Sisters serve the Church by serving its youth

The Missionaries of the Word, a new religious community for women, has been launched in the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin. The community superior is Mother Mary Catherine, formerly a member of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, and the community’s mission is to bring the Gospel to teens and young adults “in the spirit of the New Evangelization.”

“We want to listen to, be with and love young people so that we may lead them to Jesus,” Mother Mary Catherine said. The sisters’ primary apostolate is assisting with Green Bay’s Catholic Youth Expeditions retreat apostolate for youth and young adults (see sidebar below), and they hope to grow the community so they may “go wherever God wants.”

Rooted in charity, silence

Mother Mary Catherine is from Wisconsin and began religious life as Sister Peggy Duemling with the Missionaries of Charity. She spent 10 years in a variety of houses in the United States and Tijuana, Mexico, with Mother Teresa’s nuns, serving in soup kitchens, homes for those who suffer from AIDS, other shelters, visiting prisoners and shut-ins, and catechizing.

It was her delight during this time to get to know Mother Teresa personally, describing her as “someone who was an incredible presence of truth and life, and [who] brought you into the presence of God.”

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Mother Mary Catherine

It was from the future St. Teresa of Calcutta that a young Sister Peggy learned “to surrender to God, rather than trying to control things in my life, and to open my heart to God and say ‘yes’ to him.”

However, her participation in the apostolate was constantly hampered by severe asthma, with which she has struggled since age 3. The condition can make breathing and sleeping difficult, which, combined with the hard work of a Missionary of Charity, made her “a regular in the emergency room.” Hence, the Missionaries declined to have Sister Peggy take final vows with the order.

She returned to Wisconsin, continued her education and served as principal of a Catholic academy for a decade. Throughout that time, she was “living out the consecrated life in private vows” under her bishop, she said. Although she missed the Missionaries, she was at peace with her situation and looked for God’s will for the next step of her life.

“I had made up my mind not to say no to God, and I was open to his will,” she said.

She still desired the religious life, so her spiritual director suggested she visit other communities, but none seemed right. In 2008, however, “I received clarity that there has to be something for young people to lead them to silence, and in silence they can encounter the living Lord,” she said. “Once they meet him, they will love him and open their hearts to him.”

At the same time, a new bishop was appointed to Green Bay, David L. Ricken, who was receptive to establishing a new community. On May 1, 2014, Mother Mary Catherine took final vows, and the Missionaries of the Word were established.

Serving the youth

Today, they number four, with another three expected to join in May. They are housed on the grounds of St. Joseph’s Formation Center in Baileys Harbor, Wisconsin, home of Catholic Youth Expeditions, a retreat apostolate for youth and young adults founded by Green Bay priest Father Quinn Mann.

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Father Quinn Mann walks with a retreat group. Courtesy photo

The sisters spend three days of their week assisting with the retreats and the other four in prayer and mentoring volunteer staff who help with the retreats. The Expeditions program includes prayer, religious instruction and a variety of vigorous outdoor sporting activities.

“We have a lot of silence, prayer and enjoyment of the beauty of the outdoors,” Mother Mary Catherine said. “We have no cellphones or computers, but just the enjoyment of being with one another.”

She said the expeditions are a hit with the youth, prompting many questions and providing opportunities to learn about their faith.

Mother Mary Catherine has gotten to know the millennial generation well in her time coordinating retreats. On the plus side, she said, “they have a desire to give themselves to something greater than themselves,” but are hampered by a fear of commitment and “their ability to sacrifice is less than that of previous generations.”

The retreat center itself occupies 7 1/2 acres in the wilderness, and with no paid staff, the sisters and volunteers must cook, clean, grocery shop and do whatever else is required to run the facility. Visiting groups number from 10 to 60 and are either high school age or young adults. Males and females interact together for much of the retreat but are separated when appropriate, such as for sleeping and swimming.

While the program and outdoors are good, Father Matthew Alexander said, it’s the sisters who play a vital role in the success of Catholic Youth Expeditions.

“The sisters offer a joy that is contagious, and the youth pick up on it immediately,” he said. “They are hungry for what the sisters have; it awakens in them a desire for God.”

Inspiring others

Father Alexander today serves as associate pastor at St. Mary of the Annunciation in Mundelein, Illinois, but served as an Expeditions volunteer as a seminarian in 2012.

“It has been my privilege to watch them grow into the community that they are. They are icons of what ministry should be, the unadulterated mission of Jesus with him at the center of their lives.”

Catholic Youth Expeditions
The sisters of Missionaries of the Word help staff Catholic Youth Expeditions, an apostolate near Green Bay, Wisconsin, that hosts retreats and camping experiences for youths and young adults. As part of its mission, CYE explains: “Why camping?”

The sisters were important to him in his own vocation, he said, as their ministry “gave me life as a seminarian and continues to nourish me spiritually. If it were not for Catholic Youth Expeditions and the sisters, I would not be a priest today.”

Judy Simon of Appleton, Wisconsin, is a retired accountant and volunteers to help the sisters with bookkeeping. She, too, describes the sisters as joyful and said they “radiate the love of Jesus.”

“When I’m in their presence, I feel like I’m in the presence of Jesus,” Simon said.

She’s impressed with their effectiveness in evangelizing the young, saying, “They are so in need of what the sisters have to offer.”

Jenna Hudson of Slinger, Wisconsin, is another friend to the community. “Everyone who comes in contact with the sisters is positively impacted by them,” she said. “They are beautiful, loving women of God. They provide a huge example to me of how I ought to live my life.”

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The Missionaries of the Word are attired in a simple blue habit with white veil. Their spirituality, Mother Mary Catherine said, is based on “total abandonment to the Father’s love with faith and joy.”

She invites interested young women to consider if they might have a vocation with the community; potential candidates should be women who “have the faith to surrender to God.”

“I’d love to have more sisters so we could do more good for the Church.”

Jim Graves writes from California.