Saintly inspiration for new beginnings

Archbishop Aquila

It’s not that often that bishops are able to announce the kind of good news I am about to share with you. As I write this column, the archdiocese is beginning the process of opening two new parishes in the Denver metro area in response to our growing population.

For some of you this isn’t news, since you are a part of the two communities – one in Thornton and one in Green Valley Ranch – that have come together to form the foundation for these future parishes. I am inspired to see the number of young families and faithful men and women who have committed to become a part of these new communities.

Before I reveal the names I have chosen, it’s important to explain some Church terminology that describes the phases of forming a parish. On December 3, 2017, these two communities will be designated as a “quasi-parish.” Prior to receiving this status, they were satellite locations of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish and Ascension Parish.

With their designation as quasi-parishes, these communities will now have their own patron saints, statutes, pastoral and finance councils, keep their own sacramental records, and have an established territory within the archdiocese. Once these quasi-parishes are incorporated and demonstrate that they can sustain themselves, they will be recognized as parishes.

I have been praying for quite some time about what these two new locations should be named. As I brought this decision before the Lord, the importance of renewing family life and evangelization kept echoing in my heart, and so I have chosen two recent saints who exemplify those missions.

This coming August, the Church will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of Pope St. John Paul II’s visit to Denver for World Youth Day in 1993. Many observers have commented that this was a spiritual turning point for the Church in the United States. And certainly, it was a turning point for the Church in northern Colorado. During his visit, St. John Paul II challenged us to become saints, and for many, he became a father figure who was also their spiritual hero. Countless marriages, and priestly and religious vocations were born during those summer days in Cherry Creek State Park, and 25 years later we continue to see new apostolates created as a result of his leadership and love.

Not only did St. John Paul II inspire many people to take up the demands of the Gospel with joy and zeal, but he also gave the Church the gift of the Theology of the Body. As forces within our society work to dismantle the blessing, meaning and purpose of sexuality, the treasure that St. John Paul II gave us in the Theology of the Body increasingly reveals its value.

For these reasons, I have decided to name the quasi-parish in Thornton, “St. John Paul II.” The community that has been meeting for the last several months has gathered at Frasatti Catholic Academy and the archdiocese is working to purchase land in the vicinity to provide a site for the parish church.

As I mentioned earlier, the state of the family has been in my prayers, too. A couple years ago I came across some love letters that were written between an engaged Italian couple during World War II. That couple was St. Gianna Molla and her husband Pietro.

St. Gianna Molla was a doctor with a generous heart for the poor and a desire to share her faith. At one point, she even planned to join her priest brother in Brazil as a missionary, but her family’s concerns about her delicate health and the primitive conditions there dissuaded her. Since she couldn’t be a missionary, she focused her intense love for God and the poor on family life and the practice of medicine.

In reading the letters that St. Gianna and Pietro Molla exchanged, their love for God and each other is evident. She wrote to Pietro, “I really want to make you happy and be what you desire: good, understanding, and ready for the sacrifices that life will require of us.” Pietro responded, “I’ve read your letter over and over, and kissed it. A new life is beginning for me: the life of your great (and greatly desired) affections and of your radiant goodness.” Their love for each other was fed by their faith, which was often mentioned in their letters. Their spiritual depth was also apparent in their decision to prepare for their wedding by attending a “triduum” of Masses over the three days before their vows.

Besides her love for the faith, St. Gianna is best known for how she lived her final days. When she was pregnant with her fourth child, who would be named Gianna Emanuela, she learned that she had a benign tumor on her uterus. This condition was treated at the time by aborting the baby and removing the tumor. However, Gianna steadfastly refused an abortion and had only the tumor removed, knowing that the risk of a stitch becoming infected or breaking from being pregnant was quite high. She gave birth on Holy Saturday, but a few hours later she came down with a septic infection. St. Gianna died four days later at her home.

Because of her love for her family, devotion to the faith, and protection of innocent human life, I have decided to name the second new quasi-parish “St. Gianna Molla.” This community has been celebrating Mass at Omar D. Blair Charter School in Green Valley Ranch.

As the Church works toward establishing a permanent presence in these locations, I urge everyone in the archdiocese to pray for these communities, that they might imitate their patrons and continue to grow. I also encourage you to learn more about these amazing saints, who offer us examples that are especially relevant for our society today. Saints John Paul II and Gianna Molla, pray for us!

COMING UP: Machebeuf basketball star traded success playing hoops for a solitary life of prayer

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Shelly Pennefather led the Bishop Machebeuf High School girls’ basketball team to victory in every game she played in. It was not surprising to her friends and classmates that she would go on to play college ball for Villanova and then play professionally in Japan. It was not even surprising that she would have a religious vocation.

What was surprising was the order she chose. In 1991, Shelly Pennefather drove to Alexandria, Va., where she entered the Monastery of the Poor Clares. She would become a cloistered nun, living a radical life that included going barefoot out of penance and poverty and praying all of the hours of the Divine Office, even at 12:30 a.m.

This also meant she would not see her family except for twice a year from behind a transparent screen. She would not hug them until 25 years after her profession.

“I was shocked that she chose a cloistered order,” said Annie Mcbournie, graduate of Machebeuf in 1984 and a friend of Pennefather’s. “I was not at all shocked that she chose a vocation.”

Her story was recently featured on ESPN, who recounted how Pennefather gave up being the highest-paid women’s basketball player in the world in 1991 to live a life in service to the Lord as a Poor Clare.

Pennefather took the name Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. This past June, Sister Rose Marie celebrated her 25th anniversary of her solemn profession: the long-awaited moment to greet her family from outside the screen, not to happen again for another 25 years.

Villanova teammates, friends, Machebeuf classmates, and family were all in attendance. She hugged her 78-year-old mom for what will probably be the last time.

Mcbournie was not able to make it but will visit Sister Rose Marie this fall. Since she’s kept up with her via letters, she is permitted to visit the monastery.

Pennefather attended Bishop Machebeuf High School in Denver from 1980 to 1983 before transferring for her senior year due to her dad’s military job. She left Machebeuf with a 70-0 record.

“Her entire high school career, she never lost a basketball game,” Mcbournie said.

Mcbournie was a cheerleader and friend of Sister Rose Marie in high school, but a deeper friendship began 10 years after graduation. Sister Rose Marie’s brother Dick called Mcbournie before World Youth Day in Denver in 1993 since Mcbournie was still in the area.

Sister Rose Marie had just joined the Poor Clares and Dick and McBournie met up and spoke about the mourning process the family was going through, McBournie said. Dick mentioned to her that they could write Sister Rose Marie as many letters as they wanted, and one day a year, on the Feast of the Epiphany, she could write back.

Shelly Pennefather, pictured here in this photo from the Archdiocese of Denver archives, always exuded a deep spiritual life, her former Bishop Machebeuf classmates said. (Photo by James Baca)

“From that year on, I have been writing her every year,” McBournie said. She gives Sister Rose Marie updates on life, pictures from their high school reunions, and prayer requests.

“I have witnessed her journey through these letters,” McBournie said.

When Sister Rose Marie’s dad passed away shortly after entering, she was not able to leave the monastery to go to the funeral. McBournie saw how difficult these sacrifices were for her, especially in the early years of her vocation. But the letters show Sister Rose Marie’s joy.

“The last 5 to 10 years, I could just see her say, ‘I’m so blessed to be able to do this’,” McBournie said. “She’s so joyful.”

A fellow Machebeuf classmate asked McBournie for Sister Rose Marie’s address in order to have a little fun. He sent her a $20 bill with a note saying he thought she could use a smoke and a bottle of wine.

Sister Rose Marie did not miss a beat and in her yearly letter, she responded, “I bought incense, and I drank from the chalice,” McBournie recounted.

Shelly Pennefather (#15) had a 70-0 record playing basketball for Bishop Machebeuf in the 1980s, and went on to play for Villanova and then professionally in Japan. (Photo courtesy of Villanova Athletics)

But this letter sparked a friendship. This classmate has continued to write letters and even attended the 25-anniversary jubilee.

“Her letters are still hilarious, still very sarcastic,” McBournie said.

She remembers Sister Rose Marie being reserved and quiet in high school, focused more on school and basketball than anything else. Her father was in the military and the family was very disciplined, but they had a good sense of humor and quick wit, McBournie said.
“Her spirituality permeated her existence from the time she was young,” McBournie said.

David Dominguez was a few years ahead of Sister Rose Marie at Machebeuf but remembers her discipline and her talent. He called himself her cheerleader.’

“If it was really tight, we would start yelling, ‘Shelly, Shelly!’” Dominguez said. “It was one of my favorite cheers.”

Dominguez exercised at the Air Force base gym where Sister Rose Marie would train and play basketball with her dad and brother.

“I knew she had incredible skills,” Dominguez said. “It was kind of magical to watch.”

Sister Rose Marie recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of her profession of vows with the Poor Clares. She was able to hug her friends and family for the first time in 25 years. ESPN was there to cover the occasion. (Photo courtesy of Mary Beth Bonacci)

Dominguez also knew she was different.

“She was living for a different purpose than everyone else,” he said.

Sister Rose Marie’s devotion and personality remain the same, though she has traded in her jersey for a habit.
Although Sister Rose Marie can only write one letter a year, and can seldom have visitors, her friendship and influence reach far beyond the monastery walls.

Mcbournie said that their yearly letters have brought them even closer than they were in high school.

“I look forward to her letter every year,” Mcbournie said.