Young Catholic sisters’ mission: Saving young souls

If a young soul wanders, Mother Mary Catherine has dedicated her to life to shepherding it back on the path to heaven.

May 22, 2014

GREEN BAY: If a young soul wanders, Mother Mary Catherine has dedicated her to life to shepherding it back on the path to heaven.

She is trying to save souls as the founder and mother superior of a new community of Roman Catholic religious women within the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay. They’re called the Missionaries of the Word and their focus is to bring the Gospel to teens and young adults, which can be a volatile age for faith.

“I always consider it like rebounding them back into the court,” Mother Mary Catherine said. “We see it as such a teetering time of you can either go one way or the other. If you have the truth, you really can make a whole different choice. And those choices and those values, I remember from my education days, are what build your character and that’s what shapes the whole direction of your life.”

Green Bay Bishop David Ricken, who established the Missionaries of the Word on May 1 during a Mass at St. Pius X church in Appleton, said igniting the faith in young adults can make them strong believers for life.

The small community of sisters, marked by their blue habits, is trying to do just that by working in the spirit of New Evangelization, a movement within the Catholic Church to reintroduce the faith to those who no longer practice.

“We have a couple of generations of Catholics who haven’t been really engaged in their faith. Part of that is all the pressure from the culture, but part of it as well is that we haven’t done a very good job of really making disciples, you know real followers of Jesus, of our Catholic people,” Ricken said. “We can see that so many people that fall away from the church eventually wind up falling away from God. Some of them go to other churches, but often times they just quit and they get farther and farther away from God. So a person’s soul can wind up in trouble with all kinds of problems if they’ve excluded God or neglected God.”

Ricken said people are created as finite beings that are all going to die, but a part of each person — the soul — lives forever and has an eternal destiny. Those who knowingly and willingly reject God are destined for hell, Ricken said, while those who accept God will find their way into purgatory — a state of purification — and heaven. Christians and Catholics are supposed to be continuously working at getting to heaven

The sisters help invite Jesus into the hearts and minds of people through their examples of joy, happiness and living in community, Ricken said.

Living in community
Mother Mary Catherine, 51, and two novices, Sister Maria Lucia Stella Maris, 23, and Sister Marie Bernadette of the Sacred Heart, 22, are living together at St. Joseph Formation Center at Kangaroo Lake in Door County.

The sisters work with Catholic Youth Expeditions, an outdoor ministry for teen and young adults, which also is based at the formation center. Another young woman, Erin Schuessler, has joined the Missionaries of the Word as a postulant, the period of discernment prior to the novitiate.

The women have been working with Catholic Youth Expeditions and its founder and director, the Rev. Quinn Mann, for several years.

The premise of the outdoor ministry is to teach young people how to pray and create a deeper, more meaningful relationship with Jesus while enjoying the outdoors and community. It comes at a time when the teens and 20-somethings are searching for answers.

“I think with a lot of youth and young adults there’s a lot of anxiety, a lot of stress and a lot of worry,” Mann said. “And this anxiety of what am I going to do, where am I going to go, who am I going to meet and that’s really just a derivative of fear. Jesus said ‘be not afraid.’ I think it’s helping take away the fear of the unknown and actually accepting that.”

It was Mann’s ministry and Catholic Youth Expeditions that inspired Mother Mary Catherine, then Margaret Peggy Duemling, to talk to the bishop about starting the community. Her asthma forced her to leave the the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s religious congregation. After several years of working at a Catholic school in Menomonee Falls, she was still figuring out where God was calling her to serve. Under the guidance of her spiritual director, she was pondering something completely new that would make women of these times feel alive. Then-Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan told her to meet with Ricken and Mann.

“I came up and met Father Quinn and after we talked for about an hour and a half, it was just like the strongest kind of something came in my heart that this is the way, walk in it. Go,” Mother Mary Catherine said.

Ricken told her to pray and discern whether it was the direction God was leading her, a process that lasted until 2012. At that time, she and a few other women began living in community and discerning together, splitting time between St. Pius X in Appleton and the formation center.

The private community existed until May 1, when Mother Mary Catherine took her new religious name and professed her final religious vows of chastity, obedience and poverty during the Mass at St. Pius X. Sisters Lucia and Bernadette also entered the community’s novitiate, a two-year period of discernment and prayer that is meant to test them.

Ricken, who has responsibility to make sure the call to religious life and the creation of a new community is genuine and true, said time is a key part of the process.

“Sometimes people can glamorize the religious life, romanticize it and you have to sort that out. Is this an authentic call from God or is this somebody that’s in love with the dream more than they are with the reality. It’s a reality, it’s beautiful, very attractive but it’s also dead real,” Ricken said.

Mann, along with Catholic Youth Expeditions and the Missionaries of the Word, are the lead agents of New Evangelization in the diocese, which will soon embark on a six-year journey toward a stronger discipleship, Ricken said.

“They’re kind of learning how to live this out in a deeper way and I’m hoping to kind of learn from them and their experience how we can kind of adapt some of the things they’re doing for youth for our parishes,” Ricken said.

While they may be religious women, Mother Mary Catherine says she and the novices are just like other women who enjoy the outdoors and have loving families. She grew up in Hartland, loves horseback riding and swimming, and was in a serious relationship before she chose her vocation.

“I’m just a normal, 100 percent, independent American woman and all these women are too. They’re the same. They just love life,” Mother Mary Catherine said. “I think some people stereotype that, A) we can’t find a man or B) you’re just over religious-ized. It’s just so totally different. A call comes from God and you can’t deny it. That invitation is full of so much love. And you have a choice and you’re free.”

Religious life means sacrifice, including trading one’s personal family for a bigger one. Those who accept God’s invitation enter into the mysterious and supernatural relationship with great joy and love.

“I guess you just can’t say no to him because he’s so loving. I’ve never been able to say no to him so far and it just produces more and more joy in me anytime I don’t say no,” Mother Mary Catherine said. “It’s a gift and it’s a mystery. It’s hard to explain it more than that. It’s like you yourself don’t even understand it. And you can’t bury it or run from it because it’s always there.”

The future
Catholic Youth Expeditions was one of catalysts that drew the two novices to the Missionaries of the Word and Mother Mary Catherine.

Sister Lucia, then known as Anya Gadamus, is from Ashland and felt the call to religious life from a young age. After her freshman year in college, she signed up to be a part of Catholic Youth Expeditions’ summer ministry team.

“It’s not something that is only the work; vocation is essentially to be with the Lord to be his and so you can only do that when you are immersed in prayer and so the opportunity to be in Catholic Youth Expeditions gave me that time to pray and to really discern,” Sister Lucia said. “It takes time to let that unfold right, because it’s a relationship with Christ and so to see how the Lord is calling you. He speaks differently than a normal man would that you can see come kneel on one knee and present you with a ring.”

The call to religious life surprised Germantown native Sarah Schueller, now known as Sister Bernadette. She was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison when she felt that pull and applied for Catholic Youth Expeditions’ summer staff.

“I would have never guessed in my whole entire life that I would be a sister,” Sister Bernadette said, “though I had, had a reconversion in college and it really jump-started my prayer life and my relationship with the Lord. At CYE, I really fell in love with Jesus.”

Mother Mary Catherine does not know whether the community will continue to grow or stay the same, but she’s confident God will guide them in the right direction.

“I don’t know what the future holds, but I feel very peaceful that we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing right now,” Mother Mary Catherine said.--GBPG

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