By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
INDEPENDENCE — They didn’t have to mull the question over. They all had the same answer when asked what they would, if they could, change about their lives.
“Nothing,” said Sister Helen Groudis, who marked 70 years of vowed religious life Oct. 19 at a special Mass celebrated by Bishop Robert W. Finn.
“Nothing,” said Little Sister of the Poor Gonzague of St. Chantal, who celebrated 50 years.
“Nothing at all,” said Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster of the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles.
“I love God and God loves me,” Sister Wilhelmina quickly added.
“There is nobody as good as the Lord for your husband,” said Sister Helen, who began religious life as a Sister of Jesus Crucified and the Sorrowful Mother, a Lithuanian order reflecting her heritage, and an order that has passed into history. She is now a Consecrated Virgin.
Another six jubilarians who have given years of service to the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph were also honored, though they were unable to attend the Mass hosted by the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Eucharist.
Sixty years: Sister Mary Cecile (Cele) Breen, Sister of Charity of Leavenworth; Sister Agnes Irene Huser, Sister of St. Joseph of Concordia; Sister Louise Kuborn, Benedictine Sister of Perpetual Adoration of Clyde; Sister Berta Sailer, Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Fifty years: Sister Denise McMahon, Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration of Clyde.
Twenty-five years: Sister Molly Blackwell, Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica, Atchison, Kan.
Though small in number, “we have the best jubilarians this year,” said Franciscan Sister Connie Boulch, director of the diocesan Office of Consecrated Life as she noted the presence of both sisters celebrating their 70-year jubilees.
“The 70-year jubilarians usually aren’t able to come, so they join us in spirit,” Sister Connie said. “This year, they have joined us in body and spirit.”
And that spirit has never been stronger, each of the three sisters said. But it’s not their doing. It’s the grace of God.
“He chose me. It’s from him. And I still can’t believe that he chose me as his bride,” Sister Helen said. “Just that thought alone gives me all the strength I need.”
“He chose us, but we have to choose him every day,” Sister Gonzague said. “Every life is challenging, and he is a God of surprises. But I got the calling, and it’s a miracle.”
Sister Helen recalls her yearning for religious life as a child, growing up in the very shadow of her ethnic Lithuanian parish in Boston.
“I’ve been blowing kisses to Jesus since I was six years old,” she said.
She recalled insisting so strongly that her parents allow her to join the convent at 16 years old, when they finally, and tearfully, relented as she boarded a train to Brockton, Pa., her parents unsure that they would ever see her again.
But they did. And Sister Helen even was at her mother’s side when she passed into the eternal life.
“She saw that I was crying and she said, ‘Don’t cry for me. I’m not your real mother. God just chose me to take care of you for a while. Your real mother is the Blessed Mother in heaven,’” Sister Helen recalled.
“I’ll never forget that,” she said.
Something else hasn’t changed for Sister Wilhelmina, either. For as long as she can remember, even as a young child, she has prayed the rosary — every day of her life. And she still does, every day of her life, but now in community.
“The Blessed Mother wants us to pray the rosary every day, and to pray for the conversion of sinners,” said the sister whose full religious name is Sister Mary Wilhelmina of the Most Holy Rosary.
“So many people are lost because nobody prays for them,” she said. “We are all sinners. We all need help.”
In his homily, Bishop Finn noted that St. Paul summed up the celebration the best to the Thessalonians in that day’s second reading: “We give thanks to God always for all of you, unceasingly calling to mind your work of faith and labor in love and endurance in hope.”
“God’s life in you first in Baptism, but deepened and intensified in your profession (of vows), brought you a share in faith, hope and charity. And you have lived these gifts for Jesus Christ, for the church, and for us,” Bishop Finn said.
“We thank you, dear jubilarians. We thank God for you,” he said.
Bishop Finn noted that vowed religious life has always been counter-cultural, but never more than today, as women religious set aside all that is worldly for the spiritual and the eternal.
“We live, nonetheless, in the world. The people we serve and love, live in the world,” Bishop Finn said.
“The jubilarians we honor today have offered to God so many years of prayer and service,” he said.
“The religious in our diocese have taught in our schools, worked in hospitals and homes caring for the sick and dying, advocated for the poor, carried out the missionary apostolates here and throughout the world, prayed and offered work and sacrifice to God for us,” Bishop Finn said.
“Day after day, our consecrated brothers and sisters have prayed the Liturgy of the Hours for the sake of the whole world,” he said. “They have spent hours in prayer before our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, and offered themselves as a living oblation for the salvation of souls.
“The supernatural chronicle of your self-offering — known fully only to God — surpasses infinitely even the amazing tally of your years of service,” Bishop Finn said.
“Throughout history, your orders, societies and congregations have served the particular and most urgent needs of the church,” he said. “Indeed, when you remain in faithful community with the spirit of your founders, you have the strongest assurance that the providence of God will effectively connect the vocation of each religious and the legitimate needs of the church.”
Bishop Finn also gave religious women credit for deepening his own devotion to Mary.
“In my own life, I have learned much about the meaning of the love of Mary from consecrated religious,” he said.
“May Mary intercede with her son Jesus so that no vocation may be lost, so that the church will be enriched with the full measure of those God invites,” he said.
“For our sake, dear jubilarians, and for the sake of your salvation, the Father of Mercies has called you and made you a sign of selfless and tender love,” Bishop Finn said.
“May he who is your light and your spouse sustain you in his joy and hope forever.”