Like Family

Neither the natural elements nor the gloom of a pandemic stands in the way. Each and every morning, the Marian Fathers fulfill a daily responsibility for the sake of a group of women praying for the salvation of souls.

For the past 25 years, a Marian priest, a courier of the Sacraments, each morning climbs into a car at the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy and drives down quiet country roads only to arrive 20 minutes later at a remote 
hillside. There, a monastery rises from bedrock, bathed — as you might 
expect — in misty morning light.

The residents there, cloistered, contemplative religious sisters who apply themselves to the perfection of divine love, couldn’t be any more grateful.

“It’s one of the great joys of our ministry,” said the Very Rev. Kaz Chwalek, MIC, the Marians’ provincial superior for the United States and Argentina. “The Sisters are joyful, humble witnesses to God’s love. Together, prayerfully, we share a similar mission — to make present and known God’s love for all people.”

In other words, the Sisters are like family.

Thankfully for us who live in these parts, the Lord has seen to it that this rural corner of Massachusetts contains two holy outposts of Christian renewal, where the mystical life can be lived, precisely for the world’s redemption.

From one hilltop (Eden Hill in Stockbridge) to another (in the tiny town of Tyringham) — 8 miles as the crow flies — the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy and the Visitation Monastery uphold complementary spiritualities that have deepened and enriched the life of the modern Church.

For the Sisters, members of the the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary founded by St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal in 1610 in France, the mystery of the Visitation provides a model for a life of faith — particularly in Our Lady’s response to God’s call to her and in her zeal for tending to souls in need.

For the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, founded by St. Stanislaus Papczynski in 1670 in Poland, the mystery of Mary’s Immaculate Conception serves as both proof and solace that Christ had conquered sin and that we are all called to eternal life in Heaven.

But the two religious congregations share another profound similarity: By God’s Providence, they both have found themselves at the center of the history and promotion of two specific private revelations that have reshaped the Church.

For the Sisters, it was the revelations of the Sacred Heart given by Jesus in the 1670s to a sister of their own order, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque.

For the Marian Fathers, it was the Divine Mercy revelations given by our Lord to St. Faustina in the 1930s, for which the Marian Fathers have been the Church’s most prominent promoters, beginning in 1941.

“It seems that as society gets more and more secular and materialistic, our Lord has to remind us, through the Sacred Heart and Divine Mercy, that He is here, He’s still here,” said Sr. Mary Emmanuel, VHM. “Society keeps moving away, and our Lord keeps coming back to show us His love.”

A few curious details bear mentioning.

Saint Margaret Mary, like St. Faustina, had doubts at first about her revelations. Both young women had confessors who encouraged them to embrace the special role the Lord had given them. For St. Margaret Mary, that priest was St. Claude de la Colombiere, SJ (1641-1682). For St. Faustina, that priest was Blessed Michael Sopocko (1888-1975). Since both religious sisters led cloistered lives, the burden of spreading the Sacred Heart and Divine Mercy messages and devotions to the outside world fell to the two confessors. 

Saint Claude de la Colombiere died on Feb. 15, the same day Blessed Sopocko died. Not to put too fine of a point to it, but Feb. 15 happens to be St. Faustina’s name day — the feast day of her patron saint, St. Faustus.

A final interesting fact: The Visitation Sisters recently found out the original Divine Mercy Image was painted in the former house of the chaplain for the Visitation Sisters’ monastery in Vilnius, in present day Lithuania. 

“We’re thrilled to pieces to have learned that,” said Mother Joan Bernadette, VHM. 

The Visitation Monastery is one of the Order’s 11 houses in the United States and one of 150 worldwide. Dressed head to toe in habits identical to those of the first women who entered the order in 1610, the Sisters were founded “to give to God daughters of prayer,” in the words of St. Francis. 

In all, 19 women live in the Visitation Monastery in Tyringham, six of whom are in formation. They describe their daily life as “contemplative, simple, sisterly, true, and joyous.” They wake each morning before sunrise and go to bed long after sunset. They sing the Liturgy of the Hours five times a day. They do spiritual reading. They administer a popular prayerline; take care of household tasks; run a garden; and create items used for liturgical celebrations. 
“We think of our lives as lives of silence and prayer and work,” said Sr. Miriam Rose, VHM.

“— And fun,” Sr. Mary Emmanuel hastened to add. (They do have a basketball net out behind the parking lot.)
When the Sisters first moved to western Massachusetts from Delaware in 1993 and began plans to build their Tyringham monastery, one of their first orders of business was to find chaplains. They were directed to the Marian Fathers.

Mother Joan recalled visiting the Shrine in Stockbridge for the first time and entering the side chapel dedicated to St. Faustina. 

The Sisters knew they had come to the right place because there before them was a stained-glass window depicting the Sacred Heart appearing to St. Margaret Mary.

“When we saw that,” said Mother Joan Bernadette, “we were really convinced that God’s hand was leading us to be more closely associated with the Marians.”

The Marians’ ministry to the Sisters includes hearing confessions and celebrating daily Mass in the monastery’s high-ceilinged chapel. Masses, held each morning at 7:45, are melodic, powerful prayers of thanksgiving, praise, and deeply felt appeals on behalf of a broken world. 

Candles are lit. Incense burns. A bell inside the tower clangs — loudly, deeply, solemnly — enough to make the trees tremble. Through Holy Mass, the Sisters’ hours of silence and their love for the Lord finally find release — through song. The sound of sopranos quietly peeks through the stillness like light upon the landscape, like the break of day, as if to anoint all things. The voices gradually join together in melody and form, in praise and petition, and rise to the rafters. 

The Masses are gorgeous — and open to the public.

The Sisters continually remember the Marians in their prayers. 

“We always want to express our gratitude for the Marians,” said Mother Joan Bernadette. “They have always been so outstanding and wonderful to us. Their generosity and the time they have given us over the years have been mind-boggling.”

Incidentally, the Marian Fathers and the Visitation Sisters share something else in common. Before the pandemic hit, both had big plans for 2020. The Marian Fathers were to celebrate the 350th anniversary of their founding. The Sisters were to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the canonization of St. Margaret Mary.

The Marians’ anniversary events have been canceled. The Sisters’ events planned for May were canceled. Plans for October remain up in the air.

For now, they are in lockdown with the Lord. Really, who could ask for more?

—    Felix Carroll
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