Franciscan sisters celebrate 125 years

'WOMEN OF STRENGTH, COURAGE AND VISION'

July 12, 1993|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

It was a "bittersweet celebration" in the words of Tom Barrett, a retired Army sergeant and 17-year volunteer at the Franciscan Center on Maryland Avenue.

Sister Ritamary Tan, O.S.F., agreed.

"With Sister MaryAnn's death, we lost some of our momentum," she said of the year of preparations for yesterday's 125th anniversary of the Mill Hill nuns, now known as the Franciscan Sisters of Baltimore City.

Addressing bishops, priests, nuns, lay volunteers, donors and other friends assembled for the 1 p.m. Mass at the Basilica of the Assumption on Cathedral Street, Sister Ritamary outlined the history and purposes of the Roman Catholic religious order, calling it "a generative people" and "a peasant community" that has known poverty, enrichment, discrimination, hatred, love, nurturing, death and rebirth since its founding by Mary Basil, a former Anglican sister, in the Mill Hill section of London in 1868.

"We have even been murdered," Sister Ritamary said.

Her listeners were mindful of the last minutes on earth of a beloved friend and colleague. The Mass of Remembrance came 114 days after Sister MaryAnn Glinka, O.S.F., was robbed, raped and murdered in the Franciscan convent near Memorial Stadium.

Even that horror had its place in "our footprints in the sand," declared Sister Ritamary, the nuns' superior.

An outpouring of affection, appreciation, concern and support that followed the tragedy, she said, "strengthened our bonds, especially with the people of Baltimore."

So it was a day not for sadness but for commemorating the surpassing joy of generations of selfless lives dedicated to God -- Sister MaryAnn's and hundreds of unsung others.

The nuns of several orders, the clergy and the lay people in the pews -- including members of the family of Sister MaryAnn, who grew up in East Baltimore -- prayed to a reassuring Christ.

"We remember how you loved us to your death, and still we celebrate, for you are with us here," they sang to the accompaniment of organ, guitars, drums and tambourines. "And believe that we will see you when you come in your glory, Lord. We remember, we celebrate, we believe."

Then the congregation sang, "Let us Build the City of God."

The preacher was the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell, pastor of St. Edward's Parish in West Baltimore and one of only a few black priests in the Archdiocese.

He noted that one of the primary missions of the first four Franciscan nuns brought to the United States from England in 1881 by Cardinal James Gibbons continues to this day. The founders were responding to "the needs of homeless African-American children in the streets of Baltimore," Father Blackwell said.

The Mill Hill sisters were willing to leave the comforts of their

suburban convent in London for unknown challenges in this city because they were "women of strength, women of courage, women of vision . . . women of humility," the preacher said.

And because they had suffered the "oppression of womanhood," he continued, they could share the "pain of racism and sting of segregation . . . of oppressed African-American children."

During the Mass, offered by a group of priests who included retired Archbishop William D. Borders and Auxiliary Bishops John H. Ricard and William C. Newman, 45 of the Franciscan nuns stood and recited their mission statement based on the peace and love preached by St. Francis of Assisi. It included "a preferential option for the poor."

The congregation prayed that girls and young women will be inspired to make a lifelong commitment to the religious life and carry on the order's charitable work, now largely in the hands of lay volunteers.

At their high point in the 1960s, the Baltimore Franciscans numbered about 150, Sister Ritamary said. Sister MaryAnn's death reduced their ranks to 53, whose ages range from 32 to 95. Their median age is 68, the nuns' superior said.

One of the rounds of applause was for the Rev. Gerald F. West, the sisters' chaplain and chief celebrant of the Mass. "We expect will be with us when we celebrate our 150th," Sister Ritamary said of the priest, who was ordained 34 years ago.

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