‘Companions’ Aid Religious Communities: Lay Associates Promote Orders’ Charisms

A look at a special part of the Church family

Sisters and associates of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary gather for the Mary Ward Conference in York, England.
Sisters and associates of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary gather for the Mary Ward Conference in York, England. (photo: Courtesy of the order)

Joe Offer prays the Liturgy of the Hours in the morning and evening, participates in a prayer group and plays Scrabble every Friday with an 85-year-old sister who routinely defeats him.

A retired federal investigator, Offer said these activities flow from his decision to become an associate of the Religious Sisters of Mercy in 2010. He now leads a group of 55 “associates” in the Sacramento area.

“I think more and more laypeople are realizing that we all have vocations to serve God and to serve God’s people,” Offer said. “Being associated with a religious order is a very good way to do that.”


Partnering in Prayer, Work

Not long after the Second Vatican Council, congregations of vowed men and women began to invite the laity to join them in work and prayer.

Sometimes called “companions” or “co-members,” associates do not take vows, but make a covenant or other formal promise to participate in the religious community’s charism.

Mary Jo Mersmann oversees member relations for the North American Conference of Associates and Religious (NACAR). Mersmann said the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University undertook a 2015 study of religious communities (both men and women) and their associates at NACAR’S behest.

Information from responding religious institutes indicated there were 55,942 associates in the United States and Canada at that time. The number had more than doubled since the previous survey in 2000.

Many religious congregations post information about associates on their websites. Programs typically entail an application procedure, a formation period, a commitment ceremony and subsequent participation in the community’s prayer and good works.

The Sisters of St. Dominic of Amityville, New York, for example, require an interview and a letter of recommendation from a sister or a bonded associate. Dominican Sister Margaret Kavanagh, who serves on the core committee for associate membership, explained that the current two-year formation period includes monthly presentations on the Dominican mission and spirituality.

Candidates also read and discuss articles about associates. Under the guidance of a sister, each candidate works through a handbook. This preparation period culminates in a bonding ceremony on Pentecost Sunday, and associates renew their commitment every five years. The congregation of 396 Dominican sisters has about 100 associate members.

Sister Margaret said the program demands an acceptance of the Dominican charism.

“Whatever work they do becomes a ministry, because they are taking the charism with them,” she said.

Virginia Campbell has been a Dominican associate for almost 15 years. She joined the community as a nun upon her high-school graduation. As a sister, she was expected to teach, and so she left 11 years later when she felt called to work one-on-one with children and parents. Campbell pursued a career as a school psychologist and later as a clinical psychologist.

She reconnected with the Dominican sisters during a chance encounter at a funeral and became an associate a few years later.

In keeping with the Dominican charism, she resolved to be a sign of joy and hope for people she served in school settings and at a mental-health center.

“I would pray before I saw someone, that God would give me the insight to help that person, or to allow that person to help themself,” Campbell said.

As an associate, Campbell joins others in prayer and contemplation one night each week at a convent. Associates meet for special events, and they read and discuss a designated book every year.


Spiritual, Charitable Legacies

Rita Emmett became an associate of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM), also known as the Loreto Sisters, in suburban Chicago in 1999. The sisters had educated Emmett, and she and her husband volunteered at their annual fundraiser. The couple eventually felt inspired to become associates.

“The spiritual nourishment and support have helped to develop a much deeper spiritual life than I had before joining,” Emmett said.

She feels a keen appreciation for the fortitude and forgiveness exemplified by Venerable Sister Mary Ward, the institute’s foundress. Some individual IBVM associates are geographically distant from associates groups. For these, Emmett helps organize teleclasses about Sister Mary that ultimately become accessible online.

Emmett attended the “Mary Ward Conference” in York, England, last August. With 124 other men and women from around the world, she visited places significant to the foundress’ life. The group gathered for prayer and reflection and learned about present ministries undertaken by IBVM sisters and associates.

“Each religious order is a different school of spirituality and carries the spirit of the founder or foundress,” Offer said. Each would like its founder to be recognized with canonization. He and other associates hope for the beatification of Venerable Mother Catherine McAuley, who founded the Sisters of Mercy.

As a Dominican associate, Campbell nurtures her spirituality, and she also volunteers in the sisters’ ministries. She currently chairs the board for a program in which sisters and other volunteers teach English to immigrant women.

“Part of Dominican life is that you learn early on that St. Dominic was a person of both active and contemplative life,” Campbell said.


Unexpected Blessings

Campbell has become close to several sisters whom she describes as women of deep faith, true commitment and a wonderful sense of humor.

“You feel like you want to journey with them,” she said. They inspire her to take the Dominican charism to others.

As a budding writer, Emmett enjoyed the encouragement of Sister Maria, a former high-school English teacher. Emmett’s first book, The Procrastinator’s Handbook: Mastering the Art of Doing It Now, sold 100,000 copies the year it was published. Its rapid, unexpected success shocked Emmett, her agent and her publisher.

Sister Maria, however, sent the author a brief email message: “I told you so!” In gratitude, Emmett donates 10% of each royalty check to IBVM.

Offer serves as president of “Placer People of Faith Together,” a community organization that advocates for immigrants, the homeless and for criminal-justice reform.

“We receive a generous grant from the Sisters of Mercy every year,” Offer said.

He also appreciates the way sisters accept him as part of their community. A volunteer driver for the convent infirmary, he has become well acquainted with many of them. He admires their joyful lifestyle.

“They are some of the happiest people in this world,” Offer said, “because they are doing exactly what they think they ought to be doing.”

Register correspondent

Jerri Donohue writes from Brecksville, Ohio.


For more information on associates, or to locate a program near you, visit the North American Conference of Associates and Religious website: NACAR.org.