Vision and Zeal Led the Way

The following narrative is based on different documents from the Congregational Archives; historical documents pertaining to Countess Annie Leary; newspaper articles, maps, and photographs of New York City in the year 1908; assorted information gathered on-line; and the voluminous Présentation Historique de la Société de Marie Réparatrice (1818-1953), by Henri de Gensac S.J. The imagination of the writer fills in the blank spots.


Jerusalem-Mexico-New York: The SMR Connection

The house of Jerusalem was the result of the dream and ardent desire of MM de St. Maurice. After three years of negotiations with Propaganda Fide she received approval to establish a community in the city that held even in its soil and water the memory of Jesus’ passage. MM de St. Maurice’s parents, on the occasion of their golden anniversary, had gifted her with 100,000 francs which were used by the Congregation to lease and furnish a house near the door of Jaffa thus enabling her to fulfill her dream.

When the first Reparatrixes arrived in 1888, Jerusalem was a very complex reality where world politics and economics intermingled with religion. The population had grown to 50,000, spilling for the first time into neighborhoods built outside the old walls of that dusty one mile square city. Europeans, Arabs and Jews were erecting handsome buildings in praise of God. At the same time, some were constructing elegant embassies for the exaltation of their own nations, while all were establishing places for commerce to enhance their economic status. Meanwhile, everyone was carefully watching the other for signs of political alliances and control. One can get a good image of the ethnic atmosphere that enveloped our sisters by reading the report of the first Novena of reparation in 1888:
We have had a real mission during these ten days: 32 Masses of Reparation were celebrated in our small chapel in four different rites: Latin, Armenian, Greek, and Maronite. The four corners of the world were represented. Some from the Americas arrived just in time to do some good acts of reparation. France, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Spain, Poland, Turkey, Egypt, etc. have participated in the solemnities. At different points everyone was in tears.

To be involved in the organization of events that elicit such response would certainly spur the zeal of any healthy, active, and committed Reparatrix. The community, without a doubt, provided wonderful inspiration and education about how to network in order to extend ministry. The sisters were attentive and responsive to the needs of the poor, welcomed pilgrims, facilitated retreats in different languages and offered spiritual guidance to many.

On a balmy Thursday evening in Jerusalem, MM de St. Sauveur, one member of the community who would later emerge as a vital figure in the first foundation in the United States, was marked for the 10 to 11 pm adoration. Rather than spending the time between Compline and 10 pm taking care of the endless chores of her charge, she decided to go out to the terrace and walk around for a while. As she looked up to the dark sky she could see stars, planets and constellations. The more she looked the more she could see. Was this, she wondered, what happens when you start saying yes to God? One small yes might lead to another, and another and before you know it, there you are in a whirlwind of connections, people, countries, houses, and ministries, all held fast by the vast, dark, holding hand of God.

MM de St. Sauveur lived to see these late night musings become the reality of her life.

By the time we encounter her in Jerusalem in 1889, MM de St Sauveur, née Nathalie Jouvert, had already spent six years in the Mission of Maduré, India. She had also taken part in the very poor beginnings of the communities of Valencia and Barcelona in Spain where, for many months, the community slept on the floor on straw pallets. She knew herself to be intelligent, well educated, playful, and willful. So many life-times away she had played and laughed among the vineyards and woods of her native village of Duravel, in the Dordogne, exercising her will against the expectations of her parents and teachers. In her youth Nathalie tasted the heady wine of adulation, the sweetness of friendship and the pleasures of a hearty social life. Nevertheless, when God offered her wider vineyards and a place among the followers of Jesus, her yes never wavered.

After eight fruitful years in Jerusalem, in 1898 Nathalie was asked, along with six other sisters, to go to Mexico to establish the first house of the congregation in America. Almost a whole year was spent in temporary lodgings while looking for an appropriate building and obtaining the approval of the government. Finally, on December 3rd, 1898 Mass was celebrated in the first American chapel of Mary Reparatrix.

A spark of the great fire that consumed Jesus had burned for a long time in the heart of St Sauveur and through the next few years it seemed to be ablaze. In the midst of hardship and great poverty, the community of Puebla de los Angeles was established in 1898 and Guadalajara in 1903. In the meantime, she went to Europe for the General Chapter of 1902. During scheduled stops in New York, St. Sauveur established contacts in view of a foundation in that city. All along she was working toward beginning communities in Cuba, Havana in 1904 and Camagüey in 1909.

In 1904 a young Italian priest, Bonaventura Cerretti*, who was appointed to be secretary of the Apostolic Delegation arrived in México. The paths of Cerretti and MM de St Sauveur crossed; their encounter resulted in a solid friendship when he became an advocate and supporter of the congregation. In the annual letter of 1905 of the house of México we read: “Msgr. Cerretti, secretary of the Delegation, is named auditor of the Apostolic Delegation of the United States. He remains an excellent and faithful friend of the house and is trying to do for us everything he can before going to his new post.” We have copies of five letters written from Washington D.C. by the young monsignor to MM de St Sauveur. They span the years 1906 to 1911. In the letter of December 1906 he refers to “our foundation”. He obviously wanted to help bring the Reparatrixes to the United States as evidenced in the conversations he had with the bishop of Brooklyn, the archbishops of Boston and Philadelphia, and with the Apostolic Delegate, whom he says “is quite ready to lend his support.”

In October 1907 St Sauveur visited the United States on her way to Havana. She wanted to make sure that everything was in order for the foundation of New York which was to take place in a few months. She went first to Washington D.C to visit with Msgr. Cerretti and then to New York to meet with Countess Leary. Unfortunately, the countess was not in the city but in her summer home in Newport, Rhode Island, 180 miles away. The Countess had left notice that if the Religious of Mary Reparatrix came calling, they should instead come to see her in Newport. St Sauveur therefore left New York for Newport where she met with the Countess. As a result of their conversation, both agreed that the Countess would provide a suitable house for the sisters and a pension that would cover the living expenses of six sisters.

*It is interesting to note that Bonaventura Cerretti, who became an archbishop in 1914, played a very important role at the end of World War I. He represented the Holy See at the Paris Peace Conference from May to June, 1919 trying, unsuccessfully, to get the “Great Powers” to accept the Peace Note of Pope Benedict XV. In the 1920s he very successfully negotiated the Briand-Cerretti Agreement between the government of France and the Vatican. Among other important points in the document that defined the distinction between church and state, the following stand out: diplomatic relations between France and the Vatican were re-established; the administration of religious buildings was no longer entrusted to democratically elected lay representatives but to diocesan associations presided over by the bishop; the right of the church to nominate bishops was clarified. In 1922, Monsignor Cerretti was named nuncio of France and in 1925 became a Cardinal.

Throughout his life Cerretti appeared to be simple, friendly and concerned for the well-being of others, as is evident in his letters to Saint Sauveur to whose prayers and ministry he recommends a variety of friends. I have also come across the story of a young Jesuit seminarian, Henry Wessling, who was blinded in 1910 by the explosion of a chemical experiment he was conducting. For seven years he awaited a dispensation in order to be ordained priest in spite of his blindness. In 1917 Monsignor Cerretti was traveling from Australia across the United States on his way to Europe and learned that Wessling had not been ordained yet. He promised to bring the case to the attention of Rome. He went to the Pope for a dispensation, and the Pope said, “Get me a precedent.” Cerretti at once went to Januarius Bucceroni, S.J. who knew all the ecclesiastical scandals of the last 300 years. Bucceroni recounted the story of how a Spanish Provincial had ordained a blind man. Cerretti told this to the Pope who said, “If a Jesuit Provincial can ordain a blind man, I suppose the Pope can.” And the dispensation was granted.

Special thanks to Lourdes Rodarte, smr and María Jesús Platero, smr, for providing information about MM de St Sauveur.

The rest of the story will be shared periodically throughout the year.
Concepción González Cánovas, smr.