by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
This past Saturday at the Cathedral of St. Peter, I dedicated a shrine in honor of St. Maria Soledad, the foundress of the Sisters, Servants of Mary, Ministers to the Sick.
The Sisters, Servants of Mary were born in Madrid on Aug. 15, 1851, when St. Maria Soledad, along with six other women, made their solemn profession of vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
It was providential that we celebrated the dedication of the shrine on Dec. 2, because it was on this date in 1826 that Bibiana Antonia Acosta (the future Sister Maria Soledad) was born in Madrid. Bibiana desired to become a Dominican nun, but ironically was not accepted because of her poor health.
In 1851, Father Michael Martinez asked Bibiana to minister to the sick and the poor of his parish in their homes. She, along with six other young women, accepted Father Martinez’s invitation and began a ministry to the poor and the sick. It was at this moment that Bibiana took the name Maria Soledad.
The founders of what would become the Sisters, Servants of Mary took the name Handmaids of Mary Serving the Sick. Sister Maria Soledad was appointed superior. The new order gained fame because of their care for the sick during a cholera epidemic. The order grew in number rapidly. By 1875, Mother Maria Soledad opened a convent in Havana. A year later in 1876, the Sisters, Servants of Mary received papal approval, being granted the status of a pontifical community.
St. Maria Soledad died in Cuba on Oct. 11 (now her feast day) in 1887. At the time of her death, there were 46 convents in Europe and Latin America. The community grew rapidly because of the beauty and importance of its ministry as well as the zeal and dedication of St. Maria Soledad and her companion Sisters.
The Sisters, Servants of Mary were pioneers in the care of the dying and their families. They were doing authentic hospice ministry before anyone invented the term. Today, they are the Catholic response to the evil of euthanasia.
Just a week before the dedication of the shrine, I received a letter from the Sisters, Servants’ mother general, Mother Maria Juango Reparaz. From Rome, the mother general wrote: “We rejoice beyond measure that you have chosen our humble and holy foundress to stand out as a reference and intercessor for obtaining from the Lord the eradication of those two social scourges that destroy and dehumanize us: abortion and euthanasia, a mission that is undoubtedly evangelical because Christ came so that we might have life and have it to the full.
“I would like to express my most sincere gratitude to you for dedicating a chapel within the Cathedral Church . . . to welcome an image of our foundress before which the faithful can ask for her intercession and get to know the charism, so human and so spiritual. This was the grace that Mother Soledad received and worked toward in favor of a dignified and full life, dedicating the necessary care to the sick within the family environment.
“How beautiful if, from this contact with the spirituality of the Servants of Mary, the faithful assimilate this rich knowledge of discovering the face of Christ in every wounded person at the crossroads of life, from which then arises a commitment to go out on the roads, to meet so many wounded, to pour out on them the balm of charity, the balm of Christ, the Good Samaritan who needs our hands, our feet, our hearts, to go on doing good and healing all diseases.
“I am convinced that in the school of Saint Maria Soledad, who lived with her eyes fixed on the way to serve as Mary did, all — the sick and the healthy — can learn the best teachings that pain contains by responding to the Gospel passage: I was sick and you visited me.”
It was a great joy for me to issue the decree designating the Cathedral of St. Peter as a diocesan shrine dedicated to St. Maria Soledad, and in so doing, to solidify the special bond between the Sisters, Servants of Mary and the priests, deacons, religious and laity of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
In the decree, I stated: “Whereas St. Maria Soledad Torres y Acosta founded the Sisters, Servants of Mary to care for the sick and the dying under the patronage of Our Lady, Health of the Sick. The Sisters came to the archdiocese in 1917 as refugees, fleeing religious persecution. . . . The Sisters have provided physical and spiritual care for countless souls, many of whom cannot afford health care, especially at the end of life. Along with their hospice care and ministry, they also provide spiritual guidance and care for the family members of the sick in their care.
“Whereas the convent and provincial house of the Sisters, Servants of Mary is in the boundaries of the parish of the Cathedral of St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles . . . the Sisters, Servants of Mary have been a part of the parish territory for most of its existence. . . .
“Whereas it is opportune to offer a place:
To promote the spiritual message and legacy of St. Maria Soledad, especially regarding human dignity and the church’s teachings on the end of life issues, and to assist the faithful in expressing authentic devotion and to bring them through such devotion, to a deeper and richer experience of the Christian life;
To offer a place for the faithful of the archdiocese to make pilgrimage so to foster devotion in the archdiocese to St. Maria Soledad, with the opportunity to venerate her relic and her statue, both housed in the cathedral;
To foster awareness of and vocations to the Sisters, Servants of Mary from the archdiocese in order to carry on the work of St. Maria Soledad.”
It is my hope that the shrine will increase within the people of the archdiocese a greater devotion to St. Maria Soledad as well as a greater love and affection for her descendants, the Sisters, Servants of Mary. I pray that the shrine will inspire many young women to consider a vocation to the consecrated life and in particular to the Sisters, Servants of Mary.
If you visit the great Basilica of St. Peter in Rome, you will find in one of the alcoves on the exterior walls of the church, a statue of St. Maria Soledad. This is a physical manifestation of the great esteem the universal church has for St. Maria Soledad and her descendants, the Sisters, Servants of Mary.
In our humble Cathedral of St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, I am thrilled that we have been able to provide a space within the church for an image and relic of St. Maria Soledad. In the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, St. Maria Soledad has a home inside our cathedral, where the faithful can come and honor her as well as seek her intercession for those they love.
I encourage the people of the archdiocese to come and visit the shrine for St. Maria Soledad. Since St. Maria Soledad was very dedicated in caring for the sick and in particular those approaching death, I encourage you to come and pray especially for sick family members and friends. Please also pray for more vocations for the Sisters, Servants of Mary. The Sisters are extraordinary ministers of Our Lord’s tender love and compassion. They are also powerful witnesses of the invincible hope that is the fruit of Our Lord’s victory over death. The Sisters, Servants of Mary are needed now more than ever.
May their numbers grow!