MERIDEN, Conn. — Mother Rosemae Pender, foundress of the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist, passed away unexpectedly during the June 26 Mass for her 75th jubilee.
With the community’s new chapel packed with more than 260 friends, religious and priests, Mother Rosemae renewed her vows; she then presented the constitutions of the community to Archbishop Emeritus Henry Mansell of Hartford, the principal celebrant.
Soon afterward, she suffered a heart attack and died before the end of Mass. She was 94.
“It was an incredible experience of profound sadness and profound joy that came together in that moment filled with God’s presence,” said Father Jeffrey Gubbiotti, vocation director for the Archdiocese of Hartford, who was one of 10 priests present.
“She would have wanted to die with her boots on, and she did,” he said.
Mother Shaun Vergauwen, the order’s mother general and co-foundress, who was celebrating her 60th anniversary in religious life, recalled those final moments. After handing the constitution to the bishop, “Mother sat down, I turned to her, and she said, ‘Something has happened.’ I asked, ‘Do you want me to take you out?’” Mother Shaun asked a nurse sitting next to them for a wheelchair. Several friends who were EMTs noticed something amiss and carried her from the chapel.
“She was still talking. She had chest pain, and we got her into the living room,” Mother Shaun said. There, she had trouble breathing. One of the priests immediately anointed her and gave her the apostolic pardon (an indulgence given in situations of danger of death).
“There was nothing to do,” explained Mother Shaun, who sat with her co-foundress in her last moments. “She went to God in about five minutes. It was very blessed and just how she would want it to be, with no trouble to anybody.”
The wake for Mother Rosemae was on held July 10, with the Mass of Christian burial on July 11.
More Touches of Providence
Father Gubbiotti could not help but see providential meaning in the timing of her passing.
“That Sunday, the first reading was about the passing on of prophecy from Elijah to Elisha,” he said. He saw in the chapel that day a similar connection with Mother Rosemae, Mother Shaun and many of the new, young Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist.
He turned to the words in Basilian Father Douglas Mosey’s homily preceding the vows. “On the cross, Jesus said, ‘Consummatum est — It is finished.’” Father Gubbiotti, speaking of Mother Rosemae, noted: “Now it is consummated and finished, as she renewed her 75 years of consecrated life. Mother Shaun came out and told everybody that Mother had said she just wanted to be able to renew her vows for 75 years — and she always gets her way!”
Father Gubbiotti added, “At the moment of Communion, as the congregation and her sisters were receiving the Bridegroom, she returned to the Bridegroom she had given 75 years of her life to.”
Well over half of those years were devoted to founding and developing a vibrant new community in love with the Church.
Beginning a New Community
“We were formed out of the crisis of Vatican II,” said Mother Shaun. “Mother was really the foundress, and I was her helpmate.”
They were members of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in La Crosse, Wis., where Mother Rosemae was in charge of formation of the young sisters, and Mother Shaun was dean of students at the college next door.
“We, along with four other people, started seeing the crisis of the young sisters,” Mother Shaun said. “As the Church had asked religious communities to adapt and renew, different communities went about that in different ways. Our community tried to do that, and it seemed better if each community would be their own community.”
The visionary sisters wanted a strong community life, centered on prayer and apostolates, Mother Shaun explained: “Our charism was to [aid] the renewal of religious life” and to concentrate on “the dignity of the human person, from conception to natural death, through various apostolates of education, home care, hospice and counseling.”
“So we started living that way, and that just grew,” Mother Shaun said.
Four years later, the sisters went to Rome for a meeting on Nov. 5, 1973.
“We didn’t set out to found something, but it was Rome that said at the meeting, ‘It’s obvious you must become another community,’” said Mother Shaun. “It was like a miracle.”
The Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for Religious approved their transition into a new religious order of pontifical status and approved their choice of name — the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist. Mother Rosemae was named the superior and elected as mother general, serving in that role until 2005.
The Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist, with 55 sisters, became an official community on Dec. 2, 1973.
“The crisis with religious life in the Church was kind of coupled, at the same time, when Humanae Vitae came out, and so many people were going against the Holy Father,” noted Mother Shaun of the years surrounding their founding. “We tried to protect honest sexuality, and we wanted our young sisters to be really able to stand for that. Their vow of chastity would have meaning within what marriage really was and why God had created it and what part we were in that [as religious]. It became a part of our life. Most of our sisters go out and give talks about these things. We work with a lot of married couples across the country.”
As Franciscans with a focus on the Eucharist, they believe very much in the dignity of human life. “We got involved in many of the human-life issues, as well,” Mother Shaun said.
The large Meriden campus with the motherhouse also includes the Franciscan Life Center, Franciscan Home Care and Hospice Care, plus a retreat house and the newly built chapel where Mother Rosemae celebrated her 75th-anniversary vows. Nearby is the formation house and generalate office.
Now, there are 85 sisters in 13 centers, from coast to coast, as well as in Rome, Assisi and Jerusalem, where they founded the Bethlehem Holy Child Program for traumatized children, which is now run by lay associates. One sister works for the Custody of the Holy Land, while another assists the Latin Patriarchate.
The sisters teach in seminaries as well, including Holy Apostles in Cromwell, Conn., St. Meinrad in St. Meinrad, Ind., and St. Vincent de Paul in Boynton Beach, Fla. At their large center in Lowell, Mich., the sisters offer counseling and music therapy, as well as run a 300-acre farm. They also have a presence elsewhere in the United States as well as in Vancouver, British Columbia; they are trying to fulfill other seminary and bishops’ requests, too.
No matter which apostolate, “we try very much to bring the sacred into the secular,” Mother Shaun said. With their Franciscan spirituality, they want “to bring people a whole sacred value system while they’re living in the secular world.”
Mother Knows the Way
“The really attractive thing is they have a clear sense of identity and mission,” Father Gubbiotti observed about the order. “It’s more than just wearing a habit, although that helps. Who they are and what they’re about makes them attractive to the young. That clear sense makes them fruitful in what they do. There’s life there, and that’s what is calling people to give themselves in such radical ways.”
Father Mosey, president of Holy Apostles College and Seminary and homilist at the jubilee Mass, calls the sisters “a community born in the time of and according to the teaching of Vatican II.”
He referred to Pope Benedict’s explanation of the true hermeneutic of continuity to explain the community’s success, pointing out there were those “who followed the so-called spirit of the council and those who followed the teachings of the Council. Those who kind of made up what they consider to be the spirit didn’t bear much fruit. Those who are faithful to the teaching of what Vatican II actually taught and live it now are the ones who are flourishing. They really are a sign of the new springtime that Pope St. John Paul II prayed for.”
Franciscan Sister Barbara Johnson entered religious life in the turbulence of the 1960s.
“If it weren’t for Mother Rosemae and Mother Shaun starting this new ‘experiment’ and religious community, I fear I would have lost my vocation,” she emphasized. “I think it’s a true gift to me and to the Church, [for the founders] to take the risks at that time, when so much of religious life was deteriorating or taking a different direction. It saved a lot of vocations.”
Sister Barbara, who is executive director of the Franciscan Life Center, an outpatient clinic, has found so many aspects of this community’s life “that are so important to me, from Eucharistic adoration to the types of ministries we have, entering deeply and intimately in the lives of families.”
She finds something else: “the strong bonding in the community life — and that kind of strength and support gives us an energy for anything we do.”
Sister Suzanne Gross also entered the community in the 1960s. She, too, was inspired by Mother Rosemae. “She was a tremendous support through the years. She had a heart for everyone — a marvelous holy person.”
Sister Suzanne, the administrator of the order’s Home Care and Hospice Care initiative and program coordinator for the Hartford Archdiocese’s pro-life ministry, has seen the order’s ministry grow from sisters taking people to the grocery store, church and the like to today, with the sisters employing 150 people to serve the central part of Connecticut.
Sister Mary Richards sees the order’s fruits through her own story: “I needed to give myself to the Church and to God, and this community could meet that: make life rich and fruitful for us within the community and for all those who relate to us and to the Church.”
For her part, Sister Miriam Seiferman, the vicar general, has many memories stretching back to 1973. The sisters themselves drew her to the community.
“I wasn’t entertaining the idea of a religious call until I met them,” she explained. “Their vibrancy, vitality, strength, love, joy and simplicity of life awakened in me a desire to be with them, among them. That awakened my vocation.”
Sister Miriam also spoke about “Mother Rosemae’s love of the Church, her trust in God and her willingness to risk. I don’t think God just gave her a vision. She prayed hard, lived well and at every turn loved her sisters. She tried to follow the will of God as he revealed it to her, day after day. Christ and the Church were one for her.”
“Mother Rosemae was a real grandmother in the Lord,” added Father Gubbiotti, “kind, loving, [and had] a gentle way.” He chuckled, “She could also set you straight. She was great.”
What happened the final Sunday of June, Father Gubbiotti said, “was an incredibly beautiful and moving moment. You couldn’t script a better death for someone who had given her life so beautifully to God. And the fruits are evident now.”
Image courtesy of the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist