What kind of things can you do on a wet and very windy Sunday afternoon? With great interest I started to reread the book, entitled “We agreed to be different”, about the history of our congregation from 1960 to 2000, and which was published in 2005. The congregation has changed so much in those forty years! The book describes developments in the perception of the sisters, but at the same time some organisational changes took place as well, in addition to or parallel with the dismantlement of some parts and the continuing growth of other parts of the congregation. It also strikes me that the sisters have remained courageous and full of trust, and what I would like to call hopeful. In an interview with the new pope Francis (which I read elsewhere) I noted that he makes a distinction between hope and optimism. He said, “I do not like the word ‘optimism’, because it indicates more of a psychological state of mind. I would rather use the word ‘hope’, as described in chapter 11 of the Epistle to the Hebrews. The patriarchs always carried on, in spite of the many difficulties they experienced. However, as the Epistle to the Romans states: Hope will not deceive. The Christian hope is neither phantasm nor deceit. It is a theological virtue and therefore essentially a gift from the Lord, that we should not reduce to optimism, which is only a human state of mind. God does not deceive us with hope, for He cannot renounce Himself. God is wholly promise.’ This is how I can understand evolutions, also those in our own congregation, and this is how we can look back to the past with joy and gratitude, but also look at what is happening at present. In this issue of our magazine you will be able to read how the people in Surinam said goodbye to the last two sisters who still lived and worked there. By honouring them, they also paid their respects and gave thanks to all
their predecessors, even though the history of the SCMM in that country has now been brought to a close. Many years earlier three beguines departed from Belgium to the Netherlands and they became the first sisters of our congregation. It is fascinating to read this story again. You can also read about Rome and Brazil in this issue and you can take a pilgrimage without even leaving your own country, or even your own home! The magazine also presents a collection of brief stories about formation experiences from various countries and years. These were collected in the context of the ICC about formation and inspired by the most recent thematic issue of Compassion about formation. You will also find a visual meditation and other congregational news. That adds up to a lot of reading material, but life goes on, and we still hear so much tragic news about Syria and about the economic crisis which still has not ended. Will life ever return to the way it used to be? Or do we really need to make changes, even though this may only happen with small steps at a time, and though it sometimes seems that we are not really progressing. Do we perhaps need hope in that case? And that takes us back to our starting point. I would like to wish you a lot of enjoyment in reading the magazine and at the same time I already wish you a wonderful Christmas period and a good, blessed and joyful New Year 2014.
Sr Rosa Olaerts, general superior
Surinam is one of the earliest mission countries of the Sisters of Charity SCMM. Sisters have been present in Surinam since 1894. However, in August this year, the last two sisters returned to the Netherlands: Sr Corrie Langermans (born in 1937) and Sr Lidewijde van Doorn (born in 1933). Thus ends the 119-year long presence of Sisters of Charity in Surinam. This article gives an overview of the works of charity carried out by our sisters in Surinam.
The Republic of Surinam is a country in the north of South America. It borders French Guiana to the east, Guyana to the west, Brazil to the south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the north. The country has a tropical rainforest climate. Surinam was first colonized by the British, and captured by the Dutch in 1667, who governed it as Dutch Guiana until 1954. The country of Surinam achieved independence from the Kingdom of the Netherlands on 25 November 1975. Surinam, the Netherlands Antilles, and the Netherlands have been cooperating on a basis of equality since 1954. Dutch still is one of the main languages, but most people are bilingual. The predominant religion in the country is Christianity, including both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. The Creoles and to a lesser degree the Maroons, both descendants of enslaved Africans, converted to Christianity during the colonial period but may still retain their Afro-American religion called Winti. Indians practise Hindu, Islam or Christianity. The Javanese practise either Islam or Christianity. Surinam’s population is 19.6% Muslim.
The early presence of Sisters of Charity in Surinam was a direct result of a request by
Mgr Wulfingh, bishop of Paramaribo. After the death of Peerke Donders in 1887, he became aware of the extremely poor care given to leprosy sufferers. Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, is a chronic bacterial infection. Left untreated, leprosy can be progressive, causing permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes. Contrary to folklore, leprosy does not cause body parts to fall off, although they can become numb. Secondary infections, however, can result in tissue loss causing fingers and toes to become shortened and deformed. Effective treatment became available from the late 1940’s. Back in the 1890’s, Mgr Wulfingh saw the need to improve the care of these people, and he asked the Sisters of Charity to assist him. We do not know how Mgr Wulfingh became acquainted with the sisters; possibly some members of his family were SCMM sisters.
The elderly at the Gerardus Majella Foundation
Apparently, in those days in the Netherlands, there was a missionary in one out of eight families, and the congregation SCMM was
in the early years, the sisters concentrated on leprosy care. When the Majella Foundation for the care of leprosy patients celebrated its 50th anniversary, it turned out that at that moment, 83 sisters already worked or had worked there. It is a miracle that only two of them became infected with the bacteria, despite the daily washing of bandages and dressing of wounds. Those two sisters continued to live amidst their patients and took care of them for as long as they could. Sr. Fereria dresses the wounds of young leprosy patients, around 1915 The Majella Foundation also strived for professionalisation: thriving. Perhaps Mgr Wulfingh had heard that a doctor who specialised in leprosy was these sisters initially intended to make a fourth present, sisters took advanced measures to vow: that they were prepared to take care of reduce contamination, and they were keen to the contagiously ill, although eventually, use the most recent medication. In 1964, the the Vatican did not allow this vow. However, institute was closed, as effective medication it is clear that Mgr Wulfingh was determined became available. to get the Sisters of Charity to take on the job, In addition to the care for leprosy patients as he made repeated requests to the general and the elderly, the sisters also responded to board. many requests for help. The government The board sent out a letter to each of the then 1800 members, asking who would be prepared for such a dangerous mission. Contrary to the usual practice, the board was of the opinion that every sister should decide for herself on the matter. An overwhelming 300 sisters volunteered! In 1894, Mgr Wulfingh arrived in Surinam with the first six sisters. These women must have had little idea of what to expect. They left for a foreign country to spend the rest of their lives there, with virtually no means of communication with their relatives back home. Most likely, they had hardly any knowledge of the country or its inhabitants. They were completely overwhelmed when they entered the harbour Surgeon Dr. Nassy (hospital director from 1916 until 1938) and of Paramaribo, to find a crowd consisting of his team in the operating room various different population groups giving them a very warm welcome. The first contact asked them to help out in the womenâ€™s with leprosy patients was probably a challenge department of the military hospital, the too: leprosy had virtually disappeared in the diocese initiated the Catholic hospital Netherlands by then. St Vincent and asked the sisters to work Works of charity as nursing staff, and the diocese asked the On their arrival, the sisters found that the sisters to take care of girls in the Hindustani facility for leprosy patients was not yet ready. boarding house Rajpur. Moreover, the sisters The sisters started immediately to take care also nursed people at home, took up positions of some elderly people, and they thereby also in medical posts in the interior of Surinam, and initiated a second field of attention. However, worked as teachers, specifically for children
with learning disabilities; they took care of deaf children, assisted refugees, taught catechism, and even assisted a father in setting up a retreat facility for lay people! They continuously adjusted their activities to the needs of the present moment. After the closure of the department for leprosy patients, the sisters increased their work for the elderly, also under the name of Majella. Here too, they improved the standards by inviting their well-trained fellow sisters from the Netherlands. Later on, they started a local training facility, so that Surinamese girls could also become professionals. Eventually, these girls were trained so well that they could easily get (better paid) jobs in the Netherlands! The same was true for the Surinamese girls that were trained as nurses in the St Vincent hospital. Not many of these girls joined the congregation, however, as the requirement of being born from a legal marriage was at odds with Surinam social reality.
As mentioned earlier, the sisters who arrived in Surinam had little idea of what to expect. They must have been overwhelmed by the many small and large issues of ordinary, everyday life. How to secure a mosquito net? Was it really necessary to bath people every day? What did that lady mean when she said that she could not eat a certain food because she has a ‘treef’ (food taboo) for it? And then they had to cope with the heat and the many unknown tropical diseases! Nevertheless, many sisters cherished their time in Surinam, even to the point that they had difficulties to readjust to life in the Netherlands after their return! They longed for the sun, the simple way of life, the warm contact with the people, and the delicious fruits. The relatively isolated position of the sisters gave them a certain freedom in Surinam. While the socio-religious compartmentalisation was at its height in the Netherlands, the sisters in Surinam felt free to make unusual choices. For example, they chose a nonCatholic director for the hospital: professional abilities took precedence over the Catholic faith. In the same spirit, the different facilities of the sisters were open to people of all religions. And the principal of Rajpur sometimes even acted as a marriage broker! Luckily, the general board was far away and did not come over very frequently. Many of the sisters greatly enjoyed the good contacts with
religious from other congregations, another departure from Dutch custom. For some sisters, it was difficult to accept the complex Surinamese family life with its many broken families and unmarried couples. The sisters were aware that they lived in a rather small world. One of them said: “We saw the world outside our community through shutters.” Their integration into Surinam society was further limited because the sisters were not required to learn a second language. Only a few sisters made the effort of learning Sranan Tongo, Hindi, or Javanese. Rumour has it that a sister once asked for sugar at a formal dinner, to put on top of her rice, as otherwise she could not eat it. Yet she already had been living in Surinam for many years!
Paramaribo and Groningen
This August, the general council called the last two sisters home to the Netherlands. Sr Lidewijde lived in Paramaribo for over 40 years. Paramaribo is the capital and largest city of Surinam, located on banks of the Suriname River. Paramaribo has roughly 250,000 inhabitants, more than half of
Surinam’s population. Sr Lidewijde maintained the contacts with the generalate and took care of the finances and the archives in Paramaribo. The place where she lived housed ‘the Majella’’ in the early days. Behind her accommodation was the notorious bridge that isolated people diagnosed with leprosy to limit the risk of infection. Once you crossed the bridge, you could not go back. Sr Corrie lived a bit more inland, in Groningen. Situated 40 kilometres west of Paramaribo, it lies on the banks of the Saramacca River. Despite being the capital of the Saramacca district, Groningen is a small and quiet village. In 1996, it was inhabited by just over 230 people. Until 1910, Groningen had a nursing home for sufferers of framboesia tropica. The facility was closed after the discovery of a medication that cured the illness in a couple of days. Sr Corrie worked in the boarding house for a number of years, and she offered assistance to many families in Groningen.
Sr Lidewijde and Sr Corrie
On 30th April 2011, she celebrated her golden convent jubilee. That same year, the two sisters in Surinam enjoyed major celebrations in honour of the 115 yearsâ€™ presence of the SCMM in Surinam.
Saying goodbye and letting go is never easy, but the Sisters of Charity SCMM have many good things to remember. And they leave behind at least two big, well-run projects: the St Vincent hospital and the Majella Foundation. The hospital has a very good reputation in the region and it matches Dutch hospital standards. The Majella Foundation also has well-equipped facilities and it provides high standard care for the elderly who cannot receive such care at home. Over time, 187 Sisters of Charity went to Surinam. Those sisters have given a lot, but they have also received a lot! Including Srs Lidewijde and Corrie, thirteen of them are still alive today. They all say that no matter how long ago they returned, a piece of their heart stayed behind in Surinam. Looking back on their time there, they say that it was a very fruitful period for them, during which they
learned to have a different outlook on things, and, more importantly, to slow down and not to rush. People in Surinam take the time to pay proper attention to each other. The warm welcome and hospitality of the people also made a deep impression on the sisters. Many life-long friendships were established and many contacts with the people in Surinam and in the Netherlands are still intact. For example, when Sr Teresa van Schilt celebrated her 90th birthday last year, no less than 25 former Rajpur students celebrated it with her, even though the facility closed down in 1976! The sisters were inspired in their mission by the life of St Vincent, a man who saw the suffering around him, and who took action to relieve it. He had much respect and concern for those under his care. May the same spirit continue to be found in the care provided by the hospital and the Majella Foundation. The Sisters of Charity leave Surinam with a light heart, knowing that the close connections, solidarity and friendship between the sisters and the people of Surinam will continue into the future, even though the last two sisters have left the country.
For the last five years or so you will have heard in July or August that a Vincentian pilgrimage is taking place. You probably will have read several times about these Vincentian pilgrimages and about the experiences of the sisters who participate in this journey. Because not everyone will have the opportunity to undertake such a trip him/herself, we will take you along to France in this article.
St Vincent De Paul inspired Mgr Zwijsen, the founder of the Sisters of Charity SCMM, by his dedication to the poor and for this reason he is one of the patron saints of the congregation. For many people today a pilgrimage following the footsteps of St Vincent is just as moving and inspiring. During the week preceding the pilgrimage, the participants stay in the Netherlands with an excursion to the sisters in Belgium. The Dutch sisters also receive a visit however, and usually the participants are invited by the Vuurhaard (the Hearth), a community of the Brothers CMM and refugees. The preparation for the journey takes four days, and during this time the sisters undertake the Zwijsen journey. They also visit the museums in the motherhouse and the generalate. The pilgrimage itself takes twelve days. Although St Vincent lived a long time ago (1581-1660) there is still enough to be found to remind us of the locations where he used to live.
Vincent was born in 1581 in the hamlet Ranquine, not far from Dax, in the far southwest of France. The municipality that the hamlet is part of is now called Saint-Vincentde-Paul. The house where he was born no longer exists, but it has been replaced by a reconstruction. The house contains among other things an ancient boyâ€™s room with some relics like a small altar, a pair of shoes, a crucifix and some articles of clothing belonging to St Vincent. There is also a copy of a letter, which Vincent sent to his mother on 17 February, 1610. Even though he was the third child of a farming couple, he was allowed to go to school at the age of 15 years. His parents had to sell off a few oxen in order to pay the school fees. Vincentâ€™s father encouraged him to become a priest.
The oak with the Marian statue
The reconstruction of the house of birth
On the village square, near the house, we find an oak tree which has been planted there around 1200 and which therefore must already have existed there in the time that Vincent was still playing outdoors. A small Marian statue has been placed inside that tree. A story reports that Vincent placed the
statue there in order to pray. However, the statue dates from the nineteenth century and is considered a symbol of Vincent’s Marian devotions.
The baptismal church
On 23 September 1600, Vincent who was only 19 years old at the time was ordained as a priest in Château-l’Eveque, by the bishop of Perigueux. Vincent had planned to find a job in the church that would pay well in order for him to retire early. He thought that once he had retired, he would be able to look after his family. However, five years after his ordination, Vincent was allegedly captured by pirates who took him to Tunis to sell him into slavery to the highest bidder. After two years as a prisoner, he was helped to escape and made his way to Paris. There he met Pierre de Bérulle, later to be cardinal, under whose spiritual guidance Vincent started to develop his social and civic involvement.
The parish church of Clichy
The church where Vincent was baptised still holds the baptismal font that was used at the time. It is likely that Vincent was named after St Vincent of Xaintes, a martyr and the first bishop of Dax.
The church where he was ordained as a priest
In 1612, with the assistance of Bérulle, Vincent was appointed the parish priest of Saint Medard in Clichy, a poor parish in a rural area, north-west of Paris. Although he only lived here for a year, this period left a deep impression on him.
The lectern of Folleville
In 1613 Vincent became the tutor and spiritual director of the de Gondi family in Paris. Because he accompanied them
to their estates, where he also preached, Vincent started to get a clearer understanding of the gap between rich and poor. On 25 January, 1617, Vincent gave a sermon in one of those estates, in Folleville, about the general confession. In retrospect this sermon is considered to be the foundation of the Congregation of the Mission, which was created in 1625, and which was particularly concerned about the salvation of the poor rural population.
he might devote a lot of his time to pastoral work in the future. Over a period of five years, Vincent preached in various dioceses, including Chartres, and this resulted in the foundation of caritas associations in all those locations. Vincent founded an umbrella caritas association of women, men, and a mixed group, but only the first two survived.
The Motherhouse of the Lazarists
After his sermon in Folleville, Vincent started to work in the parish of Châtillonsur-Chalaronne, where he developed an intensive pastoral activity. In conformity with the recent Catholic reformation, Vincent lived a sober and pious life. He inspired some prominent citizens to change their life style, but more importantly he inspired the women to constitute a caritas association. Vincent incorporated in his sermon a message that all the members of a family in his parish were ill and needed help, and this moved those present and inspired them to take concrete action. Consequently, Vincent structured the work, for the benefit of all the destitute people who might need assistance in the future.
When Madame de Gondi begged Vincent to return to Paris, he agreed on condition that
In 1625 Vincent was appointed as the head of the College des Bons-Enfants, a boarding school for students, and from there he went to preach in the countryside together with six priests who had been financed by the de Gondi family. This ‘association of missionaries’ was ratified by the Vatican in 1633 and from then on was known as the Congregation of the Mission. Because of the name of their first monastery (the former St Lazare home for lepers) the members are also known as Lazarists.
The Daughters of Charity
here. Catherine Labouré was the Daughter of Charity to whom the Virgin Mary appeared in 1830, showing her a medal that promised many graces to the women who would wear it. At first Sr Catherine was not believed, but in 1832 the Miraculous Medal was minted and distributed on a large scale.
Last resting place
The women’s caritas association that started in Châtillon-sur-Chalaronne in 1617, led to the foundation of the Congregation of the Daughters of Charity in 1646. The caritas association operated thanks to rich ladies who usually provided money and sent their maidservants to help Vincent and the poor. He soon realised that he needed professional staff. Together with one of the ladies who helped him, Louise de Marillac, he started healthcare training. The girls who were being trained soon asked Vincent to be allowed to found a congregation. The motherhouse of this congregation still exists at the Rue de Bac in Paris. The mortal remains of Louise de Marillac and St Catherine Labouré are buried
See for the Vincentian family: http://famvin.org.
The motherhouse of the Lazarists not only contains the St Vincent museum, but the chapel also houses the embalmed mortal remains of St Vincent. However, his heart is preserved in a separate location, in the chapel of the Daughters of Charity, in the shrine of the Miraculous Medal.
The pilgrimage also includes a visit to Lourdes. Mary is also our patron saint, but Lourdes as a destination for a pilgrimage did not yet exist in the time of St Vincent. The journey also includes visits to other important French religious and historical locations, mainly in Paris: the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Sacré-Coeur Basilica, the Place de la Bastille and the Hotel des Invalides.
The Congregation of the Sisters of Charity from Tilburg allegedly started in 1832 with three beguines from Hoogstraten in Belgium; but who are the beguines and who were these three women? Where did they come from and why did they come to Tilburg? Thessa Ploos van Amstel explains the facts of the matter in this article.
From the 12th to the 14th century the Low Countries were characterised by urbanisation. The phenomenon of the ‘beguine’ is inherently linked to this. The beguines were women who dedicated their life to God, but who did not withdraw from the world, like the sisters did at that time. In contrast to monastics, the beguines took neither solemn vows nor vows of poverty. Most of these ‘holy virgins’ continued to live in their own homes, but they wore a characteristic habit. Others settled in small groups near churches, hospitals or convents. Groups of beguines lived together in beguinages, walled miniature villages, where the gates were closed at night. Together or alone, the beguines dedicated themselves to a life of prayer and care for the sick. Many also carried out unskilled labour, often in the textile industry. Although most historical accounts ascribe the origin of the beguines to new spiritual movements, the practical fact that there was a ‘surplus of women’ is bound to have been just as important. This surplus of women had been caused in particular by wars and military expeditions. In addition, there was also a social reason. Many girls, whose dowry was insufficient, were obliged to abandon the thought of marriage. They turned to convents, but soon these had no vacancies left. This was how the practice arose of taking private vows in the hands of a priest. The expressions of piety of the beguines sometimes became so extreme, that they were accused of heresy. To prevent proliferation and maintain control, the ecclesiastical authorities took the initiative to collect these relatively independent women in what later would be called beguinages. In
order to be admitted, the women had to be single (or widowed) and be able to provide for themselves. The beguines promised obedience to their superiors and chastity for the period that they remained in the beguinage. They elected their superiors from among their own group. At any time, the beguines could leave the beguinage and/or (re)marry.
The beguinage in Hoogstraten
The origin of the beguinage Hoogstraten dates to approximately 1380. Unfortunately no trace can be found of the earliest building activities. Since the 17th century the beguinage of Hoogstraten has consisted of 36 small cottages, a baroque beguinage church dedicated to St John the Evangelist and a barn. The area is enclosed by a wall and has two entrances. Behind the church and surrounded by a double row of cottages lies the so-called bleaching ground: the green where once the beguines would have laid out their linen and lace in the sun to bleach. A second court is located next to the outside row of cottages and has traditionally been planted with a variety of fruit trees.
The beguinage of Hoogstraten in former times
During the sixteenth century, the beguinage was ravaged four times by fire and during the fire of 1506, they lost not only all the buildings with the exception of the church, but also all the documents like the certificates of construction and deeds of sale. During the census of the cottages in 1553, 14 cottages were recorded, but after Hoogstraten ended
Johanna van den Wijngaard
up in the frontline of the Eighty Years War from 1567 onwards, only nine houses were left in 1604 and only two beguines remained there. The beguinage flourished in particular during the second half and the end of the 17th century. The number of beguines increased at that time to 160, which meant that more cottages needed to be constructed. The baroque church was built by Libert Fabri, between 1680 and 1687, during the main flourishing period of the beguinage. At first the cottages only consisted of two small rooms and an attic, which was accessible via a ladder. Later on, the flat roof behind the cottage was raised and extended so that it was possible to add a kitchen as well as a cellar with an upstairs room over it and a flight of stairs to the attic. From the second half of the 18th century the number of beguines gradually started to decline. In 1768, the bishop of Antwerp granted permission to rent the vacant cottages to secular persons; at the time, there were still eighty-nine beguines left. In 1972 the last of the beguines, Johanna van den Wijngaard, left the beguinage of Hoogstraten. The very last beguine who was also the ‘grand’ dame’ of the small beguinage in Ghent, passed away on 14 April 20131. In 1992, a number of inhabitants of Hoogstraten decided to restore the beguinage and since 1997, the beguinage has again been fully occupied. It has been part of the UNICEF world heritage since 1998.
Request from Tilburg
In 1832, when he was 38 years old and parish priest of Tilburg, Zwijsen was concerned about the fate of the poor local children. He was not the first parish priest in the Netherlands who conceived a plan to gather a group of women to take on the education of the neglected children in his parish in particular. 1 There were beguines in the Netherlands as well. The last Dutch beguine who lived almost her entire life in the beguinage in Breda died in 1990.
Various priests preceded him. “To speak of the foundation of a congregation’ is in fact too grand to characterise the initiatives of the parish priests. They only wanted to act in their own parish in order to alleviate the bad situation in which many of their parishioners lived (in particular in reference to church and faith). In a letter dated 23 October 1832 written by Zwijsen to Mgr Den Dubbelden, the vicar apostolic of Den Bosch, we read as follows: “I am especially concerned about the lot of the poor children here who have been completed abandoned to their fate. When their names are being registered for their first communion at the age of 12, many can hardly write a cross. I have been thinking for a long time about improving the lot of these unfortunate children. Finally, a school for the poor will be founded, where the girls will be instructed in the Christian faith and needlework. Some Black Sisters from Engelen will take on this assignment for free.” Where did he find these women? In Engelen (near Den Bosch) the parish priest Van Hooff wanted to found a teaching foundation and he requested his friend the priest of Hoogstraten to send a few beguines. It took a while before they arrived, and therefore Fr Van Hooff addressed his request to Father Wolff who had founded the ‘Society of Jesus, Mary and Joseph’ in Amersfoort in 1822. Wolff sent a few sisters who arrived in Engelen in November 1827. Shortly after that Miss Leysen and her two nieces also arrived from Hoogstraten. They brought a considerable sum of money with them for the new foundation. They were called ‘the Black Sisters’ after their clothing. They were not required in Engelen, but Fr Van Hooff organised a house for them from where they started to work in nursing. There they became acquainted with Fr Zwijsen in 1832 and in that same year they left for Tilburg together with some girls who had joined them.
The three beguines
The chronicles of our congregation do not tell us anything about any ‘beguines from Hoogstraten’. However, Mgr Zwijsen does write about “some Black Sisters from Engelen”. This chronicle is the book (with facts concerning the congregation) that Mgr Zwijsen handed over to the general superior in 1862, with the instruction to keep the chronicle up to date from then on. The question is whether the beguines from Hoogstraten were really the foundresses as has been passed on by oral tradition. In the register of the names of beguines who once lived in the beguinage of Hoogstraten we look in vain for the name of the three religious
The beguinage of Hoogstraten nowadays
who are supposed to have stood at the cradle of the Sisters of Charity SCMM. At the time the register of residents only recorded the names of those who had taken the vow, but this does not mean that Miss Leijsen and her nieces did not live there. At that time, it was not unusual for an aunt to live together with her nieces in a cottage in a beguinage. Some tombstones in the chapel of the beguinage in Hoogstraten refer to several family relations. The religious clothing of the ‘Black Sisters’ corresponds to the clothing worn by the beguines in Hoogstraten. The sisters of Amersfoort did not yet wear a habit in 18261832. The chronicles of these sisters of Amersfoort record that the three beguines from Hoogstraten arrived in Engelen and they state that Fr Van Hooff from Engelen had been in touch with his colleague from Hoogstraten. This corresponds with the chronicles of our congregation.
19. The sisters were able to discover via the land registry that the location of this house is now taken up by a house with two floors, Pius street 375. One room of this house served as the first school. Various memoirs of the congregation refer to a ‘modest weaver’s cottage.’ According to officials of the land registry who were consulted by the sisters, however, the house must have been quite a decent size. The school is officially called: “The School for poor and needy girls”. The pupils were taught “needlework, praying, catechism and good manners.” The first teacher of the congregation was Sr Felicitas Zohlandt. She started teaching on 25 November 1832 (two days after the sisters from Engelen had arrived in Tilburg). It is not really clear if she was one of the “Black Sisters” or whether she came straight to Tilburg from her native village of Well in Limburg. The population register of Tilburg (which had been a city since 1809) was not updated on a daily basis in 1832. The Regional Archives in Tilburg contain a list of “people who have entered the city of Tilburg between 1811 and 1838”. This informs us of the following: “Oerle 19, Miss Maria Leijsen,
Housing in Tilburg
The chronicle starts with the announcement that on 23 November 1832 three sisters moved into a house in the area of ‘het Heike’ in Tilburg. This does not correspond with other data, which mention “the first six sisters”. This discrepancy may be explained by the fact that Zwijsen appears to have recorded the chronicles of the first thirty years of the congregation at one point in time, i.e. many years after the fact. Therefore, in his summary of the first thirty years Zwijsen may well have indicated the three pioneers from Hoogstraten as the foundresses. More information is available to us about their accommodation. The house in the neighbourhood of ‘het Heike’ was rented for six months in 1832. Its address was: het Oerle
The first house of the congregation
occupation: private (i.e. of independent means), 53 years old, born in Herenthals as well as Anna Janssens, Maria Zohlandt and Cornelia Verstijnen, who previously lived in Engelen, have declared that they have taken up residence here since 11 April of this year 1833”. The women mentioned are respectively Mother Michaël Leijsen, Sr Catharina Janssens, Sr Felicitas Zohlandt and Sr Jozefa Verstijnen. It must be noted that Sr Catharina was one of the nieces of Miss Leijsen; the latter had meanwhile been appointed as the first general superior of the congregation and was addressed as ‘Mother Michaël’. The other niece, Sr Theresia Smits, is missing from the above list of recently arrived persons, although she did come to Engelen with her aunt in 1827. It must also be noted that it was still forbidden to found convent orders at that time. The registration as a ‘private person’ is found in a number of locations.
The early years
Maria Leijsen was born on 25 January 1779 in Herenthals, Belgium. In February 1834 she took the three vows at the age of 53 years and she became Sr Michaël Leijsen. On the same day she became the first general superior of
the congregation. Sr Felicitas was elected as her deputy. Two years later Mother Michaël, Sr Felicitas and Sr Josefa also took the fourth vow, promising to ‘go there where I shall be sent to nurse patients with infectious diseases, even if this were at the risk of my own life.” Mother Michaël’s two nieces will only do this in 1839. However, during the approval procedure of the Rule, Rome objected to this obligatory heroism, after which the fourth vow was toned down in 1844. Biographers praise the ‘manly strength, the wide vision and entrepreneurial spirit’ of Mother Michaël. She was a strong women who simply carried out what Zwijsen had intended. On 13 January 1852, at the age of 73 years, she resigned her function. She died ten years later. We know that Sr Josefa Verstijnen went to Amsterdam in 1839 accompanied by three fellow sisters. At the invitation of some Catholic gentlemen, the sisters started a care home there, Huize Bernardus. Around 1843 Sr Felicitas Zohlandt was the first superior of the community in Maaseik, where a few sisters started an institute for deaf- mute and blind girls.
Sr Alix van de Molengraft, It all began with three beguines, 1992 (Tilburg) Walter Simons, Cities of ladies. Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200-1565. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. See on the web: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/855
During the ICC of June this year, an international group of sisters met in Vught in order to discuss formation. Formation is the process during which young women become familiar with the life and the charism of the congregation. After the final vows the formation still continues. At the occasion of the ICC about formation each sister received a leaflet from the generalate; it was an invitation to reflect about formation, illustrated by texts and photographs. Sisters were asked to work individually or in groups with the leaflet and to send their reaction about it afterwards to the generalate. During the ICC, in particular during the visits to the sisters in Belgium and Tilburg a lot of thoughts were shared as well about the sistersâ€™ own formation time. Below you will find some of these stories.
I also considered other congregations. However, I concluded that the sisters of our congregation were the most affectionate, the most welcoming and hospitable. You could get close to them and that appealed to me. That is why I selected this congregation. And for most of the time, I was not disappointed.
The postulants and novices spent their time together and the atmosphere in our group was good. On your birthday, you were allowed to sit next to the formation mistress. If we misbehaved, we had to make a public apology, so we tried to be good.
If I could redo my formation period I would not wish to change anything. I received so many opportunities to learn, and I did learn a lot, about the Bible and Christology at the school for novices for instance, but also about social interaction.
I had difficulties with the rules and the daily schedule. You had no time to yourself. We were not allowed to have any money of our own either, but I thought, I wonâ€™t hand in everything, in order to have a little money, just in case. I kept a little money, what would amount to a few euros now. I noticed that another postulant had done the same. However, we scared each other so much that we were afraid that we would be found out and sent away. So we then confessed together. I had really good formation mistresses, who were good examples. They taught me how to deal with differences and even to regard differences as a source of wealth. It remains difficult to accept that others are different; I feel that I will continue working on that for the remainder of my life.
1960- 2000 A period in the congregation of many changes and excitement. The way our life was then, (in spite of all the charity), suddenly was no longer fitting to that time. We looked for new forms and structures and talked for hours on end. â€œWe need to move with the times,â€? we heard. (But did that improve everything and everybody?) And in spite of all the adjustments to that time, No new postulants came forward, that is a fact. (Could all those changes have been too radical perhaps? And had nobody foreseen the possible consequences?) Now, with three conventual homes for the elderly in our country, we find, thank God, that this is not the end, for elsewhere, in far away countries, we carry on. For which we are really grateful! What we in can still give during our later years, is our prayer for an on-going religious life.
Sometimes we were a little naughty. During my formation time we once ate all the fruit from the mango tree. The novice mistress caught us out, but she did not take any further action.
If I were allowed to redo my formation time, I would have preferred a greater emphasis on personal responsibility, and not on obedience. Moreover, I was suddenly sent off on mission, when I had only a limited knowledge of the language. I think that you first need to feel capable to carry out your task, before you can make a difference.
P.S. If the sisters had retained their habit, and did not design their personal budget, would the congregation then continue to exist in countries far away from here?
Sr Lucine Masselink, 90 years old
During my formation time, I was not asked to carry out any absurd tasks; that really happened before my time. However, I have heard many stories about that, for instance, about sisters who had to clean the chapel every day, no matter how clean it was. Or about sisters who had to eat on their knees as an act of punishment. I date from after the Second Vatican Council however, and things became a bit more relaxed at that time.
I always felt very sad and disappointed when sisters left, in particular if they left after their final vows. As a formation leader I found it even more difficult, even though I understood their reasons for leaving.
The most valuable lesson I learned during my formation was how to live in a community. That has been of great value to me throughout my life. I try to keep my spiritual life fresh by communal and personal prayer. And I also try hard to live according to the vows.
We started our mission in a remote area of Brazil a year ago. We are living here in a desert area where it is always very dry and arid and in an isolated small community where everyone knows everyone else. What demands our attention here? We note the consequences of the drought, the fact that education and health care are lagging behind, the concern about the plans for the construction of the nuclear power station nearby and of course the festivals. The festivals are usually religious. The feast days of the patron saints that last nine days are celebrated with a lot of fervour. People look forward to them for a long time and everyone is involved in them. The festivities start in the church with prayers and singing and then are carried on outside with eating, music and dancing. Behind our house, we can still see the remnants of the feast day of St John: a tent with a roof made of dry coco leaves. A few little flags are still fluttering in the wind. I am more and more convinced that the people need these festivals in order to forget the misery of their lives. And of course, people try to bring some colour into their lives, particularly if you live in a place like Ibó that has so little entertainment to offer. For instance, we are often invited to attend the dance of Saint Gonçalo. People then dance for hours in thanksgiving for favours they have received. The entire village appears to attend this well-known dance. All the men and women are dressed in white and pray, sing and dance. From time to time, there is a short break for everyone to eat something of the food prepared by the person who is giving thanks. We consider the friendship that has meanwhile developed with the people as a source of great wealth. We know almost of all of them now, with their worries and desires. Their concern about their animals that have no food and do not produce milk for the children, let alone milk to turn into cheese and butter as they used to do in the past.
The people are worried about the health of their family: the long distance trip to a hospital, the high costs for treatment and the dentist who will visit again now after a four-year absence, but who still often fails to turn up because of the lack of transport or supplies. Recently there have been many demonstrations in the entire country for better social provisions, health care and education. For that reason, the government is now forced to do something about these abuses. For instance, there is a shortage of doctors, particularly in remote parts like ours. As an emergency solution, Cuban doctors have been drafted in to fill in the vacancies. Fortunately, they are good doctors who offer support to the poor population. The government is focusing its attention on education, but even so a lot goes wrong. For instance, during the first years of primary school children have to always progress to the next level of schooling. A woman teacher, who is a friend of ours, finds this very difficult, for among the 22 children in her class –the fifth school year- there are 6 who are unable to read and write. She tries anything she can do to assist them, but it is almost impossible. Many parents are not interested in schooling, the children do not attend regularly and the teaching staff is unable to cope. We are convinced that you have to start with the children. The project, Voices from the Sertão, allowing children to sing and make music together, has definitely brought about a change already. Some of the parents tell us that their children have changed, they pay more attention to each other, they are more disciplined and more obedient to their parents and have come to realise the importance of attending school. We consider that a success and hope that it will carry on and will contribute to a better future. Sr. Ursula van de Ven (79 years) shares in the column what it is like to found a new mission post in Ibó, Brazil.
Fifty years have already passed since I arrived in Italy on 7 September 1953. I travelled by air! I lived in Oss and Mother Berendine (I no longer remember her last name) was the superior at the time. She organised a small coach so that the young sisters could come along to the airport. Of course, she also came with us herself. I thought that was very thoughtful and it made my departure very enjoyable as well. In Rome, I was met by Sr Pauline Tesselaar and Father H. Mondé (the general superior of the South African Mission Fathers of Cadier en Keer). Father Mondé told me later on, that he wondered “whatever is this poor young thing coming to do in Rome!” I got to know him well, for he came to read the Holy Mass in our home every day, and he took me under his wing from the beginning. Immediately after my arrival I started to learn Italian. For this purpose, I attended a school for foreigners during three mornings each week. During the remaining days, I visited a poor neighbourhood near our home to practise the language and to get to know the people. As a nurse I was able to help many elderly people and I vaccinated many children. That was wonderful work. Three months after my arrival I went to work in a hospital. I had to retake the exams for my nursing certificate, for my Dutch certificate was not recognised here. I was no longer able to go home every day, and could only visit our sisters during the weekend. During the week, I stayed with the “Blue Sisters”. I practised my Italian with them and refreshed my knowledge of English. After only six months, I was allowed to take the exam and I passed immediately. I also passed the exam for head nurse, for that is a separate certificate here. Afterwards, I simply returned to working in the neighbourhood again. The congregation then asked me to become a midwife. They planned to build a maternity clinic. This never happened, but I spent a year and a half in England to train to become a midwife. When I returned to Italy, a new building had been constructed, intended for the nurses who were to work in the clinic.
It turned out that the clinic was no longer required and the building was turned into a home for the elderly. Therefore, I was then asked to work with the elderly. I was surprised how much I enjoyed that work. I could do so much for these lovely people! The year 1981 was a catastrophic year as far as I was concerned. In that year, the general chapter took place in which was decided to move the general council to the Netherlands, and for that reason also to sell our wonderful generalate. We lived on the Monte Cucco in such a beautiful location; it was on a hill of thirty meters high, a very quiet spot, yet very near the city. However, I was in luck. Father Mondé, who meanwhile had retired, had been living in our generalate for some time. He very much wished to stay in Rome, and asked his general superior at the time if he could live with me in the generalate of the SMA Fathers. He needed the help that I could provide. This was approved. After 15 months, Father Mondé passed away. I continued to live there for another 18 years. Then I was asked to move to our apartment on the Portuense, in order to manage this pied à terre for the Congregation. Much against the grain I moved there in 2003, but now I am quite settled. I still look after the SMA Fathers; that is my daily job. I take care of their medication, look after the sick and if necessary I go with them to see the doctor. It is wonderful work. Most of the SMA Fathers do not speak Italian, least of all the students. They usually come from Africa, because there are hardly any vocations in Europe. I eat with them each Sunday after I have been to the Church of Santi Michele e Magno. I am still quite at home with the SMA Fathers and I am always welcome there. Rome is the city where I feel at home. Sr Cunera Borst (born in 1931) has been working in Rome, Italy for 50 years (minus a year and a half in England). She is the only sister of our congregation who lives there.
Regina Memorial Hospital (USA) celebrates its 60th anniversary
On 21 November 2013 it was 60 years ago that the Regina Memorial Hospital in Hastings (USA) first opened its doors. The founders of this medical centre include among others the Sisters of Charity. The sisters worked there together with non-religious doctors and nurses. In 1989 the hospital was donated to the population of Hasting, after which its name was changed into the Regina Medical Centre. The sixty year jubilee will be celebrated by means of the publication of a cookbook, to which all those involved have contributed including our congregation.
of young people of very many different languages and races who treated each other as equals and communicated with the language of the heart. They were days that young people united in prayer and wished to listen to the message of our pope Francis. Everywhere in Rio, you saw pilgrims singing, praying and praising God: in busses, the underground, the train or on foot. Rio’s inhabitants were enthusiastic and happy to see this crowd. We felt privileged to have been able to share in these wonderful days with great faith, and a lot of love and hope.”
World Youth Days
This year the world youth days took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from 23 until 28 July. The 3.7 million participants also included Srs Joanita, Elisângela, Joérica and Paula, together with four young people of the group
In this issue you will be able to enjoy the photographic page showing the Christmas stables. It is clear that your Christmas stable is very close to your heart. For the next issue, we would like to ask you for an image of St Vincent. This may be a photograph of the Saint himself, a statue or picture, but also a situation which you feel represents his spirituality and dedication to the poor. Send your contributions to the generalate via the post or even better via e-mail. We look forward to the result again! The Editors
of young people of the Brazilian Movement of Mercy. Sr Paula told us: “Everyone in Brazil, children, young people, adults and the elderly followed this important event via the television every day. It was an indescribable meeting
RECTIFICATION The September issue of Compassion has an error on page 15. The picture there does not show the final profession of Srs Jessica and Catharine, as is stated in the caption, but their first vows! The editors offer their sincere apologies for any confusion they have caused.
Compassion is a periodical published by the general council of the Sisters SCMM in four languages: Dutch, English, Portuguese and Bahasa Indonesia. In addition, there is a spoken version available in Dutch. ISSN 1879-9922
Many may call upon us; By a warm personal concern for each other and for all with whom we come in contact and by a spontaneous goodness we hope to realize something of Jesusâ€™ love. In this way our community will be a sign of Godâ€™s approaching Kingdom. (Art. 55 - 56)