do and what we thought the Holy Spirit was saying to us,” said Sister Brigid.

In March 2003, Bishop Moynihan gave his approval to begin the process of establishing a new institute of consecrated life. Having obtained preliminary and provisional authorization to begin the new foundation, the sisters began working toward the day when they will be erected as a Society of Apostolic Life with full juridical status. The community has a number of stages that they must successfully negotiate and many tests to pass before they gain status as an authentic new religious community. The bishop will discern their authenticity, merit, vigor, viability and orthodoxy. Only after he is satisfied that they have met these conditions will he erect a new society in the diocese.

In 2003, following the model of the Daughters of Charity, Sister Brigid and Sister Mary Catherine professed their simple vows as Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus. The pair continued to minister to the congregation of St. Mary’s as vowed religious. “The parish is getting much more out of this relationship than we are giving,” said Father Caruso. “The order is blessing the parish in ways I didn’t expect. The people of the parish are being affected by this wave of holiness from these people who have been touched by the Holy Spirit.” “Our truest identity is our total integration into the life of Christ,” writes Sister Brigid on the community’s website. “Our most complete, our only self expression is Jesus who communicated himself through us. We are the voice, but He is the word. We are the lamp, but He is the light. We are the womb. He is the life within.”

The community’s mission is evangelization. “We have a distinct calling. We are missionaries. We also have a tender love and a particular concern for widows and orphans,” said Sister Brigid. The Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus is based upon the French school of spirituality in general and the charism of St. John Eudes, in particular. “Our wish, our object, our chief preoccupation must be to form Jesus in ourselves, to make His spirit, His devotion, His affections, His desires and His disposition live and reign there,” Sister Brigid quoted from St. John Eudes. The community’s primary work will be evangelization and mission, echoing St. Paul’s words, “We labor until Christ is formed in you.” (Gal 4:19) The community welcomes into professed or promised membership Catholic women of diverse ages and backgrounds, but especially widows and women of mature age, who, having many treasures to share, wish to answer God’s call to a life of prayer and service to the church. While some of its members choose to live independently, those members will unite in the spirit of community and commit themselves to its constitutions. To date, the order has 11 women who have made a one-year commitment as promised members of the Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus. Sister Brigid and Sister Mary Catherine are the only two professed sisters in the society. In making the commitment to the society, the lay women have promised simplicity in this world, purity in their state of life, humility toward God and others and zeal for the salvation of souls.

Irene Fitch is married and has four children, two stepchildren, and 10 grandchildren. She is overjoyed to be a member of the new community. “Everyone has a vocation. Mine was to be married and raise children,” said Fitch. “But I was searching for something more and when I met Brigid, a light went on. This is a fulfillment of a longing for Christ.” Twenty years ago, Florence Dilello, age 80, was involved in the charismatic movement and when the movement began to diminish, she missed being actively involved in spiritual life. “When Brigid came along and said she was going to start a new religious community, I knew this is what I had been looking for,” said Dilello. Dilello has been a widow for 33 years, has three children, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. She said she was looking for something that gave her the opportunity to learn more about the Bible and the teachings of God. “This was perfect,” she said. “I love what we are doing –– learning about God and doing whatever we can to help others. My children are happy for me. They know that this gives me a lot of peace.” Bettie Kurty said that she felt that the Holy Spirit hit her right on the head when she learned about the Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus. Kurty is married with two children and two grandchildren. She said that her husband was so supportive of her becoming a promised member of the community, that he sponsored her at her commissioning.

The group of women meets once a week for instruction, Bible study and to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. In addition, every third Saturday they join a congregational, ecumenical gathering to deepen their spirituality. “They also commit themselves to the same prayer schedule as professed sisters do –– divine office, meditation, rosary and spiritual readings,” said Sister Mary Catherine. “They love it. It’s something they fit in around their schedules. I admire them for their commitment to spiritual life.” Anne Tiesi has been a member of the community for four months. She said that she was looking for something more in her life because she felt a certain redundancy in her prayers. “I fell in love with the Liturgy of the Hours,” said Tiesi. “I’ve always been very religious and have a strong faith. This has filled me up and made me feel welcome. It’s wonderful when the Holy Spirit comes down and blesses you.” “This is very much in the spirit of Vatican II,” said Father Cerwonka. “Sister Brigid wants to help the average Catholic to move ahead, to grow in spirituality, to become mystics –– having a living relationship with Jesus that reflects the actual lifestyle as found in the Acts of the Apostles.”

“In parish life you hear so much bad news, but this is something positive, a move toward the future,” added Father Caruso. “It’s challenging parishioners to look at their own vocations. It’s a wonderful reminder to us all that we have a call to vocation. It’s challenging us to see what God wants from us,” he said. The Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus are very active in parish ministries –– working as teachers and directors of religious education, visiting the sick and homebound, acting as Extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, altar servers and evangelizers. “I don’t know what the Holy Spirit is calling these women to, but if this is God’s calling, I don’t want to be unsupportive of that,” said Father Caruso. “If it’s not what God is calling them to, they are still fulfilling a great need in the parish which is very positive.” “I’ve never started a ministry before,” said Sister Brigid. “The Holy Spirit prompted this but we recognize that the bishop is the one who will determine the authenticity of it. But our ministries expand the hands, heart and soul of Jesus, which is exactly what we are called to do.”

For more information on the Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus, visit the website at www.mhoj.org or contact Sister Brigid O’Mahoney at (607) 722-9433 or Sister Mary Catherine Cooney at (607) 724-4106.

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