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Catholic Heroes . . . Blessed Mary Frances Schervier

December 15, 2015 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN
Holy people come from all walks of life. St. Francis of Assisi came from a wealthy family and he surrendered all that wealth to live in poverty for the love of God. St. Joan of Arc came from a somewhat poor family in France. St. Joseph of Cupertino, whose father died shortly after his birth, was thought to be the village idiot when he was young, yet became a priest. St. Josephine Bakhita was captured as a young girl in Sudan and sold into slavery and now is honored in the communion of saints. Perhaps one day soon, Blessed Mary Frances Schervier will also be declared a saint.
In Aachen, Germany, Blessed Mary Frances was born on January 3, 1819 to John Henry Caspar Schervier, the owner of a needle factory in Germany, and a Frenchwoman, Maria Louise Migeon. Born as the Industrial Revolution began, she came from a long and distinguished family line.
Evidently, little Mary Frances received “extraordinary spiritual privileges” as a child. From her youth, she longed to be a missionary just as did her near neighbor, Blessed Maria Virgo, who went to Aachen hoping to join a missionary order.
However, this hope was dashed when Mary’s mother died on February 22, 1832. The mother died of tuberculosis just as Mary’s two older sisters had earlier. Thus, the running of the household fell upon the shoulders of Mary, who willingly cared for her father.
Being in that position of authority, she soon brought the poor and hungry to her door to give them food and clothing. Her generosity to the destitute led one of the servants to remark, “One of these days the child will have dragged everything out of the house.”
This did not please her father — not because he was a hard man but because, having lost three of his loved ones to disease, he feared that the less fortunate would bring disease to his house. So he forbade Mary Frances from visiting the sick.
She found a way around this by helping her pastor start a soup kitchen nearby called St. John’s kitchen. On the days that she worked in the soup kitchen, she would stop and visit the sick on the way home.
As she grew older, she joined several charitable societies for women. She also continued her work in the soup kitchen. Then tragedy stuck once again when her father died on February 26, 1845.
Since her father had died, a friend of the family told Mary Frances that God was calling her to serve Him. The lady advised her to listen to God in order to learn what it was He wanted her to do. At first she considered joining the Trappistine order.
However, since Mary Frances had already joined the Third Order Franciscans on June 28, 1844, she decided her vocation would be in that order. She and four of her fellow Franciscans resolved to lead a community life bringing sick people into their home, opening soup kitchens, and visiting women in prison.
On Pentecost, May 11, 1845, the four women found a home more suitable for their needs. Located near the old city gate of St. James, they took possession of the home on the feast of their father in Christ, St. Francis of Assisi, on October 4, 1845.
Now began the work of not only serving the poor, sick, and imprisoned, but also the work of helping prostitutes break free of their life of vice. Together they embraced a life of poverty in order to pray and perform the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
When the cholera epidemic spread through Europe in 1848, followed by a smallpox epidemic, the sisters opened an infirmary in the old Dominican building which then belonged to the city. The sisters were also allowed to live there to serve the sick and needy.
Soon Mary Frances, knowing that prayer and spirituality must come before physical work, began the contemplative side of her sisters. On February 2, 1849 the contemplative branch of the community was established. That same year they opened the home in Burtscheid and then one in Juelich.
Despite the many sacrifices their lifestyle imposed, the number of their company grew to 23 women. Mary Frances insisted that they must be as poor as those they served, surviving only on donations. She worked diligently on writing the constitution for her new order, which was submitted to the archbishop of Cologne in 1850. On August 12, 1851, six years after taking possession of their new home, the women received their religious habit as a new congregation called the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis. One year later they took their perpetual vows.
On September 16, 1853, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, king of Prussia, officially recognized the Sisters of the Poor.
Mary Frances believed they should serve the poor as St. Francis did, advising her fellow servants that “the impress of poverty and penance should mark even our chapels and churches and be their distinctive feature.”
Soon the sisters went to Ohio where many German immigrants had settled (including my father’s family). In 1858, Mother Mary Frances made her first trip to the United States, when they established their first house in Cincinnati.
The sisters had established a home in the east as well, where they served the poor in New York and New Jersey. Back in Europe, Mary Frances labored to open even more hospitals and homes for the needy, especially those who had tuberculosis — probably remembering how her own family had suffered from the disease.
Then in 1863, as the devastating Civil War raged in the United States, Mother Mary Frances came to the United States again to minister to wounded soldiers. At this time, on April 14, 1868, she also had established an order for men, Brothers of the Poor of St. Francis.
For years, Mother Mary Frances had suffered from poor lungs, but when she went to Lourdes in May 1870 she washed in the waters and was cured of her asthma.
She continued her work, receiving a commendation from the Holy See for her work on July 22, 1870. At the end of 1876, she fell ill and died on December 14, 1876 back in her hometown of Aachen, Germany. At the time of her death there were 2,500 sisters in the order.
She lived her life of love and service as she explained that they “healed His wounds by caring for poor suffering humanity.” She was beatified in Rome by Pope Paul VI in 1974.
Dear Blessed Mary Frances, let us not be so complacent in our comfortable lifestyles that we fail to see those in need. During this Advent season, help us to serve the poor and needy, to visit the sick and pray for those in need. Help us to, then, continue the same works of mercy throughout the rest of our lives. Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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