The Franciscans of the Poor live their vocation of prayer and service
by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — As a girl growing up in Brazil, Sister Agatha of the Divine Mercy thought everyone in the United States was well-off, if not downright rich.
Missionary work in the Kansas City area has taught her otherwise, much to her surprise.
“In Brazil, everybody thinks in the United States, there are not poor people here,” she said. “When we came, we saw yes, there are poor people here. There are homeless here. It changed our minds.”
When they arrived in January 2012, the first three members of the Franciscans Poor of Jesus Christ established a convent on the second floor of the Shalom House shelter for men in Kansas City, Kan.
Not only do they help care for the homeless men of Shalom House, but the Sisters also go out and make themselves part of the community, a welcome sight as they go about in their simple brown habits and black veils and rope cinctures from which hang their well-worn rosaries.
“We say, ‘Mountain and street,’” said Sister Paula of the Unbloody Sacrifice. “We go to the mountain to see the Lord, and then [to] the street for the service.”
To live like Jesus
The religious order of the Franciscans of the Poor was founded 12 years ago in Brazil by Father Gilson Sobreiro, PJC. Currently the order works in Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia and Kansas.
The order’s connection to Kansas came about through Sister Magdalena of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a former member of St. Bernard Parish in Wamego. Like many religious, the Sisters take new names when they become novices. They receive their names from Father Gilson, after prayer and consultation. Their new names symbolize not only their personal spirituality, but their mission in religious life.
Sister Magdalena, then still the lay volunteer Sally Savery, went to Brazil in 1995 to help poor children and orphans in the Amazon region. Later, she discerned a vocation to the Franciscan order.
“Our charism is to belong completely to Jesus and to live completely for Jesus,” said Sister Magdalena, who is the community’s leader, or custodian.
They do this by serving Jesus as he presents himself in the many faces of the poor, said Sister Paula. They also strive to “live like Jesus.” They rely totally on divine providence for support — which means, as they serve the people of the city, the people are moved by God to respond to the Sisters’ needs with love.
Sister Magdalena’s connections led Father Gilson to come to the archdiocese to participate in the missionary cooperative program 10 years ago.
Sister Magdalena then asked Father John Pilcher, pastor of St. Bernard Parish at the time, to ask vicar general Father Gary Pennings if there was a need the fraternity could fulfill in the archdiocese.
Father Pennings suggested ministry at Shalom House, which is operated by Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas.
“It was perfect,” said Sister Magdalena.
Mountain and street
A life of “mountain and street” keeps the Sisters busy.
For the “mountain” part of their lives, the Sisters have a daily routine of prayer that includes Mass, a rosary, the Liturgy of the Hours (communal prayer at set times during the day), a Holy Hour and Marian devotions.
The “street” part of their lives is varied.
The Sisters lead rosary pilgrimages in English and Spanish at people’s homes in the area.
Images of the Blessed Mother travel from home to home, staying for a week at a time during which the family will pray daily rosaries, often with neighbors joining in. When the week is over, the image is taken to another home.
The Sisters give talks and sing at retreats and parish gatherings, often on weekends.
And, always, the Sisters and lay volunteers take food, clothing, personal hygiene items and other useful donations to the homeless in the Kansas City area.
“In street ministry, what impacted me was the difference in the poverty between Brazil and here,” said Sister Miracles of the Little Way. “The young people who come with us don’t discriminate [against the homeless]. American culture has a feeling of solidarity among Americans.”
Father Scott Wallisch, archdiocesan vocations director, participates in the Sisters’ homeless ministry once a month.
“It has been a wonderful experience,” said Father Wallisch. “The Sisters’ joy and humility and desire to find the homeless where they are — and to bring Jesus to them — has been really inspiring to me.”
“And they are just a blast to be around,” he added.
The Sisters also minister to the men staying at Shalom House. They talk and pray with them, and even teach them guitar. On Saturdays, the Sisters prepare meals and do “deep cleaning” of the facility.
“Many of the men have no family — no one for them,” said Sister Maria Goretti of the Spiritual Infancy. “Sometimes they don’t have anyone who asks them how they are today. We arrive there and say hello, and share part of our lives. And they become a part of our lives, so I think our presence helps a lot.”
“The Sisters also work diligently to bring celebration to [Shalom House], whether that be an Easter Mass or a Christmas celebration,” said Kim Brabits, director of program operations for Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, which operates the facility. “Having a safe and sober environment for the men during holidays, which are difficult times for the men, is really important.”
The Sisters visit youths at the Wyandotte County Juvenile Detention Facility and have recently become involved in ReachKCK, the new youth outreach ministry of the archdiocese, located on the campus of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Kansas City, Kan.
No better place
Although inner-city Kansas City, Kan., has a tough reputation, the Sisters feel perfectly at home there.
“I love living here, and I feel very comfortable with the people of the neighborhood,” said Sister Magdalena. “When we walk on the streets, people stop and greet us, and are protective of us.”
The Sisters have a growing ministry among Hispanic and African-American Catholics, and acceptance by non-Catholics.
“Even if they are not Catholics, they are very respectful to us,” said Sister Agatha. “They take off their hats, [and say,] ‘Hello, Sister. Pray for me!’”
This Kansas Catholic-Protestant rapprochement is very different from Brazil, where relations can be tense between new Protestant sects and the long-established Catholic Church.
“The thing that impacted me was the welcoming we have received form the priests, the other religious and the people,” said Sister Magdalena. “I feel very strongly that this was a big help in the way the Sisters adjusted to life here.”
Some adjustments are easy for the Sisters, but some — like learning a new language — are harder.
“We are immigrants here anyway, because we belong to heaven,” said Sister Paula. “But, in our daily lives as missionaries, we have to go very open — our hearts open, our minds open. There is no wrong place. We have to make this country, this culture, our new home and just learn.”
Warm, fraternal bonds
The Sisters were delighted to discover they are not taken for granted in Kansas.
“When we came here, Father Mark Mertes invited us to go to a meeting and introduced us to a lot of priests there,” said Sister Paula. “They were so nice. Sometimes in Brazil, you are just there. We belong to that country and they know us. And all the priests here — Father Harry Schneider, Father Mark Mertes, Father Tom Hesse and Archbishop Naumann — are very open.”
Many people want to help the Sisters, support them and participate in their ministries. American Catholics, they discovered, are very faithful.
“There are many people who bring us clothes for the homeless and food, and they want to help in any way they can,” said Sister Paula. “The young people, once or twice a month, they go with us, even if it is cold or hot, they go with us to visit the homeless.”
“They are very good Catholics, very faithful,” she continued. “They love Catholicism and they study. They know more than me, and I am a Sister!”
Although the Sisters live within the boundaries of Blessed Sacrament Parish, they also visit Our Lady & St. Rose Parish and the Cathedral of St. Peter, all near downtown Kansas City, Kan. All three parishes have welcomed the Sisters and appreciate their involvement.
“Sister Agatha and Sister Paula helped form our Spanish choir when we began the Spanish Mass here,” said cathedral rector Father Harry Schneider. “The Sisters have ministry to the homeless, so they’ve asked at times for things they need. We’ve put that in the bulletin, and people have been very generous.”
Father Schneider has also discussed with the Sisters the possibility of working together in evangelization and youth ministry.
The cathedral parish wants to repair the property’s deteriorated driveway and build a garage so the Sisters can store their van and supplies for the homeless ministry.
“We’re leading a fundraising campaign for $20,000 to prepare the pad, build the garage, and provide electricity, a work area and storage for their vehicle and ministry materials,” said Father Schneider. “We’re asking other groups to help us to raise the money to support the Sisters.”
Occasionally, Father Schneider celebrates Mass for the Sisters in their Shalom House chapel.
“What I observe is [they have] a genuine and constant deepening of their love for the Lord,” he said. “They are delightful. They are a joy to have around.”
Places of the heart
It’s easy to count the number of meals the Sisters take to the homeless, their hours spent caring for the men at Shalom House, or the number of homes they visit for rosary pilgrimages.
Some influences are harder to see, because they are hidden in the human heart, mind and soul. Nevertheless, the Sisters believe they are making a difference.
“I remember a phrase from St. Francis,” said Sister Maria Goretti. “Maybe we can’t change everything in the world, but in order for the world to be better, we plant the seed of love.”
The longer they stay and the more they become involved in people’s lives, the more integrated they feel.
“Before I was just Brazilian,” said Sister Paula. “Now I think my heart is Brazilian, Mexican and American. I felt very welcome here in this country.”
“So many things, I think, in my life have changed in this mission here,” she said. “I am so blessed to live with all the American people. I think we are helping to bring them together.”
(For more information on the Sisters and their ministries, call (913) 387-4696)