Mother Evangelista's Wisdom

Today is the 92nd anniversary of the death of Mother Evangelista (Honoria Gaffney). She was one of the first women to enter the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace in the infant days of the Congregation.  After Mother Clare (Margaret Anna Cusack) was forced to leave due to conflicts with church hierarchy, she became the first Mother General and it is due in no part to her strong leadership that we not only survived but thrived.  Evangelista ministered in all three of our present-day regions, even spending some time out here in the wild Pacific Northwest.

I'm working on a special project right now, digitizing the book we call Lest We Forget which includes the stories of all our Sisters and Associates who have passed away.  There's an interesting bit about Mother Evangelista that I'd like to include:

To our Sisters she left a wonderful example of sincere humility, generosity, charity and loyalty--all through her life she was loyal to Mother Clare.  On one occasion Mother Evangelista confided to a close friend: 'of course I know our good Mother's limitations, but nevertheless she has always been a loving and kind Religious. ... Her principal difficulty lies in wanting to make reforms before people are ready to accept them.  Of necessity, progress must be slow.'

It seems to me that Evangelista was practical with an eye on the big picture.  But she was also a strong voice for justice, as evidenced by a letter I posted a month or so ago that she and Sister Ignatius Casserly sent to a Bishop in charge of the new Catholic University in D.C. who was spreading misinformation and negative reports about Mother Clare:

It is easy to invent and circulate reports, but a time may come when something more than an assertion will be demanded from those who speak such reports.  Suppose that the whole miserable story of our Mother's treatment by ecclesiastics in America were put before the public, and your lordship will be pleased to remember we have written proof, what would be said?  Are priests in this new Catholic University to be educated to be honest men, or as men who will not pay ordinary respect to truth and justice and to the decision of the Holy See?

One wonders what Mother Evangelista would make of our present day situation!  She was indeed a strong woman with a great love of God and the Church.  "Sisters, remember always be kind to God's priests and God's poor" is the saying most often attributed to her in the CSJP community.  If we spend some time with that maxim, there is deep wisdom there.  A deep wisdom to remember always those who Jesus loved, the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed.  A deep wisdom to remember that we are called to work on their behalf, to be a voice for justice within the context of the Church.  The more I learn about her, the more it seems she understand the tension that is inherent there.  Living in the tension is not easy, but it is nevertheless our call.

When I was in the novitiate, I ran across these words from Mother Evangelista's own retreat notes in the early days of the community when she no doubt faced many difficulties herself.

Here then is Jesus' will--that I be poor in spirit, be meek, that I mourn when God is offended, that I hunger and thirst after justice, that I be merciful, that I be pure of heart, that I be a peace-maker and that I may suffer persecution for justice sake.  Take these two beatitudes, two and two, and I have the whole retreat in a nut shell. ~Mother Evangelista, Retreat Notes, 1897

Her simple words, written on retreat, imbued with our community's charism and the needs of the world and church.

Pray for us Mother Evangelista.  May the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace continue to seek to bring peace to family life, to the church and to society.  May we attract women and men as Sisters and Associates to continue this vision, to live in the tension, for the sake of God and God's people.  Amen.

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