Apostles of the tenderness of God
A friendly meal, stalls, displays of photographs, video projections and intercultural discussions: on Sunday the 21st of June 2015, the big Assumption family, men and woman religious and laity, with their families, friends and collaborators, celebrated at the Mother House in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, the foundation of the Little Sisters of the Assumption, marking 150 years of discreet and joyful service of those most in need. By Chantal Joly
Sister Dominique, leaven in the dough
In her inter-generational, international and lively community at Antony (Hauts-de-Seine) she lives with three postulants, two Vietnamese and one Malagasy, a finally professed sister and a sister with temporary vows. Sr Dominique, aged 48, sees to the accompaniment of the postulants while, since September 2014, she has at the same time been co-ordinator with two other sisters for the territory of Belgium-France-Italy-Vietnam where there are some 300 religious. For six years she had been assistant director of an association for domiciliary assistance to aged handicapped persons. It was quite late, after time spent in a couple, and motivated by the desire to ’give a service in the Church’, that Dominique began searching for her vocation in Strasbourg. She who ’had never thought that the religious life could be for her’ saw ’happy women who were giving their life’. A decisive experience was that of living in community in a council flat alongside the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, with the presence of the Eucharist ’the beating heart of Christ’. In the face of the declining numbers of the Congregation in Europe, this Frenchwoman is serene: ’Ageing’, she says, ’has something to teach us and, also, we are asked to be the yeast in the dough, not to be both the dough and the flour. That situation takes nothing away from our interior vigour.’
Sister Nhung, the joy of service
On the 8th of July she will return joyfully to her native country, Vietnam, for six months, before going back to France to prepare for her final vows. Aged 29, Nhung is one of the pioneers that are writing the history of the Little Sisters of the Assumption in her country. Nhung, who was born into a family that was persecuted by the communist regime, and had fled to the south with the foreign missionaries, felt the call to the religious life when she was ten years old, ’struck by the smile’ of the religious where she was a boarder, enthralled by the chants of Lauds and that prayer which ’used to bring peace’ to her. On her return to Saïgon for Japanese language studies she lived in one of Father Bosco’s hostels and one day came across a booklet that presented the Little Sisters of the Assumption. The text of the Annunciation resonated in her. A revelation that, with what the Lord gives her, she can help others with her work, her hands. Also, Nhung devoted her dissertation at the end of her studies to ’The place of women in the Announcement’. ’We too’, she says, ’we can be apostles.’ She explains that the apostolic life that enables her ’to work, and in the evening with the community to share in prayer what has been experienced, the persons that have been encountered’ gives a meaning to her days. She is very attached to her family and was touched by ’the emphasis placed on the family’ by her Congregation and she feels the freedom to find her place in it, aware that ’a lot of work is waiting for us’.
Sister Micaela, an intact missionary heart
Her name - "De Wilde" – betrays her Belgian origin, but she who grew up in Argentina became a real Latino. At the age of 72, she has all their fighting spirit to work for social justice. Her vocation was inspired by a heroine in a novel ’who nursed the poor in their homes’. A story that made her ’dream’. Micaela who came from a ’completely non-practising’ family, trained as a nurse. She entered the Congregation of the Little Sisters of the Assumption at the age of 21. Her life moved between missions ’in the field’ (in areas of Buenos Aires and then in the north of the country) and responsibilities within the Congregation (provincial superior and then two mandates in the General Council at the Mother House in Paris). She was very touched by what she heard about how the Little Sisters were "close to the people" in Madagascar and asked to go there. She received "as a gift the fact of being given the opportunity to work with something that was coming into being". She, with a Malagasy sister and two laypeople, constitutes the team that manages the diocesan health centre. Micaela likes to recall the fine but "small achievements" of the two communities in the highlands of Fianarantsoa: the nutritional follow-up, the out-of-school support with teachers for the children who are the most backward in schoolwork, the sewing workshop that performed the feat of providing 35,000 bags for the national World Youth Days, and now they are preparing to open a clinic. She comments: "It is not just charity: all these persons bring us their faith, their courage, their perseverance and their family spirit."
Sister Luz-Myriam, the combination of faith and social issues
"What’s bred in the bone will come out in the flesh!" As the daughter of a trade-unionist she remembers "always having felt the desire to serve". At the age of 17 she took part in a mission in her diocese and two years later directed her steps towards the consecrated life. She tells how, in her home town of Medellín, the second-largest city of Colombia, she had encountered "a poverty she had never known existed", thanks to the Little Sisters of the Assumption who were living in a neighbourhood there. After becoming one of them, Sister Luz Myriam worked in the vocations ministry, trying to develop the awareness of the young women concerning their social environment. Then she left for Costa Rica and later El Salvador before dropping anchor in Lima, Peru. She has been there for twelve years and is responsible for the Latin-American novitiate and is also one of the three co-ordinators of the territory of Latin America. "It is beautiful", Sr Luz-Myriam says, "to find everywhere the spirit of our charism that detects the presence of God in everyday life and relations with people, and which gives each one the possibility of feeling that he or she is a person. This desire, which is that of humanity, precedes us. We are there only to accompany it and enable it to develop."
Fidelity and new shoots
"To refashion a people for God among poor and working-class families." The bold intuition of Father Etienne Pernet (1824-1899), an Augustinian of the Assumption, that materialised in a working-class suburb on the outskirts of Paris thanks to Antoinette Fage (1824-1883) is expressed nowadays with different words and the mission has spread throughout the world (688 sisters in 20 countries). In the course of a Eucharistic Celebration in the parish church of St Jean-Baptiste de Grenelle in thanksgiving for the past and to listen to the Spirit for the future of the mission, Marie-Françoise Phelippeau, superior general of the Congregation said: "Although at times in Europe the charism seems to be asleep, elsewhere in the world it reappears like a new bud." During his homily, Mgr Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, auxiliary bishop of Paris, said: "You make visible at the heart of society and of the Church the love of Christ that urges us on […] the promise that every human life may emerge into glory for eternity. You learn to look at others within the great mystery of the Assumption by being witnesses and guarantees […] a promise to make everything of the work of God succeed." In a message, Father Benoît Grière, Superior General of the Augustinians of the Assumption, greeted those "who are not nostalgic for times past but who are missionaries for our new times", and Pope Francis sent his blessing, adding this prayer: "May you awaken the world!"