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Building on faith: Catholic sisters raising funds for new home in Colwich

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, July 13, 2013, at 5:01 p.m.

It was on faith that the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Wichita broke from their California order and came to Wichita in 1976, and it’s on faith that they’re now endeavoring to establish their first permanent home here.

“It’s a beautiful story,” said Bronwen Lewis, a Catholic who is helping the sisters raise money to end their nomadic existence.

“The story is the most compelling modern story of faith that I know of.”

Following a directive from Rome, three sisters came to Wichita to establish the order, which now includes 22 women who have bounced among borrowed homes.

“One of these days we’re going to build,” Sister Eileen MacDonald, one of founders, said to the young sisters in the 1980s.

There was no “we’re” about it, though.

“You’re going to be the ones to build it,” MacDonald told them.

“It was ingrained,” said one of those young sisters, who is now Mother Mary Magdalene O’Halloran, the general superior of the order.

“So we just knew when it was time, we’d know what to do,” she said. “In our line of business, you learn to trust God.”

After a couple of dashed hopes with potential properties over the years, the sisters came upon an auction sign for 80 acres in Colwich in 2012. The Simon family, a Catholic family of 10 children, owned the land and the farmhouse on it where their parents moved after marrying in 1912. Several bachelor Simon brothers later lived there.

One of those brothers was the late George Simon. O’Halloran said she learned he was one of 47 young men from the Colwich area to fight in World War II and that members of St. Mark’s parish struck a deal with the Virgin Mary for their safety. She said they built a shrine to Mary and prayed a rosary every Sunday for her to return the men unharmed.

“And she did,” O’Halloran said.

A local priest did a videotaped interview with Simon a few months before Simon’s death in 2011. O’Halloran watched the video, which is on YouTube, while she was looking into purchasing the Simon property.

“When he was recounting … being surrounded by grenades and bombs … he paused and said, ‘And then the blessed Virgin Mary saved my life.’

“It was kind of like a signature – Mary’s signature – to go ahead,” O’Halloran said of buying the property. “It was just a little sign that Mary was with us.”

In addition to having their order named for Mary, the sisters have a particular devotion to her because of her reported appearances to three children in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917 and her instruction there to pray for the conversion of sinners. That’s one of the missions of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Catherine Simon is the third youngest of the Simon children and the only one still living. Her family was able to take the property off the auction block and sell it to the sisters. They closed last year on June 13, the anniversary of what was said to be Mary’s second apparition at Fatima.

“My mother and my sister were very much for the blessed mother,” Simon said. “The whole family – very devoted.”

She said her family would approve of the sale of their home to the sisters.

“The whole family I’m sure would just be very, very happy. They’ve got to be looking down and saying, ‘This is what we wanted.’”

‘Against the grain’

The other mission the sisters have is to teach, which they do at various Catholic schools throughout Wichita.

Although they’ve taught thousands of students through the years, the sisters don’t have alumni to turn to for support as a university would to raise money.

“Asking for funds is tough,” said Lewis, whose sons learned from the sisters at Kapaun Mount Carmel High School.

It’s even tougher for the women because they’ve taken a vow of poverty along with their vows of chastity and obedience.

“It goes against the grain,” O’Halloran said. “Our motto is we take what is set before us.”

That’s where Lewis comes in. She has spent 30 years in fundraising and development, which included stints at Stanford University, the Catholic Diocese of Wichita and the Dian Fossey Mountain Gorilla Fund.

“I just want to help them,” Lewis said. “They’re just joy-filled, wonderful ladies, and they’re wonderful sisters.

“They’re not in the fundraising business, and they don’t have a development office, so we’re beginning to … tell their story and the need and … what the impact would be.”

Their story starts during a time of upheaval in the 1970s when their fellow sisters in California chose a less conservative path that Lewis said eventually led them from the Catholic Church. Even friends of the three sisters who originally ventured to Wichita to support the church questioned whether the order could attract members, especially given that it is so conservative.

The numbers have grown, though. Because of cost, a novitiate house and a motherhouse will have to be built in phases. The first phase is the novitiate house where young women studying to take vows can reside. Lewis said it will cost between $5.2 million and $5.5 million for an assembly area, 32 bedrooms, a chapel that seats 100 and a dining room for 50 to 75 people.

So far, the sisters have almost $1million toward their goal. Lewis hopes building, which she said should take about a year, can begin in April.

“All things are possible with God,” she said.

It may not all be possible within the Wichita Catholic community, though.

“There’s a little donor fatigue,” Lewis said. “We’re living in a very fierce competitive environment for the Catholic philanthropic dollar.”

Lewis said it’s not inhibiting her or the sisters. She said she knows the right donors are out there, and that may mean looking outside of Wichita.

“They just need to know the story.”

‘Nun runs’

The sisters currently reside in four separate convents, including one in Hutchinson, due to space constraints.

Unlike many orders, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary is growing, thanks in part to what are known as “nun runs.” That’s when Catholic college girls “travel the country visiting the motherhouses,” O’Halloran said.

They have the opportunity to experience what religious life is like. In Wichita, though, what they experience is not what they will get if they choose to come here.

Due to a lack of space, O’Halloran instructs the young women to bring their sleeping bags, but then it turns into something of a slumber party instead of the more quiet, religious experience she’d like to create.

The sisters pray fours hours daily, and O’Halloran said it used to be easier for potential novices to learn what that type of life is like.

“Every one of the sisters had the experience where they could go to their room and sit on the edge of their bed and say, ‘This is what it would be like,’” she said. “You knew pretty much what you were getting into.”

These days, she said, “It’s just not the same.”

The lack of space is the impetus behind building now, O’Halloran said.

The order is a diocesan institute, but she said it’s customary for such orders to be self-sufficient. Lewis said the sisters are that and more.

She points to their pay for teaching, which they purposely accept as more of a small stipend than a full salary.

“I can’t help but think it was a gift from God that they’re here,” she said. “It makes me weep.”

Not every day

Sister Marie Bernadette Mertens knew there was a chance she could become a sister from an early age.

“I did think about it as a young girl,” she said. “I also very desperately wanted to get married and have 12 kids.”

Mertens got her marriage proposal but said she needed to think about it, which she did while visiting the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary “when I had the silence and the atmosphere to pray about it.”

She chose religious life.

“Sometimes making the decision is the easy part,” Mertens said. “It’s implementing it.”

It’s the same with building, she and the other sisters are learning.

Mertens, who was general superior before O’Halloran, became a postulant four months after O’Halloran and was one of the young sisters to receive Sister MacDonald’s command of establishing a new motherhouse.

“It doesn’t happen every day that a motherhouse is built,” O’Halloran said.

“It’s the first motherhouse to be established in the state of Kansas in more than 100 years,” Lewis said.

They use the word “established” because another one was built during that time and then burned down.

The sisters have already built a replica of the 100-year-old farmhouse – the original was in disrepair – that the Simons lived in. Visiting families of sisters can stay there, and eventually it will be used as a chaplain’s residence. The sisters are also in the process of building a replica of the Fatima shrine to Mary.

A group of sisters, including novices and a postulant, gathered at the shrine on a recent sunny day, their easy, girlish laughter filling it. O’Halloran stood on the spot in the replica where Mary was said to have appeared in Fatima.

“She hasn’t appeared here,” O’Halloran said, smiling. “We’re inviting her.”

The property also has wheat fields that a farmer will tend for the sisters, and they have an apiary and take care of the bees themselves.

“They’re a good symbol of religious life,” Mertens said. “They all work together to make something beautiful, which is what we do.”

The Colwich property is near three heavily Catholic communities – Colwich, Andale and St. Mark – which O’Halloran said was important to the sisters. They often hear things such as, “Oh, you’re out in God’s country,” referring to the nearby churches and the beauty of the open fields.

O’Halloran said she and the sisters have put their hopes for a new home in God’s hands, but they’re getting some help from others, too, such as the Knights of Columbus.

“We have said from the beginning: ‘Our Lady’s friends will help us build this house, and she has lots of friends,’” O’Halloran said.

“Of course, it’s pretty scary … beginning this new venture,” Mertens said.

Lewis points to how far the order has already come, though.

“Everybody said, ‘You’re never going to make it. You’re never going to survive,’ and they have.”

Reach Carrie Rengers at 316-268-6340 or crengers@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @CarrieRengers.

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