Fraternity of Missionaries, the Poor of Jesus Christ bring their ministry to KCK
by Sheila Myers
Special to The Leaven
On the second floor of an unmarked building in a broken neighborhood of Kansas City, Kan., a tender ministry is quietly unfolding.
You won’t see ostentatious deliveries of food and clothing, flashy marketing brochures or slick videos with heart-wrenching testimonials.
For the Fraternity of Missionaries, the Poor of Jesus Christ, a Brazilian- based mendicant religious order, the mission is simple: “To seek Jesus completely and to belong completely to Jesus.”
“We live with the poor, as the poor and for the poor,” said Sister Magdalena of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the chapter’s custodian. “The poor in their multiple faces are receivers of the mission of our community.”
Since their arrival here last January, Sister Magdalena, Sister Agatha, Sister Paula and Brother Casio have started ministries to the homeless, to wayward youth and to struggling Hispanic and African-American families.
Father Mark Mertes, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Kansas City, Kan., calls it a “ministry of presence.”
“It’s a fairly simple ministry,” said Father Mertes. “They represent the presence of a supportive church, listening to people and helping people get a foothold, especially if life is otherwise somewhat chaotic.”
Returning home from Brazil
Sister Magdalena considers her life journey part of God’s divine plan. She finds herself back in Kansas after a period of time in Brazil.
“I feel like [God] had a plan to bring me back so this religious community could be established here,” she said.
Sister Magdalena’s heart for the poor predates her entry into religious life — it was as Sally Savery that she undertook her first mission work.
Originally from Wamego, Savery and two other friends from central Kansas founded Project Rescue for Amazon Youth in 1999. PRAY is an ecumenical Christian mission that serves abused and abandoned children from the Amazon jungle.
Living and working with neglected and orphaned children in Brazil inspired Savery to join the Poor of Jesus Christ in 2003 at age 47.
“God had a reason for calling me at such a late age. After I had lived so long in the world far from God, and then to call me to religious life was really amazing,” said Sister Magdalena.
Her strong devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and her late-life conversion led her to choose the name, “Sister Magdalena of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”
The first U.S. chapter
Sister Magdalena credits Father Gary Pennings and Father Tom Hesse for bringing the chapter to Kansas City.
Both priests got to know the order’s founder, Father Gilson Sobriero, when he traveled to the area as part of the archdiocesan mission cooperative program.
A former pastor of St. Bernard in Wamego and a board member of PRAY, Father Hesse visited Father Gilson’s community in Sao Paolo during trips to the PRAY mission and admired the order’s simplicity.
“They live out Matthew 5 (the Beatitudes),” Father Hesse said. “They really take it seriously.”
After multiple visits and much discussion to confirm the need, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann invited Father Gilson to start a chapter in Kansas City, Kan.
The order has lay missionaries in New York and Boston, and religious houses in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay. Sister Magdalena thinks they have 53 houses, but she’s not sure.
“It’s always changing because the order is growing so quickly,” she said.
Soon, Brother Casio will travel to Brazil to begin studying for the priesthood. Three new Sisters will join the Kansas City, Kan., chapter in 2013, after their visas are approved.
Companionship and compassion
The Poor of Jesus Christ take their vow of poverty literally, wearing flip-flops and simple brown tunics cinched with rope at the waist. They wear boots only when it snows.
“We live off charity,” said Brother Casio. “Everything in this house is a donation. Our community proves that you can live by faith. “
The Sisters make rosaries, crucifixes and bracelets that they sell to raise money for their ministries.
Their humble lifestyle and quiet dedication have endeared them to the community.
“They have so much protection,” said Martha Smith, a member of Our Lady & St. Rose Parish in Kansas City, Kan. “People driving by watch them. . . . They get more respect than the police. They do lots of walking and when we ask to give them a ride, they say, ‘Oh no, we’re fine.’”
The members walk to church at Blessed Sacrament or the Cathedral of St. Peter, both in Kansas City, Kan.
On Thursdays, they sometimes walk to the Wyandotte County Juvenile Detention Center, where they reach out to the incarcerated with music and hope.
The ministry was slow to take hold, but now the youth enjoy spending time with the Sisters.
“When we started going, there were only two or three people who came,” said Sister Paula. “They are not Catholic and didn’t know what we were talking about. They didn’t know how to pray. We started to dance and sing. Now, we have 12, 16, 20 who come to meet us.”
Three times a week, the members serve meals to the men of Shalom House. After dinner, they play dominoes and visit. The men help Sister Paula and Sister Agatha with their English. This past summer, the men helped the Sisters cultivate a vegetable garden.
Ralph Johnson, a member of the Nativity of Mary Parish in Independence, Mo., got to know the Sisters when he lived at Shalom House last spring.
“They clean this place from top to bottom,” Johnson said. “They are tireless. They soften a lot of hearts.”
On Tuesdays, the members travel with other volunteers to deliver food and clothing to the homeless on the street or at their encampments in the woods. Willie Dugan, a member of St. Agnes Parish in Roeland Park, has participated in the street ministry with the Sisters for several months.
“They are so delightful to be around,” Dugan said. “They’re very inspiring — their spirituality, their humility, their willingness to help the poorest people. I feel honored to have met them.”
After nine months, the order has established a foothold in the neighborhood. Their friends represent the diversity of the surrounding area.
Many were present Oct. 23 for a Mass and reception to celebrate the order’s 11th anniversary. Perla Longoria, of All Saints Parish in Kansas City, Kan., met the Sisters in June, when she was coping with the loss of her cousin.
“The first time I came, I found people of love,” said Longoria. “They helped me with self-esteem, with prayer. They are good people. I have never had anyone to help me like this.”
The members interact with residents on a personal level, listening patiently and with compassion.
This highly personal interaction occurs during a weekly devotion to the Blessed Mother known as “peregrinação” in Portuguese, or “pilgrimage,” that has become especially popular with the Hispanic community.
Every Wednesday, a statue of Mary is delivered to a family. That evening, the Poor of Jesus Christ members, neighbors and friends — both children and adults — show up at the family’s home to pray the rosary and offer intentions for the family.
The family keeps the statue and prays the rosary daily until the following Wednesday, when the statue moves to a different house and the devotion is repeated.
“It is an opportunity for us to get close to the community, to spend time with [families] in their homes,” said Sister Paula.
During the devotion, Sister Agatha centers everyone by strumming her guitar and leading hymns in Spanish. Participants take turns saying a Hail Mary. After the rosary, everyone prays for the family. Then dinner is served.
“The devotion is powerful because it strengthens the family,” said Brother Casio.
Meeting the need
In a neighborhood that many consider abandoned, members of the Poor of Jesus Christ are gently working their way into the hearts of the residents.
“People say it is a poor area — that there is a lot of violence here,” Brother Casio said. “But we see people thirsting for God.”
The order’s ultimate goal is to bring the love and compassion of Jesus Christ to those who need him. But before they can do that, they must meet the immediate needs of residents, otherwise the word of God is just words, Brother Casio said.
Are they making a difference?
“The answer has to come from those around us,” said Brother Casio. “We are living to work and help the best we can. What God sees is more important. That answer coming from us means nothing.”