Mass of the Annunciation
125th Anniversary Celebration
Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon
SSMO Campus, Beaverton
March 25, 2012
When I opened the website for our dear Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon, I was immediately confronted with these sentiments: “Live valiantly – strive for excellence – honor the unique gifts of each person – celebrate God and life.” We are gathered today to help the sisters celebrate their 125th anniversary as a religious community. We all readily testify that they do indeed live valiantly and certainly strive for excellence while honoring the unique gifts of each person whom they are privileged to serve. In these ways and many others they continue to celebrate God and life among us and for that we are all grateful.
In today’s Mass we are celebrating the feast of Mary’s Annunciation. As we hear the story of the Annunciation told by St. Luke in today’s gospel, we are reminded how Mary, the Mother of Jesus, gives us all a beautiful lesson in true humility. When the angel tells her what God wants of her, she accepts God’s call without a protest. And as her Son grows up and eventually leaves her, she, like every mother, struggles to understand his mission, his suffering and his final glory. Mary will always hold a special place in our hearts. We know also that Mary had great trust in the Lord and was comforted that he would fulfill his promises and act on her behalf. Like many Jewish women, she hoped for the coming of the Messiah and she must have been overwhelmed by God’s choice of her to be the Mother of His Son. But because she was a person of hope, this revelation did not unsettle her faith. Rather, it strengthened her hope. It helped her realize that hopeful living means dying to old ways of thinking, acting and living in order to live a new life.
Ever since the Second Vatican Council, now nearly 50 years ago, religious women like you have opened your minds and hearts to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Mary’s hope allowed her to understand that only by letting go of love and life do we really possess them. For nearly 125 years you good sisters have attempted to follow that courageous example in all you do in the service of our church’s evangelizing mission.
The church often speaks to us about Mary because her hope can teach us to hope. No matter how bright or bleak a situation may seem, God can and does call us to make a difference. God has called you, my dear sisters, to make a difference, to be a light in the darkness, to support one another and the rest of us in the family of faith, especially during difficult times. Mary’s hope has been your hope. She herself once said, “Nothing is impossible with God.” You sisters believe that because it is true.
Many years ago, Dr. Scott Appleby, then a Professor of History at Notre Dame University, made this comment to a group of religious like yourselves: “What an odd thing that you are committed to religious life now in this third millennium of Christianity! How bizarre! Furthermore, you chose it and continue to choose it; you don’t have to do this anymore!” Dear sisters, you don’t have to do this, but you do it. Praise God! The whole church, especially those of us who are privileged to be your companions in faith here in the Northwest, continue to rejoice in your personal commitment to the call you all received from God to consecrated life and the generous response you continue to make each day to live out that commitment. You stay, not just because you have nowhere else to go, but because you really and truly believe that gospel values can make a difference for today’s world. Your vocation as consecrated women is a radical, counter-cultural choice, a form of witness that remains appealing to what is best in each of us.
We all love stories, don’t we? Sometimes we get so caught up in our stories we forget to make the point. Megan McKenna has been a marvelous storyteller. She has a principle about stories which she always repeats when giving a presentation on storytelling in the gospel. She says, “All stories are true, some of them really happen!” The story of your community began back in 1886 in Sublimity, Oregon. Almost immediately your predecessors began teaching in the local parish. The archbishop eventually invited the sisters to serve at St. Mary’s Orphanage here in Beaverton. Shortly thereafter the sisters began to construct their motherhouse and changed their name in 1905 to the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon. Through your educational prowess you have served many young people for more than a century. But when you recognized a growing need for elder care, Maryville Nursing Home was opened in 1963.
In sharing the story of her vocation, Sr. Angeline Sohler admitted that God’s call came to her at various times and in many ways. Eventually she turned to St. Francis Xavier who finalized her aspiration. Sr. Charlene Herinckx acknowledged that she slipped into the community through the back door when no one was looking. The sisters had had such an influence on her family and the community’s Superior General at the time of her entrance was one of her mother’s very favorite teachers. She was especially grateful that the community felt like family to her, because family had been so important back at her home in rural Roy. Sr. Alison, one of the community’s neophytes, thought when she was a kid that the sisters had the best job. She said, “They have the greatest boss in the universe, and their compensation lasts for all eternity.” But she didn’t think she was holy enough to sign up. In her pursuit of many things, she never really found a good match until she wound up living in Beaverton where she met the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon. It was love at first sight.
It is important for all of us to remember that for each sister, the story begins with a call, not a choice. That is the way of discipleship. Jesus spoke to you deep in your hearts, just as he did to Mary through the archangel on the day of the Annunciation, and said, “Come and see.” You came. You saw. And you stayed. A vocation to consecrated life is always given by God more for the sake of the church than for the sake of the individual. Good women and men like yourselves are still responding to God’s call. The grace of a vocation, like all graces, can be received only as an unmerited gift.
Who then are these Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon? They are women of prayer who live in simplicity and sisterly love, called to be compassionate, joyful servants of the Lord. They describe their mission as a sharing in the mission of Jesus, proclaiming the good news of God’s love. They are a Eucharistic and Marian community. They look to Mary, the Mother of God, as their model for their life together in community. It is only fitting that we celebrate this 125th anniversary Mass on the feast of Mary’s Annunciation.
We live at a time where there is a fundamental discontinuity in our culture between Christian answers to the question about the good and society’s answer to the same question. There is an operative agnosticism or atheism which has penetrated mainstream media and shaped popular opinion. The widely-held attitude about Christianity’s irrelevance was succinctly expressed in a New York Times story which included “eternal life” among the ideas that have outrun their usefulness. My sisters, you are far from outrunning your usefulness in a culture that is so desperately in need of God’s healing and loving touch.
You sisters have all decided to follow more closely the poor, chaste and obedient Jesus Christ. In doing so, you make a prophetic response to all of us in the church with respect to some of the unfortunate excesses in terms of power, possessions and intimacy that are typical of our times. Without your love, your simplicity, your liberating obedience, your concern for the neediest among us, the church would lose a great part of her ability to evangelize and to bring hope to those who live in great pain.
Please allow me to repeat the words of Sr. Mary Fidelis, your Superior General at the time of your centennial celebration 25 years ago. I shared these words with all the consecrated women and men in the diocese on the occasion of Consecrated Life Day earlier this year. They are worth repeating for all your guests today. Sr. Fidelis wrote:
“The reading of the 100-year history of the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon clearly and consistently represents three undeniable facts. The first is the blessed presence of the hand of God, molding, shaping and using every mysterious happening for his purpose. The second is the preponderance of seemingly insurmountable hardships in the lives of those first valiant women, and the strong faith with which they cheerfully overcame every obstacle. The third is a generous and constant support of a multitude of friends, especially other religious men and women.”
All of us here present readily acknowledge the presence of the hand of God among you and praise him for that gift. We also concur that you indeed have experienced many obstacles, but it has been your strong faith which has helped you overcome them. And we are pleased that you are so grateful for the support and encouragement you have received from good friends all over western Oregon. Be assured of the support of the Catholic people of western Oregon, as you continue your efforts to be faithful to your commitment to follow the obedient, poor and chaste Jesus Christ.