There is much jubilation among the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus who are in grateful awe that their foundress, Mother Clelia Merloni, has been beatified by the Church.
That includes a contingent of sisters who serve at Our Lady of Pompeii School in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. The order, founded in Viareggio, Italy, in 1894, has had a presence at the school since 1930, four years after the congregation first arrived in the Archdiocese of New York.
Mother Clelia’s beatification year is especially poignant to Sister Kathryn Press, A.S.C.J., 35, who made her final vows as an Apostle of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in August. She teaches fifth grade math and ELA as well as religion for the fifth, sixth and seventh grades.
“Ultimately, my life is an imitation of Jesus Christ,” Sister Kathryn said, “but it’s flavored because of our charism, and that is our modeling of the life of Mother Clelia.”
Four days before Mother Clelia’s Nov. 3 beatification at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, CNY visited Our Lady of Pompeii School. “For me, the part that is elevating my level of excitement is the fact that after this, she doesn’t belong to us anymore—she belongs to the Church,” Sister Kathryn said. “It’s no longer just about her daughters in this congregation that she founded; instead, it’s about other people that are deriving hope and strength in their faith life because of her witness.”
Born in Cincinnati and raised in Atlanta, Sister Kathryn entered the congregation in 2009. She was drawn to the order’s charism by observing that the sisters were “women of the heart, that their way of loving just imbued everything that they did.”
The sense of a child’s belonging in a classroom and school is affirmed by being taught “from the heart,” Sister Kathryn said. Whatever subject is being discussed “can touch their heart and can make a difference in their life. And so for me, teaching these students is also like, in some ways, teaching their parents,” teaching the students’ future children, “teaching their grandchildren.”
And that could include her no-nonsense example of gently reprimanding a mischievous student who playfully soared a paper airplane through the classroom, as one youngster did when CNY visited Sister Kathryn’s fifth-grade math class Oct. 30.
Sister Rita Marie Milano, A.S.C.J., 66, teaches second grade ELA, math and religion, and first grade religion. She also prepares students for the reception of the sacraments of reconciliation and First Holy Communion.
She applies lessons about the life of Blessed Clelia in ways the youngsters can relate. “How she lived is a very good message for our world today,” Sister Rita Marie said. “I try to make them understand that they need to be kind all the time” regardless of the situation, and helpful, she said, “and that God will help them if they’re in a difficult circumstance.”
A native of New Haven, Conn., Sister Rita Marie entered the congregation in 1970 and made final vows in 1978. “I’m very happy being a woman religious. I wouldn’t want to be anything else. It’s a blessing that God has called me to Himself and I’m grateful for that all the time.”
Although the principal of the school, Sister Diane Mastroianni, A.S.C.J., was away Oct. 30, the school had two special visitors that day—religious sisters who are actual sisters: Sister Colleen Therese Smith, A.S.C.J., a former Pompeii principal who now serves as the congregation’s director of mission advancement at the U.S. provincialate in Hamden, Conn., and Sister Bridget Mary Smith, A.S.C.J., a former Pompeii second grade teacher who now teaches kindergarten at Sacred Heart Villa in St. Louis. Both are natives of St. Louis.
Sister Bridget, 57, was visiting Pompeii School before catching a flight that evening for Rome. She had the good fortune of being one of five sisters whose names were drawn from a kitty of 75 to attend the beatification.
“I was surprised and shocked and just burst out crying,” she said of learning this past March 10—Mother Clelia’s birthday in Italy in 1861—that she was going to the beatifcation.
“I really feel like a pilgrim,” she added as she fought back tears of joy. “I am just going in prayer, and going for the party and the celebration. I just know that God is going to reveal some great surprises and blessings.”
Sister Bridget entered the order in 1979 and made final vows in 1987. She taught at Pompeii School, 2001-2002.
Sister Colleen, 55, entered the order in 1981 and made final vows in 1989. She served as principal of Pompeii from 2004 to 2007. She was overjoyed that her sister was going to Rome to attend the beatification, and came to New York to see her off to the airport.
Sister Colleen shared a poignant moment that occurred during a recent Mother Clelia beatification meeting in Connecticut. “We received from Rome the propers for her Mass,” as the new blessed’s feast day will be Nov. 20, the eve of the anniversary of her death in Rome, Nov. 21, 1930.
“In just a few weeks,” Sister Colleen added in animated suspense, “we will celebrate a liturgy to Blessed Clelia.”