Worcester Sisters Interviewed

Friday, December 29, 2006

Reprinted from the Catholic Free Press (weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Worcester), December 29, 2006 issue, front page.

Local Sisters excited about foundress' upcoming canonization

Local Religious of the Assumption shared their excitement and personal stories after learning that their foundress is expected to be canonized sometime this year thanks to a miracle child they know.

On December 16 Pope Benedict XVI formally recognized a miracle attributed to the intercession of Blessed Marie Eugenie Milleret, clearing the way for her canonization.

Marie Eugenie, born in Metz, France in 1817, founded the Religious of the Assumption in Paris in 1839, according to a brief biography provided by Sister Mary Ann Azanza, United States provincial who lives in Worcester.

At her death in 1898, there were more than 1,000 sisters in six countries; today there are more than 1,300 in 35 countries. In the United States they serve in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Dioceses of Worcester, MA and Las Cruces, N.M. In Worcester they minister at Assumption College and Our Lady of Vilna and St. Peter parishes, and St. Andrew the Apostle Mission.

The miracle attributed to Blessed Marie Eugenie concerns Risa Bondoc, who will be 12 in February, who was born in the Philippines with a condition that prevented the two halves of her brain from joining, Sister Mary Ann said. Normally such children have very little ability to walk, talk or otherwise develop, she said.

Risa's condition was not known immediately, she said, but her mother was giving her up for adoption. Unexpectedly, Carmen and Ditos Bondoc adopted her. Sister Mary Ann, then living in the Philippines, told the following story of how it happened.

Sister Clare Tjader, then superior general of the Religious of the Assumption in Paris and later campus minister at Assumption College in Worcester, asked Mrs. Bondoc, a travel agent and former student of the sisters in the Philippines, to find a Filipino baby for a French couple to adopt. The Bondocs had adopted two girls themselves.

Mrs. Bondoc found Risa through a ministry another congregation ran for women putting their children up for adoption, and began doing the paperwork when the child was two days old. But she and her husband fell in love with her, and adopted her themselves, and found another child for the French couple.

Some time later they learned of her condition and, with the sisters, sought Blessed Marie Eugenie's intercession, Sister Mary Ann said.

The two halves of Risa's brain have still not joined, but she walks, talks and attends school, Sister Mary Ann said. She said outside experts have not been able to explain this development scientifically, so the Congregation of the Causes of Saints proposed it as a miracle.

Once when people were talking about Blessed Marie Eugenie and the miracle, Risa chimed in, "I'm the miracle," Sister Mary Ann said.

"She knew she was the miracle before the pope did," added Sister Nuala Cotter, who teaches English and theology at Assumption College.

When Risa went to the Vatican a few years ago to be interviewed for the cause of Blessed Marie Eugenie, she especially liked the long red carpets and chains on the old fashioned toilets, Sister Nuala said, adding, "She's a real little kid."

Risa frequently came to Boston Children's Hospital, and, when she did so, she visited them in Worcester, the sisters said.

"I remember going to lunch with her and her mother and Sister Clare to Northworks in Worcester," said Sister Therese Margaret Duross, foundress of the sisters' Worcester community and an Assumption College trustee. "She's sitting in her high chair and she told the waitress, 'You did very well.'"

Sister Mary Ann recalled Risa once saying seriously, "Sister Clare, I want to speak with you alone." When they were seated, Risa continued, "Now, let's talk about dogs."

In addition to stories about Risa, the sisters have some about Blessed Marie Eugenie.

"The novices would run up and she would bless them," Sister Therese said. She said her school class mistress and librarian, Sister Mary Laura of the Good Shepherd, told her that story. Mother Marie Eugenie had presided over Sister Mary Laura's clothing ceremony (taking of the novice's habit).

"I'm very, very happy about the news," Sister Therese said of plans for their foundress' canonization, and recalled learning about her love of God at Ravenhill Academy in Philadelphia, the sisters' former elementary and high school.

"I remember a quote (of hers), 'be strong and joyful because he who has overcome the world loves and guides you'," she said. "I knew that the Assumption was my family, that that was where my heart was at home."

Sister Nha Trang Nguyen, a student at Assumption College and a catechist at Our Lady of Vilna, said she could relate to Blessed Marie Eugenie because they both came from families whose members were not practicing Catholics.....She said she loved how Blessed Marie Eugenie said, "Dare to be holy," and how she believed women could do as much as men could, and promoted their education.

"I was always struck by the fact that she said we needed to educate the mothers of the leaders," said Sister Francis Teresa del Marmol, a volunteer at Assumption Colleges library and niece of two Religious of the Assumption. "I'm intimidated to try to live up to her," she said.

Sister Nuala said some people think canonization distances a person from them, but that their foundress is the same old dear Marie Eugenie that she always has been.

"She's pulling for us," she said. "I hope she puts a word in for us for vocations.  She is holy because her feet are on the ground. That, for me, is what holiness is:  people who know who they are and know who Jesus is."

Sister Mary Ann also expressed joy at news of their foundress upcoming canonization.

"It's a confirmation the Church is making, of her way to holiness," she said. "It's what we knew already. It's an opportunity for more people to get to know her and be inspired by her spirit. She always said each one of us has a mission on earth. That's something that inspired me as a young person: that God had something for me to do."

"I think it's the community that helps you do that," added Sister Nuala. "We can do things that we couldn't do as individual people."

Sister Mary Ann said Blessed Marie Eugenie saw the world as a place of God's glory.

"And that attracted me so much," she said. "It wasn't utopian, but the real view of the world. It's where the kingdom is present. And I was growing up in Martial Law in the Philippines, where there was a lot of injustice, oppression, poverty."

She said she was attending one of the sisters' high schools in Manila when Mother Marie Eugenie was beatified.

"I was so attracted by her idea of working for a world where no one is oppressed by another," she said, "and (her idea) that the work of education is to transform society according to the Gospel."

Upon hearing the news last week, the Little Sisters of the Assumption connected with the Pernet Family Health Service, gave the Religious of the Assumption here a cake which said, "Way to go, Eugenie," with arrows pointing up. Both communities are part of the Assumption family, along with the Augustinians of the Assumption.