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Society of St. Edmund opens anniversary celebration

The Gospel story about the apostles in a boat on a stormy Sea of Galilee is essentially the story of a French religious order’s early decades after its founding 175 years ago – or, for that matter, of those founders’ spiritual heirs at a Vermont Catholic college in 2017, suggested the homilist for a historically significant Holy Day celebration at St. Anne’s Shrine in Isle LaMotte Aug. 15.
“Men of great faith invited by Jesus to come across turbulent waters” is how Edmundite Father Stephen Hornat, the Society of St. Edmund’s superior general, put it during the well-attended, late-morning Feast of the Assumption Mass at the shrine.
The liturgy officially began a year of events to note the 175th anniversary of the Edmundites’ 1843 founding at a humble and ruined former Cistercian Abbey in Pontigny, France, by Fathers Jean Baptiste Muard and Pierre Boyer, French diocesan priests who, as Fathr Hornat described, dedicated their lives to evangelism, the caretaking of holy shrines and, most significantly on this Marian Feast, to the intercessory protection and aid of Mary, the Mother of Jesus.
A parishioner at Winooski’s St. Stephen Church had asked him why not have the Mass at the Edmundite-founded St. Michael’s College rather than the Edmundite-administered shrine, Father Hornat said in his homily. “When I thought about it, the longest running ministry that Edmundites had during our 175-year history, wasn’t education, wasn’t retreat work, wasn’t administering parishes, but rather, caretakers of shrines (including Mont St. Michel in France and St. Anne’s in Vermont).”
Yet all those vital pieces of the Edmundites’ history and present mission were represented at the Mass. Most of the St. Michael’s College-based Edmundite community concelebrated, numbering a dozen or more priests and brothers, including those who administer nearby parishes. Present also were many current and former administrators of St. Michael’s College and other faculty, staff and alumni.
Father Hornat’s homily shed light on the order’s name and mission from its history: How St. Edmund is buried over the main altar at Pontigny Abbey where Fathers Muard and Boyer first gathered; that originally, the Edmundites were called the Oblates of the Sacred Heart; that Pontigny Abbey happened to be named in honor of St. Mary of the Assumption, “by coincidence or divine intervention,” making the day’s feast most significant to the group; or that the group didn’t become officially recognized as a Church religious order (rather than just a diocesan group) until 1876, and they didn’t become “Fathers of St. Edmund” until 1907.
Another guest for the day was a scholar of the history and legacy of St. Edmund who also is Anglican chaplain of St. Edmund Hall, Oxford – Rev. Will Donaldson, who at a reception and light lunch following Mass said he is traveling to sites related to the 12th/13th-century namesake of the place where he is chaplain.
As to his interest in Edmund given his present position, he said, “I was thinking I need to find out about him … and the more I look, the more I like it … I want to find out everything I can about him; so I’m over here in Vermont really to chat to people, meet the Edmundites, and particularly ask the question, ‘What is it about the life of St. Edmund that continues to inspire you today?’”
He said he and his wife are touring North America as part of research for what he expects to be about a 10,000-word short book on Edmund in three sections: first, a brief historical survey of Edmund’s life and ministry; second, a look at his character through the lens of the Beatitudes, “because I think he hits the Beatitudes on every point – the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the pure in heart, those who are persecuted, these kinds of things are his characteristics;” – and third, a look at how St. Edmund continues to influence Christian communities today, including in Vermont.
Other events relating to the Edmundite 175th anniversary in the coming year will include:
Nov. 15: St. Edmund’s Lecture and Reception at St. Michael's College.
Nov. 16: Mass at the Chapel of St. Michael the Archangel, St. Michael's College (Feast of St. Edmund).
May 13-21, 2018: Heritage Trip to France, led by Edmundite Father Marcel Rainville.
July 3, 2018: Celebration marking Fathers Muard and Bravard moving into the Cistercian Abbey in Pontigny. Mass and picnic at Holy Family Church, Essex Junction.
Aug. 15, 2018: Closing of the Anniversary Year; Mass and reception at St. Anne’s Shrine in Isle LaMotte.

Geologic significance of Isle LaMotte

Many Vermont Catholics know of Isle LaMotte for its religious and historic significance, but it also has geologic significance that is threatened by development.
Charlotte Mehrtens, a University of Vermont professor of geology, has been studying “The Chazy Reef" for about 30 years, and she is concerned about development of the landscape where the fossil reef is exposed.
"The Chazy Reef" is the name given to a fossiliferous portion of the Chazy group, an approximately 500-foot thick sequence of limestone rocks of middle-Ordovician age (470-450 million years old). Rock exposures of the reef can be found throughout the Champlain Valley of southern Quebec, New York and Vermont. 
“It is a fabulous educational resource,” Mehrtens said. “It can be used for hands-on instruction in biology, ecology and geology by teachers from elementary to university level.”
Edmundite Father Brian J. Cummings, spiritual director of St. Anne’s Shrine in Isle LaMotte, said the Lake Champlain island – site of the first Mass celebrated in what is now Vermont -- is an example of the beauty of God’s creation in many respects. “The peacefulness of the island and the deep green of the summer season with stunning sunsets over the Adirondacks are simply breathtaking. The expansive night skies display a light show with shooting stars and a full moon lights up the shrine’s holy grounds on clear nights. There is nothing more prayerful than to see God’s presence in such creation,” he said, adding that the natural beauty of the shrine calls to mind the words of the psalmist: “Near restful waters he leads me, to refresh my soul.”
Many people are familiar with coral reefs. “The environment that we call a ‘reef’ is one where a group of organisms live together in shallow, warm marine water in a complex food web,” she explained. Today, reefs are constructed by coral, sponges and algae, but this was not the case in the geologic past; different plants and animals constructed reefs.
“The Chazy Reef is the oldest example of a fully developed reef ecosystem, with organisms that changed composition over time. In other words, it exhibits ecological succession,” the professor explained. This means that the oldest reef horizons were built by one group of organisms (bryozoa) and then the middle reef horizons were built by stromatoporoids (a relative of the sponges), algae and coral and finally, the upper reef horizons were built by stromatoporoids, sponges, coral and algae.    
Coral first appear in The Chazy Reef but are not the dominant reef-builders as they are on modern reefs.  
When studying the reef, Mehrtens and her students ask questions like, “Why did the primary reef-builders change over time?"  "What are the associations of plants and animals that co-exist?” “Is the increase in marine biodiversity at this time in Earth’s history the explanation for the appearance of ecological succession?"  
Much of her work has been in documenting the organisms that occur, what layers they occur in and what other plants/animals occur in the same layers. Early work studied the rocks themselves in order to determine physical controls on the environment such as water level and wave and current activity. “We need to know this so we know what environmental conditions the reef organisms are living in,” she said.
Mehrtens encourages support of local land trust organizations that identify places deserving of preservation. “The Isle LaMotte Land Trust and Goodsell Preserve have been critical in saving some of the best exposures from second home/vacation home development,” she said.

Originally published in the 2017 spring issue of Vermont Catholic Magazine.

350th anniversary of first Mass in Vermont celebrated at St. Anne's Shrine

The wind was blowing and white caps on Lake Champlain were racing toward shore as scores of worshippers gathered under the shelter of the outdoor chapel at St. Anne’s Shrine in Isle LaMotte Sept. 11 for a Mass commemorating the 350th anniversary of the celebration of the first Mass in Vermont on that same island.
Just across the road from the chapel, not far from the beach, a sign acknowledges the importance of the site in Vermont history: “Site of French Fort Sainte Anne Vermont’s oldest settlement.”
On that shore was the site of the fort, built in 1666 by Captain Pierre LaMotte for defense against the Mohawks. The Jesuits celebrated the first Mass and erected the first chapel in Vermont on the site.
From that day to today, the celebration of the Eucharist “has been part of our lives in this great state” of Vermont, Burlington Bishop Christopher J. Coyne said at the opening of the Mass.
He acknowledged also the significance of the date on which he was the main celebrant of the Mass: Sept. 11. He asked members of the congregation to remember victims of all war and terrorism as the nation remembered and mourned the terror attacks on the United States 15 years earlier.
The Mass was a special votive Mass for peace.
Jesuit Father Michael Knox, director of Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ontario, has said that the foundation of Fort Sainte Anne at Isle LaMotte occurred during a moment of the history of the Jesuits in Nouvelle-France that could be declared a proverbial renaissance for the mission:  “Inspired by the still- recent deaths of St. Jean de Brébeuf and his companions, welcoming an ever- increasing number of French to the region and set to ever-expand their apostolic efforts among the Iroquois people, it is no surprise that one of the Fathers would accompany Pierre de St. Paul, Sieur de la Motte, in its establishment.”
During his homily at the special Mass, Father Knox said the French explorers who brought Jesuit missionaries with them as they landed on the island saw not only new land but new hope, a new source of prosperity and a new opportunity to live out the Gospel message.
The French built the fort to “protect their vision,” said Father Knox, a lecturer at Regis College, University of Toronto, who wrote his doctoral thesis on “The Rhetoric of Martyrdom in the Jesuit Relations, 1632-1650.”
That first Mass, he said, was an acknowledgement of God’s presence in all things and everywhere.
“Today we share in the same Mass that was said here 350 years ago,” Father Knox said. “We now share in an event they shared in then, and we share their hopes.”
Today’s St. Anne’s Shrine is a place where visitors can walk on sacred ground amidst images of Jesus and the saints, a place to be renewed by the Eucharist and in the sacrament of Reconciliation, he continued. “What a gift it was 350 years ago to have Christ come to us in this holy place.”
Anniversaries are reminders of history, and “we should pause to reflect from where we have come and to where we have arrived,” commented Edmundite Father Brian J. Cummings, the shrine’s spiritual director. “The shrine is one of the most important religious and historical sites in Vermont, and it is good for our Catholic community to remind ourselves of the role faith played in the settlement of our country.”
Sitting in her red Ford Fiesta parked just off the road next to the pews was Leona LaPiere of Chazy, N.Y. The 83-year-old has problems with her legs and finds it easier to sit in her car and listen to the outdoor Mass. A lifelong Catholic, she emphasized the importance of the Mass and said the celebration of the 350th anniversary of the first Mass in Vermont was “beautiful.”
Nancy and David Dulude of St. Albans and Isle LaMotte also attended. The thought of Mass being said in the state for 350 years is humbling, she said, adding that the French had the vision to bring their faith to New France and to Vermont where the site of the first Mass is now “a place of love and peace” in the midst of a troubled world.
The shrine, she said, is a “treasure and a legacy too, and we need to take care of it to pass it on and have younger folks feel vested in it and pass it on for another 350 years.”
Article written by Cori Fugere Urban, Vermont Catholic content editor and staff writer.
  • Published in Diocesan
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