Two hundred years ago, three sisters from a very young congregation—the Sisters of Charity in Emmitsburg, Md., founded by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton—came to New York City to care for orphans. They settled into a building at the corner of Prince and Mott streets, just steps from what is now the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral. There, they ran an orphanage that quickly filled with the impoverished orphans of immigrants. From that beginning in child care, the congregation’s work would grow to include education, health care and other ministries, with special devotion to the poor.
On Dec. 9, the Sisters of Charity of New York returned to the neighborhood to close their 200th anniversary year at a Mass in the basilica, across the street from where their story started in 1817. Cardinal Dolan was the celebrant and homilist.
More than 80 sisters attended, together with a group from Guatemala, where the sisters have had a mission since 1971. That group included Sister Rosenda Magdalena Castañeda González, S.C., the congregation’s first Guatemalan sister to profess final vows, as well as two novices and a postulant. There were also about 35 associates from the United States and Guatemala, laywomen and men who share in the mission and spirituality of the Sisters of Charity of New York.
The basilica was filled with a spirit of joy and gratitude.
“It’s such a day of the heart,” Sister Jane Iannucelli, S.C., president of the congregation, told CNY. She said it was especially significant to celebrate in “the church of our beginnings.”
“We prayed here,” Sister Jane said. “This was our parish…From here the congregation grew, and over 4,000 sisters have served in New York and beyond,” including in Vietnam, Chile, Peru and the Bahamas, “wherever we could be with the poor.”
At the beginning of the Mass, Sister Jane welcomed everyone. She thanked Cardinal Dolan for celebrating the occasion with the sisters, and Msgr. Donald Sakano, pastor of the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral and a concelebrant, for welcoming the sisters to what was their first parish church in New York.
Cardinal Dolan said, “Sisters, how grateful we are to you, how much we praise God for the gift and the charism, the ministry and the presence, of the Sisters of Charity in the Archdiocese of New York. I personally am indebted to you very much, and I personally am very proud to be the archbishop of the archdiocese where Mother Seton entered the family of the Church and where the Sisters of Charity are such a splendid part of this tapestry.”
Also concelebrating were Archbishop Patrick Pinder of Nassau in the Bahamas, who was educated there by the Sisters of Charity; Msgr. Richard Lopez of Atlanta, a friend of the congregation; and Father Jarlath Quinn, pastor of St. Peter’s in Manhattan, the oldest Catholic parish in New York state.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who founded the Sisters of Charity in Emmitsburg in 1809, was born in New York City. Originally Episcopalian, she was received into the Catholic Church in St. Peter’s and attended Mass there.
The Mass Dec. 9 was broadcast by live streaming to the residences of retired Sisters of Charity who were unable to attend.
Cardinal Dolan, in his homily, said that Jesus was particularly sensitive to people who needed healing or encouragement, like the saint of the day, St. Juan Diego, an indigenous Mexican who received the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Love of those whom the world brushes aside was “a driving force” in the life of Mother Seton, and it lives on in the Sisters of Charity, the cardinal said.
“The sick, the hungry, the immigrant, the poor, those whom the rest of society could walk by, have been particularly embraced by the daughters of Elizabeth Ann Seton,” he said. “Sisters, my love and my gratitude for who you are and what you’ve done these past two centuries.”
The sisters renewed their vows during the Mass, and the associates renewed their commitment in English and Spanish.
The sisters, associates and guests gathered later for a luncheon in a nearby parish hall. Among them was Sister Virginia Searing, S.C., a Sister of Charity for 57 years, who has served for 25 years in Guatemala.
“I love it!” she told CNY. She is director of the Barbara Ford Peacebuilding Center in Quiché, named for the Sister of Charity of New York who was murdered in Guatemala in 2001. The center offers youth programs, trade and technical education, spiritual development and many other programs and activities.
The sisters also operate medical clinics in Guatemala in cooperation with the Diocese of Spokane, Wash.
Sister Rosenda, who professed final vows July 11, spoke with CNY, with Sister Virginia serving as translator. She said that as a visitor at the congregation’s formation house in Quiché, she was inspired by the sisters’ mission and asked to learn more about it.
“It encompassed so much of what is in my heart,” she said. She is now part of the vocation program in Guatemala, and she said that she has “a very great desire” to see young people embrace the spirit of the congregation and pursue a vocation.
Also attending was Sister Elizabeth Vermaelen, S.C., a past president of the congregation. She told CNY that she is hoping for “God’s blessing for the future.”
“We don’t know what it will be,” she said. Her eyes filled with tears as she added, “Clearly, we ran out of sisters.” When she entered the congregation in 1951, there were 1,400 sisters; now there are about 230, and most of them are retired, she said. She suggested that one reason for the drop in vocations is that “there are so many other things people can do if they want a life of service.”
Asked whether anything makes her hopeful, she replied, “The spirit and the enthusiasm of the New York sisters.”