Anna Abbott is a graduate of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has written for Catholic World Report and Canticle. She had a weekly column on religion for four years at the Napa Valley Register, the Weekly Calistogan, the St. Helena Star and the American Canyon Eagle. She is aunt and godmother to two boys, as well as a newborn girl. She currently resides in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
Looking forward to February, the Christmas season in a sense ends with Candlemas, when Our Lord was presented at the Temple. Simultaneously, it is the fourth joyful mystery of the Rosary and the first of Our Lady’s seven sorrows, when St. Simeon prophesied a sword would pierce her heart (Luke 2:33-35). This seeming contradiction is a perfect representation of life, illustrating how Our Lady experienced her life as we do ours, both joy and pain. It also explains why Our Lady of Sorrows is a motif in the California missions.
Most of the California missions have images of the Sorrowful Mother, even at the Sonoma one that is no longer an active parish. At Mission San Gabriel, a painting of Our Lady of Sorrows inspired a mass conversion of the native Tongva; it was stolen in June 1977, but miraculously found in 1990. At Soledad, where a statue of the Sorrowful Mother stands solemnly over the tabernacle, Fr. Vicente Sarría wrote a medical treatise addressing the pains of childbirth in 1830, and he himself later died beside the altar in 1835.
The most prominent church associated with the Sorrowful Mother is San Francisco’s Mission Dolores. While the mission’s formal name honors St. Francis of Assisi, explorer Juan Bautista De Anza named the nearby lagoon for Our Lady of Sorrows. Andy Galvan, the curator of Mission Dolores Basilica, has a long history with the area. He said, “My ancestors became Christians and married at the church in 1794. They are buried in the cemetery. I work where my family became Christians.” Galvan continued, “From a native perspective, I self-identify as Indian, Ohlone.” He said there is sorrow at the missions, and is saddened that Indians feel unwelcome at them. Galvan promoted the sainthood cause of St. Junípero Serra, working to have him canonized, and presented one of Serra’s relics to Pope Francis.
Galvan is also devoted to Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose feast was celebrated this past Dec. 12. He mentioned the mass conversion after looking at her image and added, “There are the joys and sorrows of motherhood. She is the Mama who sacrificed everything. The Franciscans brought Our Lady of Sorrows with them.” Galvan added, “Franciscans are more into Christmas than Easter; there can be no Resurrection without the Incarnation.”
Sr. Therese Improgo of St. Clare’s Retreat in Soquel, California, belongs to an order named for Our Sorrowful Mother — the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Sorrows. Sr. Improgo said, “Our community was born of suffering, of persecution from Communism. Sisters were able to escape to Hong Kong, some came to California. We were founded in the midst of persecution and suffering, so our founder (Bp. Raphael Palazzi, OFM), so we were dedicated to Our Sorrowful Mother.” The order prays the Rosary of Our Lady’s seven sorrows every Friday, while it prays the Rosary of Our Lady’s joys every month.
Sr. Improgo counsels people who seek spiritual direction. About 70 people come to St. Clare’s weekly. She said, “We have to give them hope, and help them deal with suffering and sorrow. It’s about opening doors to people. We can’t stay in pain. Our role is to give hope.” She has helped people dealing with drug and alcohol abuse, as well as suicide and broken relationships. Sr. Improgo said she directs people to show how real Our Blessed Mother is, and meditate on her sorrows. She commented, “I want her (Our Lady) to be real to us. She underwent everything, she suffered the loss of a child. I point them to Mary, and the joy of resurrection.”
Sr. Improgo said, “St. Francis (of Assisi) had a special devotion to the Crucifixion; the Blessed Mother was always there. Francis’ devotion was to Christ crucified, and Our Lady of Sorrows.”
Sr. Improgo has been to all the missions except San Juan Capistrano. She commented, “Building missions was an offshoot of Francis’ ‘build my church’ at San Damiano.”
Our Lady of Sorrows has a missionary role during this time of Christmas joy. She offers compassion to those suffering personal tribulations and loneliness as others revel. Like St. Elizabeth who suffered from a mute, disbelieving husband, she was overjoyed, saying (Luke 1:43-45), “And why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”