Their Lives are STARS!

I love STARS! I smile when I see the double-pointed, directional star on the Ursuline Coat of Arms. I welcome the reminder of my dual commitments to a life balanced by action and contemplation represented in our star logo. And so, when I was reflecting on the women who founded the Cleveland Ursulines as we approach our community’s 170th anniversary this August 8th, I was struck by Sister Michael Francis’ words in the Preface to the Broad Highway:

those first heroic nuns, whose lives are stars for all of us to steer by ..

Who were these women? Can their lives point us forward at this most uncertain of times? Their names: Mother des Seraphines, Mother St. Charles, Mother Mary of the Annunciation, were all professed religious of the monastery of Boulogne-sur-Mer in France.

Mother des Seraphines was a native of England and was educated in the Ursuline Convent at Boulogne. She had a genius for organization; was an excellent teacher, conversant with English, French, German, Latin and Italian.

Mother St. Charles who was French, spoke English with difficulty. Yet she had a thorough knowledge of the Rule, the spirit and letter of which she observed in an exemplary manner.

Mother Mary of the Annunciation, at 32, was the youngest and only four years professed. She was a member of an old, well-to-do Norman-English family. At fourteen, Mary was sent to the Ursulines of Boulogne to further her education after which she returned to England. In 1844, she entered the novitiate in France where she was professed two years later. Blessed with both spiritual qualification, strong faith, conformity to the will of God, detachment from self, and a deep maternal solicitude for the well-being of her sisters in religion; as well as natural qualifications of practical common sense, business acumen, foresightedness, and a singular tenacity of purpose, Mary Beaumont was chosen Superior for the new foundation.

The fourth founding member was a lay sister, Sister Saint Benoit, known for her kindness and evenness of temper.

In addition, the four religious were joined by Miss Arabella Seymour, an English noblewoman, who developed an extraordinary talent for music and art during her studies at the Ursuline Convent in Boulogne. Here she took instructions in the Catholic faith from Father Rappe who received her into the Church in 1834. Years later, unable to practice her faith in England, she returned to France where she pursued further studies and opened a seminary for young ladies in the city of Lille. It was here, that the newly appointed Bishop Rappe invited Arabella to accompany the Ursulines to Cleveland, an invitation that she accepted.

On July 19, 1850, these five women set sail for a distant missionary field on a journey that would last 21 days: three whole weeks traveling the Atlantic Ocean on what would never be considered a Viking Cruise! And to make a precarious situation even more hazardous, when they had reached mid-ocean, a sudden and violent storm arose, which soon reached the proportions of a hurricane. It became clear to everyone that the ship could not weather the gale.

What might have been in the minds and hearts of these women? Did they question their decision to leave the comfort of daily routines that had been a part of their monastic lives? Were they confronted by their choices to “let go” of status, education, the treasures of family and friends, connections in society, financial security and any unaddressed personal aspirations? They had left it all for an adventure into the unknown and there was no turning back. What is the star which steered them? How might their lives provide direction for us today?

For many of us who are self-quarantined during the current pandemic, the sense of being somewhat “out to sea” may be a suitable metaphor. On our “ship” there are also limits to our freedom; we have our histories of experiences yet have very few ways to share them with others; our treasured family and friends are confined elsewhere for reasons of mutual safety and health; our nation’s leaders debate political stances while the vulnerable lose their homes, their livelihoods, the means to keep food on their tables; at the same time cries for an end to racism grow ever stronger. And the ocean surrounding us? Across the entire globe people are suffering from an uncontrolled pandemic; from the consequences of world migration; from the poverty and starvation endemic to the struggle of refugees, and the destruction due to climate change. Will we be able to weather the multiple storms that swirl around us? Will our “ship” be able to weather the gale?

At the height of the storm, what did these five women do? Amid the general confusion, the Ursulines publicly shared their prayers, imploring Our Lady, Star of the Sea, to abate the fury of the storm, reciting the rosary and the Litany of the Blessed Virgin. Five women witnessed to believers and non-believers alike their faith in a Providential God through the advocacy of Mary. Gradually, the waters became less turbulent, over time the winds decreased, and eventually calm fell upon the Atlantic.

Their leading star was one of a strengthened commitment to prayer, a renewed covenant with the God who loved them. They chose to do what they could do, nothing more and nothing less. It made all the difference. In each of our current situations, where we may feel powerless in the midst of ambiguity, uncertainty, loss and grief, what is the star that will steer us forward? What might the God who loves us be asking? What might I do that could make a difference?

Sister Anne Marie Diederich