Mary Adamski View from
the Pew

Mary Adamski

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Ideals remain despite drop
in ministry’s ranks

Talk about putting a happy face on what is a grim reality.

The 50 Franciscan nuns living in Hawaii threw a party last Saturday, and more than 300 people came to help them celebrate the "unification" of three New York-based branches of the religious order.

The good news is that there are now about 500 women in the reorganized Sisters of St. Francis, which will likely mean more bodies to aid in local ministries that include the St. Francis Healthcare System of Hawaii, St. Francis School and hospice, adult care and intermediate schools assignments.

The grim reality is that consolidation was necessary for survival for the organization whose numbers are dwindling, as are other Catholic religious orders. There just aren't many young women interested in taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in the face of a culture that idolizes the opposite extremes.

"You are the model" of what St. Francis of Assisi founded, the nuns were told by the Rev. Gary Colton at the celebratory Mass at the Co-Cathedral of St. Theresa. Francis turned from a life of wealth and power to "a Christian life well lived, a life of peace, love and simplicity." Colton said more biographies have been written about the eighth-century Italian than any other figure in Catholic Church history.

His words, and the sheer number of people who turned out to celebrate, showed there is still a fondness for the ideal.

Turning young people on to that ideal is the main goal ahead, said Sister Patricia Burkard, who was chosen by her peers to be general minister -- there's no such thing as "mother superior" anymore -- top administrator of the new group.

Burkard, from the Buffalo, N.Y., branch, and four other leaders of the Franciscan fusion spent the past week in orientation meetings at local operations which range from the two-hospital St. Francis medical system to the Kalaupapa settlement where two nuns remain in service. With her were Sister Marian Rose Mansius, also of the Buffalo branch, Sister Roberta Smith, from the Hastings-on-Hudson group, and Sisters Grace Anne Dillinger and Frances Kowalski from the Syracuse, N.Y., order to which Hawaii Franciscans belong.

The sisters believe they have what young people yearn for: standards and structure that bring peace in life and reconciliation in relationships.

Hawaii Franciscan sisters celebrate in the Co-Cathedral of St. Theresa. Sister Patricia Burkard, center, heads the combined force of 500 women from three branches of the religious group.

"One of the main characteristics of the Franciscan spirit is right relationships," said Burkard, former elementary school teacher and principal and a Franciscan for 47 years. "Whatever we do, there is always an emphasis on the relational ... to work together, live together, build a sensitive community together."

She said people don't have to take that Big-Three Vow to walk the Franciscan walk. There's an associate program for men and women, who can be married or dating, living and working in the world. They commit to join in prayer life and enrich their spirituality, each partnered with a spiritual companion, and join the Franciscans in some programs for a three-year period.

"St. Francis died more than 800 years ago, and his message remains strong. His peacemaking, simplicity and reverence for each other and the earth have been his legacy down through the years," she said. "Our emphasis is on nonviolence wherever we can act for that or speak for that ... in this violent world where we are often desensitized to violence."

St. Francis is usually depicted with birds sitting on his shoulders, a simplistic way to portray a man who was an environmentalist centuries before the concept was conceived. The health of the planet is a focus of the global Franciscans group with credentials as a nongovernment organization at the United Nations. Burkard said, "From our beliefs about the care of our planet, reverence for all people ... we can have influence worldwide on these values."

Dillinger, who was elected second-in-command of the multifaceted medical-educational-ministerial nonprofit conglomerate of nuns, pointed to the woman who brought the order to Hawaii in 1883 as "the epitome of Franciscanism." Mother Marianne Cope brought a handful of nursing nuns to the islands at the request of the kingdom of Hawaii to help in facing the epidemic of leprosy.

"The fact that her cause (for sainthood) is moving along as it is, is a blessing from God on us and on what we are trying to do," said Dillingham.

"We did this (unification) not because we felt we are dying out, but so our Franciscan charism will be strengthened," Dillingham said. "It shows we are proactively planning our future, not just sitting, letting what happens happen.

"We are alive, are vital, want to continue as part of the church's life," said Dillingham. "The light is definitely still on."

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Religion Calendar

Mary Adamski covers religion for the Star-Bulletin.
Email her at madamski@starbulletin.com.



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