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HUMILITY OF MARY Sisters live, serve with love



Published: Sat, August 4, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



By D.A. WILKINSON

VINDICATOR RELIGION EDITOR

VILLA MARIA, Pa. -- Consensus and discernment are the watchwords as the Sisters of the Humility of Mary continues its mission of service.

The order's members decide their goals by consensus while discernment guides those called and elected to lead.

The order will install the leadership council today that for the next four years will work to meet the goals set by the nuns.

The council includes Sister Ruthmary Powers, re-elected as major superior for a second term, and Sister Susan Schorsten, who is returning to a second term on the council. The other members are Sisters Anne Victory, Janet Burkhart and Jeannette Abi-Nader.

Mission always comes first, said Sister Ruthmary.

Still, there is a point where as major superior, she must deal with both faith and money.

"I suppose that's one of the challenges," said Sister Ruthmary. "For example, one of the things we're dealing with is a building project here at Villa Maria, the motherhouse. We are in phase one of the project that will include a health care unit for the sisters, 32 beds. It will include renovation of three of our buildings. This will provide more up-to-date housing for sisters who are not infirm."

If the sisters don't use those rooms, they may be made available to lay people. The other portions of the project will include a new dining room and kitchen. Sister Schorsten, the former CEO of St. Elizabeth Health Center, will return to head the project that is an example of the order's diverse and changing work.

Connection: In 1996, the Sisters of Humility of Mary merged its local health system with Catholic Health Care Partners, a union of Catholic hospitals. Members of the order serve on its governing, corporate and trustees' boards.

"We still have connections with them and are connected to them. We don't have people in operations the way we used to. We don't have a sister CEO. We don't have people at this point in time who see that as their ministry choice," said Sister Ruthmary.

The switch to Catholic Health Care came when Catholic hospitals were being taken over by for-profit corporations.

"Mission was the most important priority in making the choice. By making that choice, and working it through, the mission has become strengthened and far more in evidence than if we were trying to do it without the support of [that] larger organization," said the sister.

Mission focus: The order's mission, of course, emphasizes help for the poor. This year, meetings before the leadership vote came up with two commitments. The first, the external, is "to take action in solidarity with women, children and all people who are marginalized and disenfranchised." The second is more internal, "to be nonviolent in all aspects of personal, communal and ministerial relationships."

The theme for the meetings was "Going Deeper" into those commitments, which in practice often means working on the cutting edge.

For example, Sister Janet Burkhart has worked with the Tohono O'dtham reservation in Arizona for the past four years. The ministry includes a school with a computer lab, which provides technical skills in an area of high unemployment and empowers the American Indians.

"Sister Janet has been extending the teaching mission of Jesus to the people of this tribe," Sister Ruthmary said. "Through her work, she has not only brought the school online and into the 21st century, but by having a partnership with an Air Force base and corporations around Tucson, she has refurbished many old computers and given them to families. So now many more Indian families are able to help their kids learn better."

Money matters: The order has financial managers and an advisory board that oversees expenditures by the various missions. The sisters, who have taken a vow of poverty, live in mostly houses or apartments, so they must submit requests for such items as rent or utilities as well as mission expenses. Each mission house submits a uniform budget for the next year. Cost overruns -- politicians please take note -- are explained by the nuns in writing.

Sister Ruthmary estimates that Villa Maria gives more than $1 million in charity annually to various ministries.

"We have a wonderful farm here. Some of the produce is sold, and we eat some of it too, but we send tremendous amounts to hunger centers. That's just what we do because we've been so blessed. We see that as God blessing us so we have an opportunity to give back. A gift you have received, give it as a gift."

The order was formed in France in 1854 and immigrated to the United States 10 years later. Their habit at the time was essentially the garb of a French peasant, set apart [for God] but a part of the people, said Sister Ruthmary. In 1967, the order decided to return to lay clothing.

"People who work with us, people who know us understand the mission is the focus, and our dedication is to the people of Christ and of the church and of the world," the sister said.

Sister Ruthmary said that as major superior, her role is to facilitate the mission work of the members. In other words, she is in a community ministry to the sisters.

The order has about 230 members and six in the progressive stages of joining. The view now is that there will always be women in such orders, but the huge numbers needed to run huge institutions -- such as staffing St. Elizabeth's -- are no longer needed.

Vatican II freed nuns to develop their own talents in responding to a call to both personal and community ministries, said the major superior.

But the order's founding charism of humility "is something we see as extremely important. It challenges us to live simply, to be open and hospitable, and to extend the gifts we have to others in whatever way we can," Sister Ruthmary said.

XFor more information, visit http://www.humilityofmary.org.




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