Ten years ago, as Sharon Longoria’s father lay dying, she thought that, as Catholics, the family was ready to face the loss. Then Sister Anne Sophie Philippe Meaney of the Society of the Body of Christ came into the hospital room. The nun asked, “Have you prayed with your father?” Longoria answered honestly: “No.”
“Then Sister gave all us seven children assignments,” recalls Longoria. “We each had times when we were to be at the bedside and pray. That made us focus on the whole objective of death — eternal life — and kept us prayerful at the hospital. The things we took for granted she brought to our attention, like holy water and the sacramentals.”
“Daddy died the most beautiful, holy death,” Longoria joyfully remembers. “On each side of him was one of his sons and his five daughters. He died with Communion on his tongue and in the third decade of the Divine Mercy chaplet. I really attribute Sister’s help in getting us ready for my father’s death.”
From preparing the dying for a peaceful death and helping them pray their way into eternal life, to helping reconcile some with the Church, to praying babies into the world in the delivery room, to protecting and helping families, Sister Anne Sophie and the Society of the Body of Christ champions the culture of life in greater Corpus Christi, Texas.
She and the society become instant family for unwanted children in the womb, abandoned elderly and other “human inconveniences,” treating them all as children of God.
One of the main purposes of the Society of the Body of Christ is to emphasize the meaning and intimacy with God our Father in heaven, explains Sister Anne Sophie. “He loves us, each one of us,” she adds, “as if we were his only child, his favorite.”
That’s why God often sends the society the “hard” cases no one else seems able to deal with.
Take Gertrude, a former slumlord who treated everyone horribly. She had no family and, because of her tyrannical ways, no friends. But before Gertrude died at 96 in a convalescent home, she was praying Psalm 23 from her heart — and Sister Anne Sophie had prepared her for her first confession and holy Communion.
Gertrude might have died a mean old woman who had no forgiveness in her heart, reminds Sister Anne Sophie, but instead she died peacefully while her “new family,” the Society of the Body of Christ, was reciting the Divine Mercy chaplet.
The story brings to light what Sister Anne Sophie means when she explains, “From conception to natural death, the urgency of the saving of souls is our mission.”
That means performing works of mercy, bringing Communion to the sick, the dying, shut-ins and those in convalescent homes, then “being a source of comfort and joy and love for them so that they can be at peace and give themselves to God.” The result? She often catches those who would otherwise slip through the cracks.
God’s grace kept Sister Anne Sophie herself from slipping through the cracks while growing up in five foster homes. Much later, she was adopted as an adult by the founder of the area’s Birthright center. She has been arrested for praying at an abortion business. When she became an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, bringing the Eucharistic Lord to the bedridden and elderly God placed in her path, her calling unfolded and she founded the Society of the Body of Christ.
On March 25, 1994, Bishop Rene Gracida, now bishop emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas, erected the society as a public association of the faithful with the intention that, one day, it would be a new religious institute.
Three months later, on the feast of Corpus Christi, after vowing before Bishop Gracida to live a life of poverty, chastity and obedience — and to defend all human life from conception to natural death — Sister Anne Sophie received her habit as the society’s first consecrated member.
Bishop Gracida, who remains the society’s spiritual adviser, praises Sister Anne Sophie and the society’s work of ministering to the sick and dying.
“The work is almost identical, analogous to the work done by the congregation established by Mother Teresa of Calcutta,” he says.
“With loving, tender care and kindness,” he adds, “Sister and the society offer the suffering spiritual solace either to recover from illness or to ease their passage into the next life.”
That example has drawn laypeople to join the Society of the Body of Christ as associate members. So far, some 97 individuals pray and care for the weakest among them.
Meanwhile approximately 230 “suffering members” are powerful instruments of intercession: Through the society’s work, they offer their pain and even their own dying for the glory of God and salvation of souls.
No wonder that, in 2002, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, wrote to Sister Anne Sophie. “Your work and the Society of the Body of Christ,” he wrote, “are incredibly important.”
“The charism of the Society of the Body of Christ is the compassion of Mary at the foot of the cross through St. John,” she was told by her great uncle, Father Marie-Dominique Philippe, founder of the Congregation of St. John.
The Gospel lesson of fraternal charity means baby Coretta, one of Sharon Longoria’s drug-addicted, severely abused foster babies, received bedside prayer and care 24 hours a day from society members during her seven-week hospital stay. “Sister told me, ‘Coretta’s going to know love,’” says Longoria, now a society member.
It means Sister’s driving 60 miles daily to bring Communion to 10-year-old Colton, who’s dying of leukemia, and then being with his family through the funeral. To this day, she’s involved with the family.
It means helping people with Alzheimer’s recognize the Host and receive holy Communion. “We miss so many opportunities with Alzheimer’s patients,” Sister Anne Sophie says. “If we take what the world says at face value, none of these works would be happening. Because we have faith and follow Jesus, he makes all this possible by his grace.”
Bishop Gracida looks to the day when the society will be recognized as a religious institute as consecrated members join.
“I know he’s going to send me holy vocations,” Sister Anne Sophie says of God with her usual childlike trust and her reliance on the Holy Spirit for everything. “In the meantime we’re making preparations to receive those holy vocations.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.