Thirty years have passed since the initial discernment group began meeting that would spawn the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal, the female counterpart to the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.
Today, the sisters number 35 and work in impoverished neighborhoods in New York City; Atlantic City, New Jersey; Leeds, England; and Drogheda, Ireland. The sisters wear the full habit, share a common prayer and community life, and have as their apostolic mission working with the poor and evangelization.
The community’s superior is Mother Lucille Cutrone, the only one of the six women in the original discernment group who is still with the community. In the 1980s, while still a laywoman, Mother Lucille volunteered with Mother Teresa’s nuns in inner-city New York, before being part of the founding group of the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal. She said, “We wanted to have a community similar to Mother Teresa’s, but with Capuchin spirituality living on divine Providence.”
Taking St. Francis as their model, the new community started out in what had previously been a Polish parish in the South Bronx, the friars in 1987 and the sisters in 1988, and the sisters were formally established as an association of the faithful in 1990 by New York Cardinal John O’Connor.
Father Andrew Apostoli of the Franciscan Friars served as their spiritual guide. As Mother Lucille recalled, “It was then that we started work in the streets and going into people’s homes, where we encountered a lot of brokenness.”
Although all the Franciscan Friars played a role in founding the Franciscan Sisters, it was Father Apostoli who was central, explained Sister Clare Matthiass, community vicar for the sisters.
“We consider Father Andrew our founder, and he’s been involved with our community in many ways,” she said. “He believed that God was asking for a parallel community of sisters and has since provided us with spiritual insight, teaching and formation.”
Early apostolates included helping in soup kitchens and volunteering in hospitals, as well as participating in evangelization efforts with the friars. As Mother Lucille recalled, “Father Andrew wanted us to teach the children their prayers. We also wanted to get people back to the sacraments.”
Their attire is a simple gray tunic with cincture, a black veil and sandals. Although the sisters work in some of New York City’s most poor and crime-ridden areas, wearing the habit has helped them to stay safe.
“We never felt in danger — there is no doubt that the habit has been an important sign and a protection of a kind,” said Mother Lucille.
“Even though many of the people we encounter have never been taught the faith,” Sister Clare added, “the habit lets them know instinctively that we’re there to help them.”
The sisters have since steadily grown, establishing three residences in New York City, one in Ireland and one in England, as well as a new residence in Atlantic City, St. Michael’s Convent, Aug. 15. The sisters came at the request of Bishop Dennis Sullivan of Camden, New Jersey; the new home is located two blocks from the Atlantic City boardwalk, in a once-prosperous area that has seen many of its casinos close and residents lose their jobs.
The sisters survive entirely on donations, living a common life characterized by charity, prayer and poverty. As their mission statement says, they are “to live the Gospel values in simplicity according to the ideals of St. Francis as handed on by the Capuchin tradition.”
The sisters have the challenge of balancing a vigorous prayer life with the active apostolate of helping the poor in the inner city, Mother Lucille said. Their prayer life includes daily Mass, Holy Hours, Rosaries and the Divine Office said in community five times a day. Fridays are set aside for prayer and Eucharistic adoration, and once monthly, the sisters take a retreat day.
They take turns doing chores around their convents. Their apostolates include a soup kitchen run from within the convent and food given out at their doorstep, while their evangelization work necessitates they travel regularly. While they can’t always see the impact of their work, the results they have seen have been gratifying.
As Mother Lucille said, “We’ve seen people come back to the sacraments, living more virtuous lives and coming to know the Lord through the Eucharist and experiencing a peace they’ve never felt before.”
Neighbors often follow the example of the sisters, she continued, even in the smallest things. “We’d plant vegetable gardens to supply for our needs; they’d do the same.”
“Even if they see us pick up litter, they do the same,” added Sister Clare. “It sets a tone.”
Anne Brawley of Dallas, Texas, is director of Youth 2000 USA, which offers Eucharistic retreats for teens nationwide. The Franciscan Sisters play a key role in her retreats, she said, participating in liturgies, taking part in panel discussions and talking one-on-one with the youth.
“They make up a vital part of our retreats,” Brawley said. “It’s a great benefit to have young people meet young, happy sisters and learn about the faith through them.”
Brawley has seen many young people pursue religious vocations through the influence of the sisters who are “joyful, engaging, funny and fit the description of the New Evangelization to a T.”
Mother Lucille encourages vocation-minded young women to consider a visit to the community, noting that there is always a need for “women of prayer who are close to God, care about people and love Jesus, Our Lady and St. Francis.”
The Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal have enjoyed growth at a time when many religious communities are in decline, Mother Lucille said, because “if a community is faithful to its charism, God will bless it. We’ve been blessed in every aspect.”
Register correspondent Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.