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Catholic Heroes . . . Blessed Maria Virgo

December 6, 2018 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

When I visited my aunt in St. Louis, Mo., we would visit the basilicas, the museums, and other places of interest. She had many sites near her that were particularly special to her, such as her parish, The Little Flower, in Richmond Heights. In addition, she described a place where she frequently went for eucharistic adoration at the convent of “the Pink Sisters.” She even showed me pictures of the Pink Sisters in an article that had been written about them in her diocesan paper. They got their name because of their rose-colored habits.
My aunt explained that the Pink Sisters are contemplatives. I have since learned that there are also Blue Sisters, missionaries, that were established by the same founder. It all began in the Netherlands in 1852.
In Rollensbroich, Netherlands, there lived a farmer named Johann Petter Stollenwerk and his wife, Anna Maria Bongard. On November 28, 1852, Anna Maria gave birth to a little girl, naming her Maria Helena Stollenwerk at her Baptism the very next day.
The parents were pious Catholics and raised their little girl to have a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. In fact, her mother had dedicated the child to the Blessed Virgin before she was even born.
As a youth, Maria spent much of her time in the fields caring for the cattle as they grazed. In addition, she helped her mother care for her siblings. Both of these occupations helped her to develop the character by which she would serve God.
During the hours she spent in the field, she read many stories from the annals of the Holy Childhood Association, describing the extensive travels and accomplishments of missionaries in foreign lands. Little Maria would dream of one day traveling to China to rescue the souls of Chinese children.
She also spent time in eucharistic adoration and contemplation. The graces received through these practices assisted Maria in achieving the great work she did for the Lord, even as a child.
Frequently, she would travel throughout her village nursing the sick and helping the poor. She also, having become a member of the Holy Childhood Association (now called the Papal Work for Children), spent 20 years promoting and recruiting for the association. This work increased her burning desire to become a missionary in China.
Maria also helped serve the many guests who came and stayed at her parents’ inn — yet another skill she would use in her religious life. By cooking, cleaning, and serving the guests she learned the many skills and developed the physical strength necessary to run a large household.
All the while her lifelong quest to become a missionary grew in intensity. In 1872 she went to Aachen, Germany, about 20 miles northwest of her hometown, to visit a convent. Eagerly Maria questioned the sisters about their lives as religious, but she was disappointed when she learned that there was no guarantee of overseas missionary services.
She then returned to Rollensbroich where she continued to work on the family farm for three more years. Then she made another trip to Aachen. The Kulturkampf, however, forced many congregations to close their German houses and to return to their own countries.
Nevertheless, she learned about Fr. Arnold Janssen, who had recently founded a congregation of priests. This new Society of the Divine was located in the Netherlands. When she learned the Fr. Janssen was searching for young women to begin a congregation of women missionaries, she immediately wrote to him expressing her lifelong ambition of being a missionary to China.
A meeting was arranged between the two on March 19, 1882. She made the 75-mile trip to Steyl and met with Janssen. Once again she learned that he could not promise a trip to China. In fact, he told her that he was having trouble keeping up with the demanding work of formally establishing the new order of men.
He did, however, offer her a job of service as a maid in the kitchen of their residence. This time she agreed to join the priest even though, like the congregation in Aachen, he could not guarantee her missionary work. Both her parents and her pastor were dismayed to learn of her plans. When her parents accompanied her to her new living quarters, they were pleasantly surprised at the conditions and the holiness of the order and happily consented to her decision.
As disappointed as Maria must have been that she might not go to China, she no doubt believed this was God’s will and cheerfully worked with Fr. Janssen. She arrived in Steyl on December 30, 1882 to begin her new life as a religious. At first she worked with only two other women, living with the Sisters of Providence nearby. The three women were soon joined by others seeking similar vocations. Their lives in community began and ended with prayer: They rose at 4:30 a.m. and retired at 9:30 p.m. with the rest of the time scheduled for meals, work, devotions, recreation, and free time.
It was not long before Maria and two other sisters were cooking, serving, cleaning, and doing laundry for nearly 350 men. The labor was exhausting and even though Maria was in frail health, she insisted on carrying the heaviest pots, and doing the hardest labor.
Finally, after seven years of serving the men, the three “kitchen maids” became postulants in the mission congregation of the Servants of the Holy Spirit. Since Fr. Janssen had no other religious with the experience to direct the women, he asked Maria, now Sr. Maria, to be director of novices — including herself. About four years later she took her final vows. In November of 1895, she stood by as the first missionary sisters left for Argentina. Two years later another group set sail for Togo in western Africa.
As time went by, Sr. Maria came to terms with not becoming a missionary. She grew even closer to Jesus by the many hours she spent in prayer and adoration. This quiet time of prayer and contemplation perhaps revealed to her that the place Christ wanted her was there in the chapel with Him.
Thus, when Fr. Janssen founded yet another order for cloistered nuns to support missionaries by their prayer life, she hoped to become the superior. However, several things kept her from the position. As sad as she was about staying with the missionary sisters, she accepted the outcome with that surrender to divine Providence so customary among holy people.
When troubles developed in the new order, Fr. Janssen allowed her to join it to bring peace — but as a postulant, being placed under the very women whom she had directed as novices. This did not trouble Maria, knowing that doing God’s will was the most important thing in her life.
Sadly, during her first year she became ill. Maria was allowed to profess her vows in the new order on her deathbed on January 31, 1900 and she died on February 3 as she breathed her last words, “Jesus, I die for you.”
Dear Blessed Maria Virgo, may we pray and live with you in your own words, “To God the honor, for my neighbor the benefit, for myself the burden.” Amen.

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