Religious Sisters of Mercy to leave seminary, but not archdiocese

Professor-nuns helped establish St. John Vianney Theological Seminary

Roxanne King

In 1998, four Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., arrived to Denver to help open and establish St. John Vianney Theological Seminary. Over the years the order’s presence in the archdiocese grew to seven and spread to the Western Slope.

This month, with their original mission completed, three sisters are leaving the seminary convent, but four sisters will remain at St. Clare of Assisi School in Edwards, Colo., to continue teaching there.

“It’s been a great joy for each one of the sisters assigned here to work in the seminary, to collaborate and to bring it together,” said Sister Esther Mary Nickel, superior of the Denver convent the last dozen years. Explaining their move, she added, “Our hope was that as new priests were formed [at the seminary], they would eventually take over our jobs and that is happening.”When the seminary was being launched, Archbishop Charles Chaput invited the sisters to help staff it, and to maintain the seminary chapel and sacristy, work with first-year seminarians and care for the archbishop’s residence. Archbishop Samuel Aquila, then-Father Aquila, served as seminary rector.

Today the seminary is thriving and the archbishop’s residence, which sits across from the seminary, was recently expanded for communal living and combined with the new multi-use facility called the Holy Trinity Center.

The Holy Trinity Center, which was paid for through private donors and completed last year, solves space woes the archdiocese was experiencing at the John Paul II Center campus, which houses two seminaries—St. John Vianney and Redemptoris Mater Archdiocesan Missionary Seminary—the convent, a Spirituality Year House for first-year seminarians, and the pastoral center offices.

“The Holy Trinity Center is fulfilling its purpose as a place for meetings, dinners and a place of hospitality. It’s been wonderful seeing how it’s developed,” said Sister Nickel, who has coordinated its activities since it opened.

Sister Nickel, who holds doctoral degrees in theology, liturgy and agronomy, also taught at St. John Vianney, assisted the Catholic Medical Association Denver Guild, the nonprofit Divine Mercy Supportive Care, Endow women’s studies, served as archdiocesan liaison to the Discalced Carmelites, and was a consultant to the Office of Liturgy.

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Sister Esther Mary Nickel has been serving at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary since 1998. While she and several other Religious Sisters of Mercy are leaving the archdiocese, a few will remain in Colorado to serve at St. Clare of Assisi school in Edwards. (Photo by Andrew Wright)

“It’s been a great privilege and a joy to work with these men who go out and serve the people of God in the parishes. For me teaching has been a tremendous gift,” she said, adding that she also enjoyed her work with the Catholic groups, chancery offices and religious communities.

“There are such good people who have been working in the Archdiocese of Denver,” she said.

Sister Nickel is going to Jackson, Minn., to write a couple of books and several articles. She’ll also be helping former Denver priest, now Sioux City, Iowa, Bishop R. Walker Nickless, with liturgical formation.

Also leaving are Sister Mary Elisha Glady, who is going to the Diocese of Lake Charles, La., to serve as director of formation, and Sister Mary Katerina Masek, who is going to the Diocese of Phoenix to teach philosophy and music.

Staying in the mountains to serve St. Clare of Assisi School are the principal Sister Marirose Rudek; community superior Sister Mary Andrea Lesko, and teachers Sister Mary Rosanna Leinberger and Sister Mary Hanah Doak.

Sister Rudek is the sole remaining member of the first sisters who came to Denver to help open St. John Vianney. The others—Sister Mary Judith O’Brien, Sister Mary Prudence Allen, Sister Moira Debono and, the following year, Sister Mary Timothea Elliot, previously moved on to other assignments.

When a new order moves in to the Denver convent, their primary task will be to care for the archbishop’s residence and the Holy Trinity Center, Sister Nickel said.

“The convent was built in 1950 and had Precious Blood Sisters who did laundry and cooking for the seminary,” she said, referring to the old St. Thomas Seminary, predecessor to St. John Vianney. When St. Thomas closed, the Precious Blood Sisters left, she added.

“We feel grateful that we’re still part of the archdiocese,” said Sister Doak. “A lot of our vocations have come from the archdiocese—six or seven—including my own. The archdiocese is much beloved by our order and we’re grateful to be able to continue the tradition that was started in Denver and expanded to the Western Slope.

“There’s a sadness in closing the [Denver] convent,” she continued, “but also a peace that it’s the Lord’s will—and as part of the Lord’s will we are in this little mountain town [Edwards]. We love the school, St. Clare’s, and we’re really rooting for it and want to see it grow.”

For more information about the Religious Sister of Mercy, visit rsmofalma.org.

COMING UP: Professor-nun’s lecture explores privilege, purpose of consecrated life

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Julie Filby

To live a life of perfect charity: that’s the goal of all Christians and of religious in particular.

So said seminary professor Sister Esther Mary Nickel, a Religious Sister of Mercy of Alma, Mich., speaking to a group of 20-plus religious and college mission students gathered for a talk and discussion on the Decree on the Renewal of Religious Life March 25.

The Vatican II document, also known as “Perfectae Caritatis” (Perfect Charity), and another, “Lumen Gentium,” the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, are marking 50 years during this Year of Consecrated Life called for by Pope Francis. The special year also coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council.

In promulgating the Year of Consecrated Life, which started Nov. 30 and runs through Feb. 2, 2016, the pope wants the Church to revisit the two documents so as to bring their implementation to fulfillment. Sister Nickel’s talk, hosted by the Little Sisters of the Poor at Mullen Home in northwest Denver, was the second in a three-part series to build awareness of what they say.

In the midst of the social and political revolution of the 1960s, the Catholic Church was experiencing her own transformation as she convened and began carrying out changes called for by the Second Vatican Council. The era played a significant role not only in how the 1962-1965 council was understood but also in how it was implemented, Sister Nickel said.

“A Church history professor (of mine) used to say, ‘It usually takes 50 years to implement a council … but we’ve made a few mistakes so it’s going to take us a little longer,” she said, drawing laughter from the crowd.

Misinterpretations by some in the Church and media misrepresentations contributed to the confusion that followed Vatican II as parishes grappled with the changes. She urged those in attendance to read “Lumen Gentium” and “Perfectae Caritatis,” which are vital for understanding the roles of religious and of laity in the Church.

“Lumen Gentium,” she noted, recovered Christ’s universal call to holiness.

“That was very different,” Sister Nickel said, adding that prior to Vatican II holiness was seen as the domain of clergy and religious but the document affirms that, “Everyone is called to holiness.”

Holiness, she said, is achieved in the perfection—or fullness—of charity (love), which every Christian is called to and which consecrated men and women are called to in a specific way.

“(Religious) are striving toward a fuller and more intense participation in the life of God, in the charity of God,” she said.

The role of religious, Sister Nickel said, is to be a sign and a reminder that Christians are mere pilgrims on earth.

“Our consecration, our fully giving our lives to the Lord,” she said, “gives witness to the truth that we’re not here to stay, we’re here to lead others to heaven.”

Religious have the privilege of being called to a stable life in which they are bound to practice the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience (some also take a fourth vow) and live a life in common that supports their efforts to do so.

“You’re more free than ever,” Sister Nickel said, “because you know you’re doing the Lord’s will.”

In keeping with God’s plan, over the centuries “a wonderful variety of religious communities has grown up,” she said quoting “Perfectae Caritatis.”

“That’s what we see in this room,” Sister Nickel said, acknowledging the Little Sisters of the Poor, Carmelite sisters, Capuchin Franciscans and Servite friar in attendance, “a wonderful variety … each blooming with it’s own beauty.”

What religious ultimately desire, she said, is to share the fulfillment expressed by Christ as he hung on the cross on Good Friday.

“We long for that moment when we will see the Lord … and be able to say, ‘It is finished.’ And Our Lord can say to us, ‘Well done good and faithful servant.

“That’s what’s at the heart of perfect charity.”

 NEXT LECTURE

Decree on the Renewal of Religious Life

By Sister Esther Mary Nickel, R.S.M.

7 p.m. April 30, Mullen Home, 3629 W. 29th Ave., Denver