Local Sisters of St. Mary of Namur celebrate order's founding 200 years ago

North Texas Catholic
(Nov 12, 2019) Local

Sr. Rita Claire Davis, left, shakes the hand of Sr. Mary Michael Dittoe, right, as she gives the sign of peace during the Mass for the 200 year jubilee of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, Nov. 09, 2019, at St. Andrew Parish in Fort Worth. (NTC/Ben Torres)

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FORT WORTH — The Sisters of St. Mary of Namur have been a consistent occasion of grace for Ershel Redd and many former students, friends, and supporters who have received education and kind-hearted guidance of the religious order.

Redd, a graduate of St. Andrew — a Catholic school founded by the SSMNs in 1954, said the sisters’ influence on his life didn’t stop with academics.

“They were the ones who taught me about service,” explained the longtime prison minister describing the sisters as servant leaders. “My teachers were just fabulous, and I think it’s wonderful there’s still so many nuns in the order.”

He was one of approximately 200 former students, friends, and supporters who turned out for a Nov. 9 Mass at St. Andrew Parish honoring the international order’s 200th anniversary of service to the Church.

Founded in Namur, Belgium, in 1819, the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur congregation was established at a time following the French Revolution when religious communities were forbidden. From its humble beginnings as a sewing school for destitute girls, the order expanded its reach and scope of ministries, first to New York in 1863 and ten years later to the Texas frontier where pioneering sisters set a foundation for Catholic education that still exists today.

Today, approximately 400 members of the congregation are present in 10 different countries where they are involved in education, health care, immigration assistance, social justice ministries, and catechesis. Young students from Our Lady of Victory — the only school still owned and operated by the order — processed into St. Andrew Church at the start of the Jubilee Mass carrying flags of the countries where the sisters currently work. Sister Lola Ulupano, SSMN, teaches second grade at the historic school opened by the congregation in 1910.

“What the sisters started in 1910 continues to this day,” OLV Principal Linda Kuntz said. “We’re educating students in a Catholic academic environment and serving others as they always have.”

The 200th anniversary is a testament to the order’s love, devotion, and service.

“Their presence is a guiding force of our Catholic faith,” she added.

Father Richard Flores concelebrated the Mass with St. Andrew pastor Father Jim Gigliotti, TOR, and Father Robert Strittmatter.

Flags representing a variety of countries where the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur have served are on display as Fr. Richard Flores, center, says the Eucharistic Prayer during the 200th Anniversary of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, Saturday Nov. 09, 2019 at St. Andrew Parish in Fort Worth. (NTC/Ben Torres)

In his homily, Fr. Flores explained that the genesis of the Sisters of St. Mary came shortly after war and persecution closed monasteries and banned religious worship. Encouraged by a Cistercian priest, Father Nicholas Minsart, a small band of woman helped re-establish a Catholic presence in the fortress city of Namur.

“It was a time when the Church needed witnesses of faith but also persons with strong minds and strong bodies to rebuild her through prayer and care to the needy — the urban poor who were abandoned and forgotten,” Fr. Flores suggested. “They were a sign [to the poor] that God had not forgotten them. He was among them.”

News of abuse, scandal, and cover-up rocked the Church in recent years. The 200th anniversary of the SSMN community provides a reason to celebrate, the priest said, calling the sisters’ outreach to others “the Church at her best.”

“We gather to offer praise and thanksgiving for the important lessons we learn from their lives and charism,” Fr. Flores added. “They are lessons of selflessness and sacrifice and total dependence on Jesus Christ.”

At a reception in the parish hall, Sister Gabriela Martinez, provincial of the SSMNs western region, thanked the audience of well-wishers.

“We’ve come this far by faith,” she asserted. “Your help, generosity, support, and presence in our lives are treasures we hold in our hearts.”

Religious women are a gift to the Church and it’s a privilege to serve with joy, simplicity, and, sometimes, in suffering, the provincial told the North Texas Catholic.

“But it is the call of Jesus Christ that has moved us to embrace this life and we have been richly blessed,” Sr. Gabriela continued. “We are humbled by God’s overwhelming care for our congregation.”

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