Last week we celebrated our annual Mass of the Holy Spirit. About 100 members of our community were present for the celebration. We were blessed with the presence of our University Choir as they sang two exceptional pieces — they are amazing!
I gave the homily so I thought I’d share a bit of it with you here:
In October of 1859, 153 years ago this past Sunday, twelve young women arrived in Portland. These women ages 18-33 were Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. They were ordinary French Canadian women, women of their time. They arrived in Portland after six weeks at sea. Once here they had to contend with poverty, disease, anti-Catholic prejudice, a new language and a foreign culture. They did not have a guidebook to tell them how to organize and structure their new foundation. Instead they rolled up their sleeves and just two weeks after their arrival in Portland they opened St. Mary’s Academy, the institution out of which our university would grow, and its home until the fall of 1930 when the college was moved to this campus. On that first day of school six students walked through the door: three Catholic, two Jewish, and one Anglican. The diversity of that first group of students highlights the value the sisters placed on all children, not just those who were Catholic. By the end of that first academic year the school grew to 112 students. Just three years later, in 1862, the twelve sisters were running schools in Portland, Salem, Oregon City, the Dalles, and St. Paul. Twelve women, five schools, great distances, and no Twitter…. How did they do it?
Each of the twelve brought unique talents to the new mission: Perpetua, the youngest, had a knack for developing warm relationships with the children; Florentine was a gifted teacher; Mary of the Visitation was a musician; Alphonse, the first superior, was one of the few who spoke English; Mary of Mercy was a talented artist, and Mary Agatha had the gift of humor to lighten tired hearts. Each one also brought limitations: Florentine was described as the “perfect” teacher, Mary of Calvary possessed an “insubordinate spirit,” Mary Arsinus was physically and mentally frail, and Alphonse was restless and impatient. They were ordinary women.
As today’s reading from Corinthians reminds us, there are many gifts – and the twelve foundresses did possess many gifts; gifts which were given for the benefit of all. No one sister could have achieved what the twelve did as a community of sisters. They did not accomplish the founding of so many schools in such a short time simply because they were hard workers, or because they were committed to a common cause, or even because they were incredibility talented. They accomplished much because our twelve founding sisters were convinced that the Spirit of God was working in and through them even as they tried to bring the Kingdom of God, to the wilds of Portland. The sisters understood that they were part of God’s mission – to bring sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and glad tidings to the poor.
So, how is it for us?