WAUKESHA, Wis. — Viola Jankiewicz stood at the kitchen sink, her hands plunged in soapy dishwater, her eyes brimming with tears. Heartsick, she turned a pleading face to her teen-age daughter, Darlene, whose surprise announcement had just shattered the peaceful ritual of Saturday evening cleanup.

“How can you do this?” Viola wanted to know. “Don't you love us?”

Entering a secular institute — the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary — wasn't at all what Viola had envisioned for her daughter.

Darlene was supposed to get married, move into the other half of the family's Milwaukee duplex, and be available to her parents. Viola had counted on this plan for good reason: Her husband, Henry, was severely hard of hearing — deafness ran in his family — and she herself had been totally deaf since early childhood.

“Who will take care of us?” Viola agonized. Their two married sons lived nearby, but she didn't want to “interfere” in their family lives.

Her mother's tears left Darlene moved but unswayed. A deep sense of conviction had accompanied her recent discovery of her vocation. The call, heard as she knelt by the tomb of Father Joseph Kentenich, in Schoenstatt, Germany, had both surprised her and brought great peace.

“Mom, I know this is what I'm called to do. God will work things out.”

But Darlene's peace didn't rub off on her family during the months that followed. Her grandmother, aunts and uncles — many of them not Catholic — couldn't understand. Darlene was unfeeling, some decided, and shirking her responsibilities. Her parents thought so too. Undeterred by their objections, as well as by their gift of a red Cutlass Oldsmobile, Darlene finally left to begin her period of Schoenstatt training.

Viola was so upset that she stayed home from work for the next two weeks.

This October, the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary will mark the 75th jubilee of their founding by Father Kentenich and his disciple and coworker Emilie Engel.

In September, auxiliary bishop of Milwaukee Richard J. Sklba will participate in this anniversary celebration by celebrating Mass at the Schoenstatt retreat center in Waukesha, Wis.

“Having experienced regular meetings there,” he said, “I know that the sisters are committed to bringing the gospel to a great variety of professional enterprises. I have witnessed their active spiritual support for the faith development of families and young people throughout the archdiocese.”

The Sisters of Mary have cause for celebration, having weathered many a hard time since their founding. The group took root in post-World War I Germany and grew quickly despite political persecution and economic hardship — to say nothing of considerable parental opposition.

Like Henry and Viola Jankiewicz, some parents of those pioneer Sisters of Mary just wanted their daughters to marry and lead “normal” lives.

But others who would have supported a daughter's entrance into a religious order often opposed her joining the Sisters of Mary. A community that took no vows and saw itself as lay, not religious? There was no model for it in the Church, parents worried. This was just one of Father Kentenich's “peculiar ideas.”

Really, it was farsighted. Only in 1947 did the Church officially recognize secular institutes as representing a new form of consecration for laypeople. As Paul VI explained in 1967, secular institutes offer a way of life that combines “full consecration according to the evangelical counsels” and “freedom to take on the responsibility of a presence and transforming action in the world.”

The Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary are unusual among secular institutes in that their way of life includes the freedom to move back and forth between wearing a veil and uniform dress or ordinary clothes, living in community or alone, using or forgoing the unofficial title “sister,” and working within or outside the movement. The choices turn on whether a given situation is best served by highlighting consecrated virginity or secularity.

“We're a little like the Marines,” laughs Jean Frisk, who currently works at the movement's Waukesha, Wis., center. “We're prepared and ready to do whatever is needed to bring Christ into the world.”

This flexibility confuses people, Jean admits. “Some wonder, ‘How can you be a lay person when you sometimes call each other sister and wear what looks like a habit?’ I explain that it's part of our calling to be adaptable, that it's a committed life with a certain structure, and that it's definitely lay!” The crucial distinction, she said, is that the Sisters do not take vows. They are committed to the community through a legal contract and a Marian consecration.

Maria Palmer, who for almost 12 years has overseen the formation of young women entering the Sisters of Mary, noted that this absence of vows creates a “dynamic secularity” rooted in principles, rather than externals. It invites young women to be magnanimous, she has observed. “They are motivated to give their best to God — not because they have to, but because they choose to, again and again, in freedom.”

Happy Ending

“We pray a lot for the young women who are attracted to us, but also for parents,” said Maria Palmer.

Undoubtedly, the sisters’ prayers were instrumental in bringing Henry and Viola Jankiewicz to a radically different view of their daughter's vocation.

At first, said Darlene, her parents’ visits always included mention of the red Cutlass — a reminder of what she was missing. But the Jankiewiczs mellowed as they came to know the Sisters of Mary and saw their daughter's happiness. They began offering their practical skills — painting, remodeling, sewing — at the houses and retreat centers where Darlene was assigned.

In 1996 they made their own pilgrimage to Schoenstatt, Germany. There, in the chapel where Darlene had discovered her vocation, Henry and Viola made their own joint consecration to Mary.

Now 82 and living in an apartment attached to the Sisters of Mary house where Darlene lives, Viola smiles to think that she once fretted about “who will take care of us.”

As it turned out, “God took care,” said Darlene. “He arranged things so that I was there for everything my parents needed.” Retirement decisions, real estate transactions, her father's stroke, surgery, and death — “I was able to help my parents with it all.”

God's plan for Darlene far surpassed her own, Viola realized long ago. It brought “good blessing” for her and her husband. “It changed our lives. It gave us stronger faith and a more prayerful life.”

And after all, Viola laughs, “I didn't lose a daughter. I got even closer to Darlene, and I gained about 120 more daughters!”

Sisters of Mary: The Schoenstatt Movement

A preserved Nazi memo provides what is arguably the Schoenstatt Movement's most compelling endorsement: “People who are formed in this spirituality are useless for our ends.”

Pallottine priest Father Joseph Kentenich couldn't have foreseen the rise of National Socialism when in 1914, he and a few students met in a little chapel in Schoenstatt, Germany, to consecrate themselves to Mary in a “covenant of love.”

But the movement he initiated then — a sweeping, farseeing effort to help people toward the Christian vision of human beings as “the new person in a new society” — set him on a course that landed him in the Dachau concentration camp for three harrowing years.

Released in April 1945, Father Kentenich encountered another type of testing. This was a church investigation that came to a head in 1951, when Father Kentenich was removed from leadership, separated from his movement, and banished to the United States. He bore it all patiently, enduring 14 years of exile before seeing his movement officially approved and returning to Schoenstatt in 1965, at age 80.

Today some 180,000 people in more than 40 countries comprise the Schoenstatt family's more than 25 branches — leagues, federations, six secular institutes, and additional groups for families, priests, students, singles, children and others.

The Sisters of Mary pay special attention to the movement's families, women, and girls. More broadly, the Sisters aim to further Schoenstatt's overall mission: “renewal of the world in Christ, through Mary.”

The Sisters realize this high calling, said Carol Richards, who, with her husband, Dick, runs a thriving hotel and conference center in Waukesha, Wis., and are frequent visitors to the Schoenstatt retreat center in that city.

“These are working women who hold jobs and responsibilities in ‘the real world’ and who radiate peace and love of God and the Blessed Mother everywhere they go,” Carol explained. “Whenever my husband and I have needed a support system during difficult times, the Sisters have been there for us with their prayers and their counsel. They are truly our extended family.”

The Sisters of Mary made their first U.S. foundations in Wisconsin, starting in 1949, and expanded from there to Texas, New York, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Ohio, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

About 160 of these shrines exist worldwide, each one a replica of the chapel where the first “covenant of love” was made. Each features a picture of Our Lady holding the child Jesus. The image is called the “Mother Thrice Admirable,” a name that stems from the Litany of Loreto and honors Mary as Mother of God, Mother of the Redeemer, and Mother of the Redeemed.

— Louise Perrotta