Carrying on the Ursuline mission

Associates keep the home fire burning

by Jill Ragar Esfeld

The Ursuline Sisters of Paola may be leaving the archdiocese, but the work of their founder will be continued here, by the more than 100 Ursuline Associates they leave behind.

“When the initial announcement came, my heart just dropped,” said Carol O’Keefe, who co-directs the Ursuline Associates with Sister Marie William Blyth, associate director of Paola.

“I am the first one to share with anyone who wants to listen that the Ursulines are my family,” O’Keefe said. “I’ve been an associate for 10 years now, and they are just like my sisters. I love every one of them dearly.”

The Ursuline Associates of Paola were established under the guidance of Sister Marie William in 1980. Their purpose is to study the writings of ursuline founder St. Angela Merici and incorporate what they learn into their daily lives.

It’s a way of “going to Angela, who will take us to the feet of Jesus,” explained Marian Bennet, an associate at Mount Saint Joseph and director of Ursuline partnerships there.

“It’s an ongoing relationship of prayer and mission,” she continued. “We study the writings and inspiration of the founder and model our lives after the things that she accomplished and strived for in her lifetime — dealing with the poor and the forgotten, dealing with people on all levels of society, encouraging family life, and the nurturing of women and children.”

When the Paola associates first learned of the Ursuline merger, they were devastated. But the ready and open support for the local associates from the Mount Saint Joseph community has gone a long way to prepare them for the transition.

Early on, Sisters from Mount Saint Joseph, accompanied by Bennet, came to Paola and spoke to the associates.

“And it was like breathing new life,” said O’Keefe. “It made so many of us aware that we’re not just our little group. We’re part of a much, much bigger picture and a much bigger family.”

“When I met with the associates in Paola, I just couldn’t do enough because their enthusiasm and their faith is just so deep and contagious,” said Bennet.

To keep their connection with each other and remain active, local associates decided to divide into small faith-sharing groups.

“We formed the groups by geographical area in the archdiocese,” explained O’Keefe. “The Sisters remaining here for their ministries are always invited to stop in to any of these meetings. Right now, we have three groups formed who are meeting on a regular basis, and we are working on forming more groups.”

The purpose of the meetings is to provide associates the chance to continue to come together regularly for prayer, she said, and to study Angela Merici’s teachings.

Bennet just returned from her fourth visit to Paola, saying she’s tried to give the associates here more than just a business card and a Web site. She wants them to understand that they now belong to Mount Saint Joseph,

which boasts a group of about 400 associates concentrated in the Kentucky area, but extending as well to Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, California and New Mexico — wherever the Sisters have ministered.

“My purpose is to assure them, ‘You are welcomed, you are not forgotten, you are all part of the Ursuline family,’” she said.

“I’ve gotten to know Carol as well as Sister Marie William and I think the three of us are confident that this is going to be a good experience for everybody,” she added.

Associates here can follow the new lives of the Paola Sisters through the Mount Saint Joseph Web site, as well as a quarterly newsletter and a monthly e- magazine called The Pilgrimage, which made its debut this month.

Mount Saint Joseph also hosts an Associates Day each year, and many of the archdiocesan associates plan to attend this year’s event, scheduled for June 27.

“We’re very excited about that,” said Bennet. “We’re still working on a transition ritual because they are Ursuline Associates coming into the larger family.”

Since the associates will no longer have the convent in Paola as a home base, Father Larry Albertson, pastor of Queen of the Holy Rosary Parish in Wea, has offered them meeting space on a regular basis and the use of the community hall for bigger gatherings, such as days of reflection.

“My prayers are answered,” said O’Keefe, when Father Albertson informed her of the generous offer. “That was really weighing heavy on my mind.”

Sister Marie William will be one of the first Sisters to head out for Mount Saint Joseph, leaving O’Keefe behind to manage the associates. But with the guidance of St. Angela — and the support of Bennet and the Ursuline Sisters remaining to continue their ministry in this area — O’Keefe feels she’s up to the challenge.

“I’m willing to do whatever it takes because my heart and my commitment are definitely there and have never wavered,” she said. “This is like a marriage to me: I’m in it for the long haul.

“We will continue to thrive and we’ll continue to spread the spirit of our founder, St. Angela.”

“I think the Paola associates are anxious,” said Sister Marie William, “but I think they’re also eager to be part of this and continue with our charism.”

O’Keefe agreed.

“We’re to the stage now where many of us are excited about this merger. It’s definitely becoming a very positive thing.”

About the author

Jill Esfeld

Jill Ragar Esfeld received a degree in Writing from Missouri State University and started her profession as a magazine feature writer, but quickly transitioned to technical/instructional writing where she had a successful career spanning more than 20 years. She returned to feature writing when she began freelancing for The Leaven in 2004. Her articles have won several awards from the Catholic Press Association. Jill grew up in Christ the King parish in Kansas City, Missouri; and has been a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa, Kansas, for 35 years.

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