Sister Michaela O’Connor’s Reflection, for SHF Founders’ Day

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Nov. 7, 2014
Sister Michaela O’Connor, SHF

Today is Founders’ Day, a day on which we think not so much about the creation of the Community, but about the four persons who envisioned, enfleshed and enlivened it.  It was they who prepared a level, strong basis to build upon, who established the Sisters of the Holy Family and set future generations on the way in which they might travel to the reign of God.  Today, these four still inspire and touch hearts, spurring others to service and association with the Sisters of the Holy Family in “the glorious work.”  These four individuals embody the reasons that we can say of them, as Paul said of himself, “Join with others in being imitators of me, …and observe those who thus conduct themselves according to the model you have in us.”

So, let us take a brief look at these four special people, and tease out of their stories some of the qualities we might wish to emulate.

First, from Catalonian Spain, we recognize Jose Buenaventura y Ramon Alemany.  He became a Dominican novice and when he pronounced his vows added the name of the Polish Dominican martyr Sadoc to his own name.  It was a time of persecution in Spain.  To become a priest he had to leave his country and go to Italy.  After ordination he expressed a desire to be a missionary.  Accepting this intention enthusiastically his superiors sent him to study English.  He was sent to the United States, to the frontier territory of Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee in the Appalachian mountain area.  During his ten years of work as a missionary, he became a citizen.  Then gold was discovered in California and he was reluctantly consecrated Bishop and sent into the rough and tumble swirl of the Gold Rush.

His new diocese was enormous, reaching from the Oregon border to the tip of Baja California and stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Colorado River.  Begging, borrowing and taking religious personnel from various European countries as he came west, Alemany began with a passion to build up the Church.  He built a Cathedral, started libraries, temperance societies, musical concerts, a day school and adult education there and even found time to be a volunteer fireman.  He rose magnificently to the challenge he was given.

Lizzie Armer was the next of the four to arrive and she came with her family as a small child from Sydney, Australia.  Early on Mrs. Armer disappeared from the family picture, the children were placed with the only person Robert Armer knew in California – Richard Tobin – and then Armer went into the gold fields to work.  Lizzie suffered the disruption of her family and, as a young woman, the opposition of Mrs. Tobin to her vocation.  She suffered the humiliation of the stigmata affair revolving around her first companion, the non-perseverance of her second.  She struggled to give life to a new response to the vast needs of poor families in San Francisco.

Ellen O’Connor arrived by covered wagon in Placerville as a three year old child from Boston.  The family later moved to San Francisco where Ellen, as a young woman, trained as a seamstress, sought a religious vocation, perhaps one in a more traditional community than what her confessor urged her to join.  She entered into the experiment willingly and adapted very well to it.  Besides the difficult task of helping to construct a new organization, it fell to her to rebuild its works almost entirely after the death of Lizzie, followed in the next year by the destruction of San Francisco in the earthquake and fire of 1906.

Father John Prendergast was the last of the four to arrive in San Francisco.  He came shortly after his ordination in Ireland, having volunteered for California.  Prendergast came from a poor family, and was filled with a deep desire to minster for the poor.  As a young priest in San Francisco he was known to sell his possessions to have funds for the poor.  In Archbishop Alemany he found a pastoral and missionary spirit like his own and became a great force for creativity and practical answers to the problems of needy San Francisco.  Under Archbishop Riordan he suffered the curtailing of his pastoral and missionary desires as he was assigned to financial and bureaucratic works associated with the Institutional Church’s growth in the region.

These four came together to create what we know today as the Sisters of the Holy Family.  Alemany to give permission and support, Prendergast to envision the shape of the work, Lizzie to give it form and reality, Ellen to seal its life by standing firm beside Lizzie as a staunch companion and, later on, successor.

These four shared spiritual characteristics that blended well and gave strength to this new entity: practicality, mobility, flexibility, adaptability, the desire to serve, a Christ centered spirituality, commitment to the Gospel, good stewardship, real humanity and the habit of never looking back.  All were faced with the endless needs of a new place.  All were called away from their comfortable plans and surroundings to untried and challenging times and places.  All of them went rejoicing to the house of the Lord wherever they found it — and that was one of their insights, a missionary could minister in this new work only by seeking out what could be found.  They were aware of contributing to the building of a house where all would be welcome.

“Remember, you belong to the people.  Consider them first.”

“God knows best.”

“The only way to true peace is to see Christ in everything.”

“…be always devoted to the poor and the sick and the children.”

“You have the Holy Family; are they not the founders of all community life?”

“Nothing but God can satisfy!”

“Offer up our crosses in a spirit of humility for the poor people, for the dear old City.”

Any of the four could be responsible for those adages, and each is responsible for some of them.  Their spirits were united in a common cause and their responses were similar, though shaped in and through their own personalities.  They came together into the fields to glean, and their strengths were often tested, their shoes did become thin as they went out to seek, find and share, to encourage and instruct, to learn from and love alongside of many citizens of heaven.  They went with joy.  They went with courage and prudence as children of light.

We look back amazed at the economy of God, who brought from four distinct places across the wide earth, by means of a world’s search for material riches, these four individuals whose lives would connect to build up the Church, the region and ultimately the reign of God.

“O give thanks to the name of the Lord.”

We give thanks today for these four persons, our founders, deeply committed to God and to God’s people.  Four persons of courage.  Four persons of unshakeable faith.  Four persons who, having put their hands to the plow, never looked back.

Sister Dolores, composing an encouraging word for her community, unknowingly described for us the spiritual journey of our founders.

“With hearts like these {exhibiting in their union the spectacle of many and diverse natures and temperaments, subdued under one spirit, and raised up on high in that spirit} our Lord can do any great work … that He will, more fruitfully than we can see or understand.”

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