When Maryknoll Sisters Carla Piette, Ita Ford and Maura Clarke committed themselves to the people of El Salvador, and ultimately died there, they were living out a mission and spirituality envisioned by Mother Mary Joseph Rogers early in the twentieth century. Thousands of women have embraced that vision over the years, living it out in Asia, Africa, Latin America and here in the United States. As the Maryknoll Sisters prepare to celebrate their one-hundredth anniversary on January 6, 2012, Claudette LaVerdiere has written a timely book on the life and spirituality of this fascinating woman who founded and led the religious congregation for the first three decades of its existence. It is, as Janice McLaughlin, MM, says in the Forward, “a gift not only to Maryknollers but to all who wish to understand the foundation and inspiration for modern mission.” Aimed at this broad readership the book offers in three parts a short life of Mother Mary Joseph Rogers, the foundations for her vision of mission, and her spirtituality. Readers will find it accessible and well-written, an opportunity to become familiar with the charismatic woman who greets them from the cover photograph, embodying “the saving grace of a kindly humor” she urged the Sisters to have.
Born in Boston in 1882, Mary (Mollie) Josephine Rogers grew up in an Irish Catholic family, attended public grammar and high schools, and graduated from Smith College. Hardly the stereotypical background for the future founder of a religious congregation; but it may have freed her to develop her foreign mission vision without preconceived ideas about religious life. Throughout her life she spoke often about the importance of her years at Smith College. Speaking to the Newman Club at Columbia University in 1925 she reflected that Smith had played a central role in the development of her vocation. (Nevertheless, the Jesuit editor of America magazine took her to task for what he considered her downplaying of the importance of a Catholic education.) And in 1940: “I love Smith College very much.... It was there that I got my vocation.” Smith College responded to this by awarding her a doctor of humane letters degree in 1950—this after Cardinal Spellman had several times refused to allow her to receive this honor. Her life-changing religious experience took place on the Smith campus, an experience she often shared with others: “It was a June evening, still, warm and sweet with the fragrance of the flowering campus....” At its heart is the moving story of young women committing themselves to the Student Mission Movement, an outgrowth of the Protestant mission movement in the 19th century.
This foreign mission movement in the American Protestant churches forms the background for Claudette LaVerdiere’s discussion of the development of Mary Josephine Rogers’ mission consciousness. She devotes a chapter to its history, along with another chapter on “The Catholic Awakening” in which Maryknoll’s founders—James Anthony Walsh, Thomas Frederick Price, along with Mollie Rogers—played a central role. The Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America (Maryknoll priests and brothers) began in 1911, followed by the first three women “Secretaries”—later called the Teresians, and ultimately the Foreign Mission Sisters of St. Dominic (changed to Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic in 1954)—on January 6, 1912. (Ironically, Mollie Rogers was not one of these first three, having been called away to Boston to deal with a family financial crisis. The crisis was resolved by a monetary gift given to her by Mother Alphonsa Lathrop, O.P., Rose Hawthorne.) The Maryknoll story continues with early missions in China as well as on the West Coast of the U.S. Mother Mary Joseph’s close involvement with these missions necessarily includes travel to the missions, letter-writing, ongoing concern and support for her Sisters as mother general until 1946 when Rome insists that she cannot run for a third term. (She would easily have been reelected.)
She was sustained in all this by a strong spirituality that shaped not only her own life, but also that of the Maryknoll Sisters. It is a very human spirituality rooted in the joys and sorrows of daily life, the kind of spirituality that sustains community and makes possible a living and walking with the poor that characterizes the Maryknoll charism. At its heart was the continuing awareness of the presence of God, an awareness linked necessarily with an insistence on contemplation in action. It was this latter that drew her to seek a connection with the Dominicans. Claudette LaVerdiere develops seven themes found in this spirituality: the presence of God, contemplation and action, unity of spirit and diversity of gifts, individuality and common good, the spirit of obedience, nobility of soul, and Ecce Ancilla Domini (“Behold the handmaid of the Lord,” the motto of the Maryknoll Sisters).
This book is for the general public as much as for the Maryknoll Sisters themselves. Bringing together the various parts of Maryknoll’s founding vision presents an opportunity to once again renew that early spirit of mission that was so much a part of Mother Mary Joseph’s original inspiration. The reader will find here a valuable resource for understanding that vision—and the mission work carried on throughout the world. To place this story within its broader context the reader may want to read Penny Lernoux’s fine narrative history of the Maryknoll Sisters, Hearts on Fire. In that book and this one the spirit of Mother Mary Joseph continues in so many ways, an embodiment of a line from James Russell Lowell she often quoted: “As one lamp lights another nor grows less, so nobleness enkindleth nobleness.” Indeed.