HM sisters mark 150 years since trek from France



As the Sisters of the Humility of Mary mark 150 years in America, they “celebrate the legacy, pursue the vision” in a host of ministries and activities.

Villa Maria Community Center is in Lawrence County, Pa., but the sisters are involved in ministries in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Florida and Haiti.

A spirit that takes them where the need presents itself is the legacy of the small group of nuns who left their home in France to come to America.

Sisters Joanne Gardner, archivist, and Barbara Wincik, a member of the leadership team, recently discussed the HM community and its ministries.

Sister Joanne researched and is posting on the website — —a day-by-day account of the nuns’ journey from France to America, where they built a new life. The trek began May 25, 1864, when 11 nuns, the Rev. John Joseph Begel and four orphans left the village of Dommartin-sous-Amance, France. There, Marie-Antoinette Potier devoted her life to God and helping poor children. As more women joined her, they petitioned the bishop of the Diocese of Nancy in France to become a religious community. In 1858, they received the name Sisters of the Humility of Mary, and Potier became Mother Madelaine.

Sister Joanne said the Rev. Louis Hoffer, a French missionary, asked the nuns to work with his French-speaking parishioners in Louisville, Ohio, in 1864. Bishop Amadeus Rappe of Cleveland provided land in Pennsylvania, what is now Villa Maria Community Center. Mother Madelaine died before the trip; Sister Anna Tabourat is the American foundress.

The property of 250 acres in Pennsylvania “was a swamp,” said Sister Barbara. “They were adaptable and willing to do this but faced struggles,” she said of how the nuns tackled the task of living off the land.

“They became self-sufficient,” Sister Joanne said.

The group, who had taught lace-making as a skill in France, established a working farm. They raised animals and produce to feed themselves and the poor. Though the farm has since been scaled back, there remains a greenhouse that sells a variety of plants and seasonal flowers for Christmas and Easter. There also is a Market Barn that offers a variety of produce.

Over time, the sisters bought more property and now have 761 acres. That site includes the motherhouse, Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center, apartments for seniors, a labyrinth, nature trails, the farm, shrines and other buildings. The original building on the property was taken down 11 years ago. Sister Joanne said the name Villa Maria (Mary’s house) was chosen in 1889 when a post office was established.

Sisters Barbara and Joanne said the HM community is guided by a “living document” that has three areas of focus. One addresses the order’s role as Gospel women who “speak to truth” and are compassionate and justice-driven.

“Collaboration with others is key for the sake of advancing the mission,” said Sister Joanne.

Sister Barbara said everyone in the community is involved in some form of ministry. “We are individuals who form a oneness.”

As for the present and future for the 158 nuns, Sisters Barbara and Joanne said they will go where God leads them.

In the HM Voice summer magazine, Sister Toby Lardie, pastoral leader, reflected on HM history. “The mission and values hold us to the center as we continue the journey begun by our founders,” she wrote. She also noted the community will “continue to pursue the vision.”

As the order grew and the years passed, members were and are involved in a variety of ministries that focus on needs in education, health care, housing, spirituality and helping the poor.

In 1955, the order founded Magnificat High School in Rocky River, Ohio. The largest all-girls’ Catholic high school in the Buckeye State, it boasts more than 11,000 graduates.

Sister Barbara said Humility of Mary Housing offers a myriad options for individuals and families, especially the poor. She cited the example of Opportunity House, which provides permanent supportive housing for homeless young men who aged out of foster care in Cuyahoga County and have a diagnosed disability. Other options are housing for seniors and women veterans.

In education, she said, the order sponsors Villa Montessori Center in Cleveland, an academic preschool, and co-endorses St. Martin de Porres High School, founded in 2003. The school, modeled after Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago, is in the Cristo Rey Network, which helps students who have limited access to private education.

Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center provides educational and spiritual programs.

Nursing the sick was another ministry. The order was involved with St. Joseph Riverside Hospital in Warren, St. Elizabeth in Youngstown and St. Joseph in Lorain, Ohio, now part of Catholic Health Partners. HM community members continue that legacy as hospital and hospice chaplains, bereavement caregivers, and caring for people with disabilities.

In partnership with the Ursuline Sisters of Youngstown, HM also sponsors the Dorothy House in Youngstown, a ministry that helps the homeless and others in need.

HM members also are involved in the Collaborative Initiative to End Human Trafficking in Northeast Ohio.

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