Education. Healthcare. Childcare.
Members of some religious congregations came to the Diocese of Burlington in the 19th century to tend to the needs of the times.
Prison ministry. Parish work. Care of the Earth. Spiritual direction.
These are some of the areas in which, having discerned the changing needs of Vermont Catholics and non-Catholics alike, religious sisters and brothers and members of secular institutes are ministering today in the Green Mountain State.
And they too are experiencing changes – decreasing membership, property sales, new living situations and mergers, to name a few.
"All religious congregations are engaged in some form or another" in the challenges of adapting to the needs of the times, said Sister Irene Duchesneau, a Religious Hospitaller of St. Joseph. "Partnerships, collaborative endeavors and especially an active foundation are what we see going forward in our diocese. These realities are not losses but a compelling call to pursue our mission and heritage with the gifts of a committed laity."
Those who live a consecrated life – members of religious orders and secular institutes – do God's work and help to build the Kingdom of God in Vermont, working in collaboration with the priests, parishioners and other people of the diocese.
Though membership in religious orders has dwindled in Vermont, their presence is no less valuable and important to the people to whom they minister. Some communities – like the Society of St. Edmund – continue to be about the Lord's work with fewer members. But some once-Vermont-based orders – like the Sisters of Mercy and Sisters of St. Joseph – have joined together with sister communities.
The Sisters of St. Joseph that were once part of the Rutland-based congregation, now number only 15 within the larger Springfield, Mass.-based order.
Other congregations are represented in the state by one or two members, some are new to the diocese, and others have left Vermont. Some have invited laypersons to join them in mission as associates and agrégées.
But the impact of those living consecrated life continues to be felt throughout the statewide diocese from Isle LaMotte to Bennington, Derby Line to Brattleboro and Rutland to White River Junction.
Those that remain in the Diocese of Burlington minister in meaningful ways whether "actively" involved in parish, school or civic community life or retired and engaged in a ministry of prayer.
In many cases, those in consecrated life pass on their congregation's charisms through their ministries. For example, the Sisters of Mercy – now part of The Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas – ensure board members of their ministries and partners in ministry understand and carry on the spirit of the community. The Sisters of St. Joseph – once heavily engaged in education – help school staff members to understand their ministry to youth.
At one time members of religious communities focused on the ministries of their own community; there is more and more collaboration among them now.
For example, members of women's religious communities have assisted the Edmundite Fathers and Brothers in their Southern Missions. That cooperation has been "essential," said Edmundite Brother Thomas Berube.
Some, like the Sisters of Providence in Winooski, have opened their convent to members of other orders. Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph and Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa live at the convent, creating a multi-order community there.
"It helps each community to live to their utmost," said Sister of Providence Carmen Proulx.
Brother Berube acknowledges that the Church is not as dependent on members of consecrated life as it once was because non-members have joined their ministerial efforts. "It has to be the baptized that are going to move the Church forward," he said. "Religious communities can be there to support and help and educate them to do that … . This is the age of the laity, and I think that is wonderful … . We're all in this … together with our gifts and our blessings and our drawbacks."
In many ways, religious congregations have been the first to address needs and then move into other areas once non-members can take over. That's what the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa have done in Africa, said Sister Arlene Gates: "We are the initiators, and we know the lasting work has to be done by Africans."
Even as they plan for the continuation of their ministries, members of consecrated life are – as they have done historically – looking at needs and seeking ways to address them. These areas include helping persons who suffer from drug addition, women who have been trafficked and new immigrants.
Sister of Mercy Jeannine Mercure emphasized the need to "make systemic changes in society," while noting that the sisters' work in education continues "but in a completely different way."
Through the order's Mercy Connections, immigrants receive tutoring and help in gaining citizenship, women are assisted in establishing small businesses and women who were incarcerated are helped to be reintegrated with family and society.
The sisters' mission at Mercy Farm in Benson includes helping people learn about gardening and sustainable use of the land and offering "women deprived of quiet" an opportunity to be connected to creation.
Care of the environment is a "critical concern" for the Sisters of Mercy, Sister Mercure said, as well as for other congregations.
In addition, the Society of St. Edmund continues its long history of ecumenical and interfaith endeavors and embraces the immigrant population with "charity and acceptance," Brother Berube said.
Through it all, the Eucharist is central, said Sister of St. Joseph Mary Harvey: "Daily Mass is integral to our lives."
And so is prayer.
But not only are members of consecrated life engaged in praying for others, they often offer opportunities to others for prayer. Silent prayer, prayer groups and retreats are part of Our Lady of Life, a secular institute to which Teresa Hawes belongs. "We are on that journey (to sainthood) together," she said.
"If we don't have a foundation in prayer – a real awareness of the presence of the Holy Spirit in everything we do – there is a danger for us becoming just social workers," Brother Berube said, emphasizing the importance of all social workers.
The diocese has, over the years, welcomed contemplative and cloistered religious orders as well as those involved in ministries like education and healthcare.
"While our monastic community is not an apostolic community with a direct ministry outside the monastery, from our monastic life we offer hospitality to many people who are searching for God and life in the Church and the world today," noted Benedictine Brother Richard Iaquinto, prior of Weston Priory. "We offer a haven of prayer and support to those religious and lay persons who are working formally or informally in ministry and the apostolates here in Vermont and beyond."
Benedictine Sister Laurence A.M. Couture, prioress of Monastery of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Westfield, quoted the testimony of the abbesses and prioresses of the Benedictine Congregation of Solesmes on papal enclosure. In part: "At first sight, one could believe that the enclosure of the nuns does not allow them to reach the 'existential and geographical peripheries' (Evangelii Gaudium, n. 20) to which Pope Francis is sending forth all the Church in mission following Jesus. In reality the nun sees in it one of the most incisive and efficacious means to reach the most inaccessible peripheries, those where no one can penetrate: the heart of man often shut up in sin."
During the Year of Mercy, members of consecrated life pondered just what mercy means to them.
"Mercy is incarnating in action charity," Brother Berube said.
"It is living out the tenderness and justice of love, of Jesus," commented Sister Yvette Rainville, a Daughter of the Holy Spirit.
Sister of Notre Dame Karen Pozniak said mercy is a "sense of being there for others, having a compassionate heart that is willing to help others."
Those living consecrated have been and still are doing just that.