by Marc and Julie Anderson
TOPEKA — It’s not every day you have a chance to meet the founder of a religious order —especially one that has given 150 years of service to the archdiocese already.
But that’s what happened at Mater Dei Church here on Nov. 18, when the founder of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Mother Xavier Ross, appeared in the flesh to some 450 people.
The occasion was an anniversary Mass celebrated by longtime Topeka pastor Father John Rossiter that served as one of two kickoff events for a yearlong celebration marking 150 years since the founding of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth by Mother Ross. The Mass was concelebrated by Msgr. Vince Krische, pastor of St. Ann Parish in Prairie Village and Father Jon Hullinger, pastor of Mater Dei Parish. During her presentation, Mother Xavier Ross (portrayed by Sister of Charity Maureen Hall) shared stories of both her spiritual journey to the Catholic Church and her physical journey from Kentucky to Tennessee and finally to Kansas in the late 1850s.
Born in 1813, Ross came from a devoutly religious family. Her father, a Methodist minister, taught all five children to love God with their whole hearts, but he was very anti-Catholic.
“When I was 15 years old, I met my best friend, Victoria Robinson,” said “Mother Ross.”*
Robinson was a Catholic, and Ross was quite sure her father would have had a fit if he had known. However, that didn’t stop Ross from being curious about what it meant to be a Catholic.
One Sunday, when she was 16 years old, Ross accompanied Robinson to Mass. It was then that Ross experienced God’s love in a way that would change her life forever.
“I’ll never forget the Gospel at Mass that Sunday,” Ross said. “It was from John 15: ‘I no longer call you servants, but I call you my friends.’ I had an overwhelming feeling or sense of belonging to God and to the people around me, and I knew then that this is where I belonged.”
Within the year, Ross was baptized into the Catholic faith, unbeknownst to her family. Upon learning of her newfound faith, Ross’ family was “horrified,” especially her father and her oldest brother Joseph. When the two learned she wanted to become a nun, Ross met immediate and intense opposition.
Despite that fact, in 1832 Ross snuck out of the house, never to return. Instead, she entered the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Ky.
“What can a woman do?” Ross asked the congregation. It’s a question her father asked her when she shared her desire to become a nun.
Her answer? A lot more than you think.
“I said ‘yes’ to God’s love to teach. I said ‘yes’ to God’s love in the healing ministry of health care. I said ‘yes’ to God’s love to taking care of the orphans. I said ‘yes’ to showing the face of God to those who need to see it the most,” she said.
Eventually, Ross and a small group of Sisters found themselves in Nashville, Tenn., trying to establish a presence there. But in 1857, the women found themselves in a financial mess. So, Ross — along with eight other women, including five professed Sisters — decided to accept the invitation of Bishop Jean-Baptiste Miege and head north to St. Louis, ultimately settling near Fort Leavenworth.
That was in November 1858. Now, 150 years later, the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth have, according to Mother Ross, brought forth fruit that will last for centuries.
In his homily, Msgr. Vince Krische shared a few stories of that fruit.
“The Sisters followed the great commission the Lord gave before he took physical leave of us: ‘Go, teach all nations.’ Their mission was threefold: to teach, to heal and to care for the poor,” he said.
“They didn’t just do these works,” he continued, “but they established the systems through which these works would continue through time. Schools, hospitals, social service centers, would all give the poor, as well as those who were not economically poor, the tools with which to build a good life.
“Topeka was especially blessed, with the Sisters teaching in almost all our parish schools and high school . . . and through St. Francis Hospital, St. Vincent’s Home, the Marian Clinic and other service projects.”
In concluding his remarks, Msgr. Krische recalled the words of President John Kennedy who said, “With history as the judge of our deeds, let us go forth from this place today.”
“History does judge the deeds, services and love of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth of 150 years! The good results are overwhelming.”
* All Mother Xavier Ross quotes come from Sister Maureen Hall’s reenactment.