Sisters offer spiritual motherhood to those they serve

When Sister Joseph Marie Cruz was a child, her family lived near the Mullen Home in Denver where the Little Sisters of the Poor serve the elderly in need, and she and her sisters visited often.

“I was attracted by the caring for the elderly — the compassion and the happiness that the Sisters portrayed and their serenity in caring for the elderly,” said Sister Joseph Marie.

“I used to love to comb the residents’ hair and talk to them,” she said. “It was such an enrichment listening to their stories and seeing the Sisters care for the residents. It was such a beautiful feeling that I wanted to be a part of it, too.”

Lo and behold, years later Sister Joseph Marie followed that inclination and joined the Little Sisters of the Poor, a vocation she has been living out for 43 years.

“I love it,” she said. “If I had to do it again, I’d do it all over.”

The Little Sisters of the Poor are one of several religious orders in the Archdiocese of Denver where women give themselves to God.

And although they will never have their own children, these religious women take care of all sorts of souls entrusted to them — often sacrificing their own comforts to bring them closer to God.

Sister Maris Stella Karalekas, one of the Sisters of Life, felt called to religious life but never expected to serve in the way she does now.

The Sister of Life exert their motherhood by serving pregnant women, women who have had abortions and young women in college. (Photo by Andrew Wright)

“When I met our community, I couldn’t believe that it existed in the Church and in the world,” said Sister Maris Stella. “They have this charism of the dignity of the human person, that every human being is sacred — and not for anything that they can do or produce, but because they’re created and loved by God and held into existence by his love.”

The Sisters of Life serve pregnant women who live with them at their convent, offer post-abortive ministry and evangelize on college campuses, specifically to young women.

“It’s really helping to discover the beautiful women God created them as,” said Sister Fiat Marie Hayes, “and helping them to live out that identity rather than anything the culture tells them.

“When they live out of that reality, they live their lives in meaningful ways, and they don’t squander gifts that have been given to them,” said Sister Fiat Marie. “They don’t fall into traps that the culture has.”

The Sisters are inspired by those they work with, especially the mothers.

“Seeing the sacrifices that they’re willing to make for their children inspires us to make sacrifices for our spiritual children,” said Sister Maris Stella. “I think we can learn from one another.”

Sister Maris Stella is amazed especially by young moms who bring their children to Mass each weekend.

“I think her prayers must be so valuable to the Lord and so precious to God because she’s really giving all she has to her children, and, in that way, giving it all to God,” she said.

It’s really beautiful to accompany the residents through their life. It’s a powerful witness of the culture of life, and our consecrated hospitality is a witness to the mercy and compassionate love of the heart of Jesus.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Little Sisters of the Poor accompany the elderly facing the end of their lives. The order in Denver has been serving those in need for 101 years.

“We care for the residents, we accompany them through their joys, through their sorrows, through their expectations,” said Sister Joseph Marie. “At the moment of the dying process, they’re never alone because a Little Sister is always with them.

“It’s such a beautiful atmosphere,” she continued. “Other residents see this and say to themselves, ‘At that moment, I don’t have to be afraid because there will be a Little Sister holding my hand and helping me pass from this life to the next.’

“We’re there giving spiritual birth to the residents to go to heaven,” she said.

Although they don’t have husbands to rely on, the Sisters feel they get all they need from God. Sister Joseph Marie has witnessed the help of St. Joseph, the order’s patron, several times, including when the Sisters were serving at their home in Peru.

“We were going to serve [our residents dinner] and then the gas line went out,” she said. “We didn’t have any hot food.

“At that moment, there’s a neighbor that knocked on our door and said she had cooked too much food, so she brought some food and it was enough for all six of us for dinner and supper,” she said. “It just brings tears to your eyes and goosebumps because or God’s love, and St. Joseph always provides for us.”

Both orders feel fortunate to convey that love to those they serve.

“In our vocation, we’re very privileged to be able to walk with people in the important, intimate details of life,” said Sister Fiat Marie.

Sister Joseph Marie agreed.

“It’s really beautiful to accompany the residents through their life,” she said. “It’s a powerful witness of the culture of life, and our consecrated hospitality is a witness to the mercy and compassionate love of the heart of Jesus.”

COMING UP: Growing a charism of life: Meet Denver’s new sisters

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Ask almost any Denver Catholic why this archdiocese contains so many powerhouse ministries and disciples, and you will hear the same answer repeated: Pope Saint John Paul II came here for World Youth Day. The theme of his 1993 visit was John 10:10– “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” Amongst the hundreds of thousands who came to see him was Cardinal John J. O’Connor, who had just founded a fledgling group of religious sisters called the Sisters of Life, and a 17-year-old teenager from Maine. Now, in the wake of another pope’s visit to the US, the Sister of Life have arrived in Denver, and that teenager is their local superior.
The Sister of Life were founded on June 1, 1991. In addition to the traditional religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the Sisters of Life take a fourth vow to protect and enhance the sacredness of human life. They are a contemplative-active community, spending about four and half hours a day in prayer, and the rest in serving mothers in crisis pregnancies, post-abortive parents, and running retreat houses.
However, their mission in Denver is going to be a little different. Although Archbishop Aquila has expressed interest in having the Sisters join his diocese since he was in Fargo, it was only this year that the sisters decided to move west.
“We were discerning as a community where to go next. The Holy Spirit then inspired Curtis Martin to invite us into a partnership with FOCUS (the Fellowship of Catholic University Students),” Sister Mary Concepta, SV said.
The sisters will work with college students at CU Boulder, CSU, and UNC. They will also occasionally work with Colorado school of mines.
“We’ll spend on week each month at each of the campuses,” said Sister Maris Stella, SV. “Our desire is to bring them a charism of life. We want them to know that their lives are something sacred, beautiful and good. We also know that young women in college are especially vulnerable to the abortion industry.”
“We want to form relationships with them and be a witness,” said Sister Mary Concepta.
Unlike their other missions, the Denver sisters will not operate a crisis pregnancy shelter. Instead, they will be focused on full-time evangelization to college students. However, they ask that the people of Denver pray for their mission to expand.
“We want the people of Denver to know that we’re praying for them. We expect the Holy Spirit will develop this mission, even in ways we could never expect. Please pray that we remain docile to the Spirit’s instructions on how to grow the charism of life in this archdiocese,” Sister Maris Stella said.
Meet the sisters
Sister Mary Concepta, SV
Sister Mary Concepta is the local superior for the order. She first came into contact with the Sisters of Life through a college friend who became unexpectedly pregranat, and who recieved help from the sisters of life.
“Her life had been so transformed by the sisters, that when I was open to religious life, I was naturally drawn to them,” Sister Concepta said.
She said that she has been overwhelmed by the generosity of the faithful in Denver, who have provided everything the sisters needed “down to the last spatula.” She also says she marvels that so many years after hearing Pope Saint John Paul II speak at World Youth Day, she is now tasked with bringing the charism of life to Denver.
“It’s beyond what I could have imagined God doing in my life,” Sister Mary Concepta said.
Sister Maris Stella, SV
Sister Maris Stella graduated from the Naval Academy and was stationed in Naples. It was there that she first heard about the Sisters of Life, from seminarians. When she came back to the United States, she decided to look them up.
“I was kind of hesitant to visit, because I couldn’t believe they existed in the world. It was a discovery of my own heart, discovering them, because the seed of the charism of life was already there within me,” Sister Maris Stella said.
She said she is also thrilled to be in Denver.
“It’s a new adventure. The spirit is definitely at work. I hope we can be docile instruments,” Sister Maris Stella said.
Sister Maria Anne Michela
Sister Maria Anne Michela was studying for her graduate degree in biochemistry at the University of Madison-Wisconsin when decided to answer the call to religious life.
“I had though about a vocation for years. I’ve heard people compare vocations to a dripping faucet–gentle, yet persistent,” Sister Maria Anne Michela said.
She prayed about Peter walking on water in Matthew 14. She said she was filled with conviction that she needed to step out of her boat. Shortly after, she found the Sisters of Life online.
“As I read through the website, I couldn’t believe it existed. It resonated with my heart,” she said.
Sister Maria Anne Michela said she humbled and honored to be called to serve in Denver.
“[The Lord] doesn’t need us to do his work, but he let’s us participate. I marvel that he let me be a part of this,” she said.
Sister Fiat Marie
Sister Fiat Marie said her vocation was almost a response to the culture of death. Although she had been involved in various pro-life activities, she said she had her wake-up moment when she accidentally stumbled across a pro-choice group. As she read through their materials, specifically Planned Parenthood cartoons targeted at youth, she became convicted that she needed to act. A few months after graduation, she answered the call to religious life.
“When I went to bed that night, I really felt that invite from the Lord. There was a great joy in being able to respond,” she said.
Sister Fiat Marie worked for five years at Holy Respite in Manhattan, serving mothers during and after unexpected pregnancies. Shes said she was inspired by the women’s heroicism, but also looks forward to serving college students.
“College is such a pivotal moment,” she said. “When healing comes into those broken areas of life and love, that’s what brings people back to the Lord. It’s a privilege to be able to witness that.”