WARWICK — The Religious of Jesus and Mary celebrated an important milestone on Sunday, Feb. 25, marking the 200th anniversary of the founding of their order by St. Claudine Thévenet with a special Mass at St. Timothy Church.
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Father Andrew Messina presided at the anniversary Mass, which included a renewal of vows. As he offered congratulations during the homily, he took care to point out the sisters’ example of service in particular to the parish’s faith formation students, whom he asked to consider the sisters’ selfless dedication and response to God’s vocational call.
“These are the people who have dedicated their lives to Jesus, to Mary and to you,” he said as the parish offered their congratulations with a round of applause.
Following the Mass, many of the sisters reflected on their own vocational call to the Religious of Jesus and Mary during a reception in the parish center. Sister Priscilla Lemire, who grew up in New Hampshire and attended an elementary school run by the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary, recalled the night her mother asked if she would like to attend high school at Villa Augustina School in Goffstown. None of her older siblings had attended the school, which was run by the Religious of Jesus and Mary.
“One night, my mother was reading something about Villa Augustina in the paper and she said, ‘Wouldn’t you like to go to high school there?’ And to be different, I said yes,” she recalled.
At Villa Augustina, Sister Lemire discovered a call to serve as a Religious of Jesus and Mary and was prompted to enter when one of her teachers, Sister Georgina Anderson, wrote on the top of a corrected test that she thought the young student would make a good religious sister. Many years later, Sister Lemire continues to fulfill her calling to education and evangelization through her involvement with RCIA programs.
“I’ve been very blessed with my ministry,” she said.
Sister Diane Dube, who travelled from Plainville, Mass., to join her fellow sisters at the anniversary Mass, recalled attending schools run by the Religious of Jesus and Mary as a child in Fall River. Though she had many sisters as teachers at Notre Dame School and Jesus Mary Academy, she was not very impressed with the everyday manner in which they lived out their vocations.
“I thought their lives were very boring,” she admitted.
As she grew older, Sister Dube began to reconsider a calling to the vocation and eventually became a Religious of Jesus and Mary herself, discovering their lives were not so boring after all. Sister Dube serves as the community leader of Jesus Mary Mission Center in Plainville and in the fall will travel to Lyon, France, for an international celebration marking the closing of the bicentenary year.
“I wanted to give my life to God and decided this was a way to do it,” she said.
The Religious of Jesus and Mary were founded in 1818 by St. Claudine Thévenet, a Frenchwoman who grew up amid the chaos of the French Revolution. Originally composed of Catholic laywomen, the group offered shelter and education to impoverished girls and became a congregation at the urging of their spiritual advisor. They later expanded their educational charism to include boarding schools for girls from more affluent families and, by the middle of the 19th century, had expanded the congregation’s mission to India and Canada.
The order’s history in Rhode Island traces its roots to Woonsocket, where the Religious of Jesus and Mary arrived in 1884 to educate French-Canadian immigrants. The sisters ran parish schools at Precious Blood Church and Holy Family Church and opened St. Clare High School, eventually expanding their presence south to Providence. In 1989, with many sisters retired and fewer teaching opportunities, the sisters decided to move their primary residence in Rhode Island to Warwick, where a suitable space was available across the street from St. Timothy Church. Most of the Religious of Jesus and Mary serving in Rhode Island continue to reside in Warwick, where they participate in ministry at St. Timothy’s and other area parishes.
“They consider themselves retired, but you wouldn’t know,” said Father Messina.
In addition to RCIA, sisters of the Religious of Jesus and Mary in Rhode Island continue to live out their vocations through Special Religious Education, hospital chaplaincy and parish ministry. Sister Janice Farnham is currently writing a history of the congregation’s U.S. province. Last October, she had the opportunity to travel to Agra, India, for an international meeting commemorating the opening of the bicentenary year.
“I was surprised at how vital the Catholic Church is [in India],” she said. “I think the feeling everywhere [is] we’re just so grateful to God for doing this.”