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Catholic Heroes… St. Maria Catherine Kaspar

January 30, 2019 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

During the crisis of the Protestant Revolution, the Lord sent such towers virtue and prayer like St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Teresa of Avila to strengthen the Church. In another era, St. Francis of Assisi was personally asked by our Lord to rebuild His Church. Not all saints of the Church have had such broad and lasting influence — some have done what they discerned God called them to do in their own environment.
They have seen a need among a few and have mobilized their meager resources, blessed by the grace of God, and have helped the marginalized. Today the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, among other ministries, are working to stop the trade in human trafficking by rescuing the victims from their plight.
The Handmaids’ story began in the early nineteenth century. In the western portion of Germany, halfway between Cologne and Frankfurt, lived a peasant family. Heinrich Kaspar had four children by his first wife, and after she died he married Katharina Fassel. Katharina and Heinrich then had four more children, Peter, Christian, Joseph, and Catherine, the youngest of Heinrich’s eight children.
Catherine was born on May 26, 1820 in Dernbach, Germany, into this peasant farmer family. The children were taught to read at an early age, with Catherine focusing her abilities on the Bible and the Imitation of Christ. A happy and confident girl, she easily made friends with the other children who attended the local school, which she attended from the age of six until she was fourteen. Unfortunately, her attendance was frequently hindered by her frail health.
In addition to her studies, Catherine worked in her parents’ potato patch, assisted in spinning and weaving fabrics, and tended other children, entertaining them with her singing, storytelling, and reading Bible stories.
As she grew in strength and stature, Catherine began working in the fields, requiring greater strength to split the stones used for road construction. In her spare time Catherine would visit the nearby Marian shrine, frequently singing and telling stories to the children who accompanied her. Later she wrote of these visits that “I was just a little girl [when I felt] a great desire of religious vows.”
She longed to consecrate herself to the Lord even though she continued working in the fields to help support her parents. Her filial obedience did not discourage her dream of a vocation, but made it stronger. She described the joy it brought her: “When I work, I feel the presence of God in me.”
When Catherine was 21 years old, her father died, leaving her mother destitute. The following year brought more tragedy when her brother died as he was returning from a business trip to the Netherlands. These two deaths, because of the law deeding all property to the children of the first wife, forced them to leave their home impoverished.
They found housing with a kind man, Matthias Mueller, who allowed Catherine and her mother to live in a room with Catherine serving as a farmhand. She also did weaving to earn them some money for necessities. Not long after this, her mother also died, leaving Catherine free of further family responsibilities.
Although Catherine was now on her own and free to become a religious as she had yearned to do for so many years, she did not want to join an existing order. Doing so would have forced her to leave her hometown, since there were no orders in her area.
Not far away the Cistercian monks and Franciscan friars had provided Catherine with fruitful examples of religious life, as some had stayed despite the closing of the monasteries. They still ministered to the poor and lived virtuous lives, inspiring her with ideas for the life she hoped to live.
In the beginning, several local girls joined her in caring for children and nursing the sick in the village while they lived with their parents. As their work continued and expanded, more and more people not only sought their help, but others noticed the good they were doing. Soon Catherine discerned that a house was needed for the young women to live as a community. Relatives, friends, and members of the village donated their time, money, and resources to help the women obtain housing.
Knowing the wonderful changes the Handmaids were making, the mayor came forward, championing their cause and lending his support. He also urged them to follow a set of guidelines for their home.
In addition to the secular authorities, Church officials also noticed the accomplishments of Catherine and her associates. Priests from Wirges, two kilometers north of Dernbach, and from Montabaur, five kilometers southeast of Dernbach, passed information to the bishop of Limburg, Peter Joseph Blum. Catherine also made visits to the bishop requesting approval for the Handmaids’ work.
More and more girls joined the informal circle of friends, who served the poor, necessitating additional quarters and the establishment of an institute dedicated to religious life. Catherine worked on the rules and the women prepared to take their vows. On August 15, 1851, Bishop Blum heard the first public vows of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ. They took their evangelical vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in the church in Wirges, with Catherine taking the name Maria.
After this, Sr. Maria Catherine worked long hours, traveling to many villages and towns where new homes for the Handmaids were being founded. She helped establish rules and ensure consistency and charity in their interactions with the poor, sick, and needy.
In 1854, the Handmaids opened their first school, and in 1859 their work expanded to the Netherlands. On March 9, 1860, Pope Pius IX recognized the order by giving them high praise for the work they were doing. On May 21, 1890, Pope Leo XIII gave papal approval to the Handmaids by approving its constitutions.
The members elected Maria Catherine Kaspar superior general of the order for five consecutive terms, beginning in 1868. They continued to expand to England and the United States. She continued to guide the women in God’s work for thirty years until she suffered a fatal heart attack on January 27, 1898. She died on February 2 in the motherhouse in Dernbach at the first light on the Feast of the Presentation.
She was first buried in the cemetery near the motherhouse. When she was beatified by Pope Paul VI on April, 1978, her body was placed underneath the altar in the chapel of her shrine. Pope Francis canonized Sr. Maria Catherine Kaspar on October 14, 2018. Her feast is celebrated on February 1.
At the time of her death, the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ had 1,725 sisters and served in Germany, the Netherlands, United States, England, and the Czech Republic. Today they also are present in India, Mexico, Brazil, Kenya, and Nigeria.
Dear Maria Catherine, as our society continues to need help, especially in areas of human trafficking and homelessness, show us the way to serve God’s people. Help us win souls for Christ by serving those in need. 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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