Order celebrates 150 years of service

Eight hundred came to the order's first reception.
VILLA MARIA, Pa. -- Sisters of the Humility of Mary have a simple plan: Find a need and fill it.
That has been their guiding principle for 150 years. Today, they fill needs of thousands of people through schools, hospitals, senior citizen housing, community programs, ecology-spiritual programs, retreats and youth programs.
To celebrate their anniversary, the order set regional gatherings to give the public a chance to join the celebration.
"We really are reaching out to anybody who was ever touched by us," said Sister Madeline Shemo H.M., who works at the Order's public relations office in Rocky River, near Cleveland.
The order was pleasantly surprised when the first reception in June in Cleveland attracted 800 people, she said. Four more are planned, including one at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Blessed Sacrament Church, 3020 Reeves Road, Warren.
Community center
The order has its headquarters at the Villa Maria Community Center on a 728-acre complex in Lawrence County just across the state line. The center has several buildings, picturesque gardens for reflection; a farm that includes livestock, an organic garden, a tree farm and crops; a chapel; a retirement center for the sisters; retirement apartments for men and women; and EverGreen, which offers workshops and retreats in ecology and spirituality. Just last week, the new conference center opened, providing more space for the retreats and workshops that bring groups to the center each year. It seats 150.
The order has 209 sisters working in 11 states, mostly in Pennsylvania and Ohio. One sister is a hospital administrator in Haiti. The order has completed mission work in Mexico, El Salvador, Africa, Chile and Vietnam. Currently, 62 sisters who are active, semi-retired or retired live at the center, which also has 70 full-time and 20 part-time lay staff, said Sister Joanne Gardner H.M, communications coordinator at Villa Maria.
Humility of Mary has a ministry center in Rocky River, a more urban site for development, public relations, service and vocational training. The Rocky River building is also the center for Heartbeats, a mail order project that markets crafts from artists in developing countries.
Educating young girls was the group's first mission when it organized in 1854 in France. At the time, French girls did not have access to education, so the sisters decided to fill that need.
The founders, Marie-Antoinette Potier, later known as Mother Madelaine, and Father John Joseph Begel believed that to educate a woman is to educate a whole family, explained Sister Gardner.
The sisters became known as the "blue nuns" because they had adopted the fluted hats and dresses of the local village women, but made the dresses in blue. That name carried over to America, Sister Gardner said.
In 1864, the entire order, which then numbered 11, planned to come to America to work with French immigrants who were parishioners in Louisville, Ohio. Two months before their departure Mother Madelaine died. She had planned to sell her farm and use the proceeds for their work in America, but her family claimed the property. Once in the United States, the sisters, now led by Mother Anna Tabourat, could not afford the home in Cleveland they had planned to buy. Instead, the Cleveland Diocese, which then included the Youngstown area, offered them a farm just over the state line, which the Pittsburgh diocese had given to the Cleveland diocese.
The order's history says that it was donated by William Murrin, a Catholic bachelor farmer who had no dependents.
Smallpox crises
Shortly after moving onto the farm in 1864, the sisters faced a local outbreak of smallpox in New Bedford, Pa. There was another outbreak in 1872 in Lowellville. Having dealt with a similar illness in France, the sisters were able to help.
They also organized a clinic for workers on the nearby railroad. The clinic would close when the order opened St. Elizabeth Hospital in 1911 in Youngstown.
The order would go on to sponsor a hospital in Warren as well. It continued to address the needs of children with Villa Maria High School, a college preparatory school, at the center until it closed in 1989. Today, the school is a center for after-school and summer programs for children and youth.
Sister Mary-Joanna Huegle H.M., the order's archivist, has created a series of paintings depicting its history. They are on display at the center and at St. Elizabeth Health Center. They are also displayed in a pamphlet telling the order's history.

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