Sr. Elizabeth of the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal with kids at a summer youth camp in Harlem, New York. Photo credit: Rosann Mucciolo
Sisters of the Renewal professed final vows at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church
in Manhattan on June 6, bringing the total number of fully professed sisters to
22, with 35 in the community overall. The Franciscan Sisters were founded in
1988 with the aim, according to the community’s mission statement, “to live
the Gospel values in simplicity according to the ideals of Saint Francis as
handed on by the Capuchin tradition.”
share a common prayer and community life; their apostolic mission is “work with
the poor and homeless and evangelization.” They are a sister community to the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, whose
founding members include the late Father Benedict Groeschel and Father Andrew
Apostoli. Father Apostoli was founding father of the Franciscan Sisters, under
the guidance of Cardinal John O’Connor of New York. The sisters have three
convents in New York City, with a fourth in Leeds, England and a fifth in
Sister Clare Matthiass is community vicar for
the Franciscan Sisters, second in leadership to the community servant (mother
superior), Mother Lucille Cutrone. Sister Clare joined the community in 1998;
she lives in the Franciscan Sisters’ convent in East Harlem. She recently spoke
to CWR about her unique community and her own path to the religious life.
CWR: How did the
June 6 final profession of vows by the four sisters go?
Clare Matthiass: It was an extraordinary event. We had a solemn
Mass, but it was a joyous solemnity. The church was packed with family and
The ceremonies were moving, especially when the
sisters lay prostrate before the altar. It symbolizes the gift of laying down
one’s life for God. The sisters also each received a candle, which is a symbol
of the baptismal grace they have received, and the deeper calling they now
have. They received a crown of thorns, symbolizing espousal to Christ who
suffered for humanity, and a wedding ring, symbolizing their espousal to God. They’ll
wear the ring the rest of their lives.
CWR: For what
purpose was your community founded?
Clare: We were founded to live in inner city neighborhoods, assisting the
poor with their spiritual and material needs.
CWR: How old are
the sisters who enter your community?
When they enter, they are in their 20s; our cut-off age is 35. Our
sisters who professed final vows are all in their 30s.
CWR: Your daily
schedule of course includes a good deal of prayer time; you also have periods
in the morning and afternoon for work. What kind of work do you do?
Clare: Each convent is different. We don’t run institutions, so we don’t
leave the convent to clock in at another location. Our apostolates happen at
our front door. In my convent in East Harlem, for example, we have a ground-floor
soup kitchen. We also have a clothing room and food pantry.
CWR: Working in
the inner city, is security a concern?
Clare: I haven’t personally been concerned. You have to be street-smart; for
example, we go out in pairs. We’re respected, and I’ve not felt in danger. You
have to keep in mind that we’re natives; these are our neighborhoods in which
we live. We don’t come in for the day and leave.
Also, wearing a religious habit has been of
tremendous benefit. People immediately identify us with God and the Church,
whether they are Catholic or not. They know that we’re there for them. It
really works to our advantage.
CWR: What fruits
have you seen in your work?
Clare: It’s hard to measure. We do our ministry person to person, serving
each as best we can.
Individual stories I can recount, however, show
we’re having an impact. For example, a man recently came up to me on the
street. He said, “Sister, sister, I’m one you helped.” He didn’t mean me
personally, but our community collectively. He went on, “When I came to you, I
was a crack addict. You helped me, and I’m better. I wanted to say thank you.”
He is now employed selling flowers. He’s headed in the right direction in his
CWR: Tell me
about the clothing you wear.
Clare: We wear a simple outfit: a gray tunic with a cincture, a black veil
and sandals. It is an easily identifiable symbol of our religious profession.
It also tells people that we’re there to help them; I can’t walk down the
street without being stopped because people want to speak to me. In my
neighborhood when they see me they know who I am, where I live, and that I’m
part of a ministry that exists for them.
reaction do people have to the habit?
Clare: In New York City we’re a fixture, so we don’t turn heads. But when we
leave the City, people are surprised to see a sister in full habit. The
reaction we receive is mostly positive, and starts an immediate conversation.
People quickly share with us about their lives, and ask for prayers.
CWR: How are you
Clare: We live entirely by Divine Providence. We trust in God for all of our
needs. For all the years of our existence, it has worked for us. It is evidence
that the Gospel works. Our Lord tells us to look at the birds in the sky and
the lilies of the field and how He cares for them [Matthew 6:25-34], and tells
us that he’ll take care of us, too.
We provide free services to the poorest of the
poor; we can’t charge them. We charge God instead, and let Him pay the bills!
CWR: St. Francis
was known for his love of poverty. How do your sisters live this out
Clare: We live a plain and simple life, and have no fixed income. We wash the
dishes together, for example, as part of our recreation, and don’t have a
dishwasher. We don’t have televisions, we don’t use cell phones, and our
convents don’t have the Internet.
We keep our lives simple and focused. God is
first, our community second, and the poor third.
CWR: Where do
your vocations come from?
Clare: They come from all over. Each woman has a different story. We do youth
and retreat work nationwide, so some young people come to know us through that.
Some find us on the Internet, or through the recommendation of a parish priest.
They come from all over the US and overseas. I live with a sister from Holland
and another from Scotland.
Andrew Apostoli is the founding father of your community. What roles do he and
the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal play in your work?
Clare: We are grateful for the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. They began a
year before we did, and have provided us with our charism and way of life. We
are parallel communities, and in some ways are nearly identical. They say Mass
for us in the morning, and we do many of our apostolates in common.
We consider Father Andrew our founder; he has
guided us through the years. Mother Lucille Cutrone, our community servant, is
a founding member.
memories do you have of Father Benedict Groeschel?
Clare: He was and still is an inspiration to us all. He gave us guidance,
light, and assistance. Early on, he taught many of our formation classes. He
was actively involved with our community during his lifetime, and we have a
tremendous gratitude and admiration for him.
CWR: The number
of women entering religious life has declined dramatically over the past 50
years. Also, many of the women who had entered religious life during this time
have left. Why do you think this situation has occurred, and what do you think
is the path to renewal?
Clare: I can speak to what I was looking for myself in religious life. I
wanted a counter-cultural, biblical life. I wanted to follow Jesus in a radical
way and serve the poor.
For me, this was represented by the religious
habit, a life of prayer and devotion, and a community life lived together. I
knew I wanted these elements, which were discarded by some communities after
the Second Vatican Council. I think you’ll find those who have preserved these
elements are growing.
CWR: What type
of woman would be a good fit for your community?
Clare: One who feels in her heart that the Lord is calling her to a special
intimacy with Him. This is a consecration call. After that, one who feels
called to serve the poor in a radical Gospel life. Ours is not a life for
someone seeking security, but for one who wants an adventurous life relying on
CWR: What are
some of the greatest challenges you have as a community?
Clare: We want to be led by God. Discerning His will each step of the way is
sisters are strongly pro-life. However, New York City has a high abortion rate.
In 2014, Governor Andrew Cuomo said that those who were “right-to-life” are
“extreme conservatives” who have “no place in the State of New York, because
that is not who New Yorkers are.” Do you believe you are often working in an
environment hostile to your Faith?
Clare: If we were operating in the political realm, we would be. But ours is
not the political realm; we work one-on-one with the person who shows up at our
door, or with families living in the projects. So, we don’t encounter hostility
in the same way others might.
CWR: What are
the issues you encounter working with the poor?
Clare: They have difficulties relating to migration, assimilating into a new
country, finding work, and alcohol and drug addiction. We see problems related
to violence, especially among the young. We see much family breakdown, and
children raised by grandmothers who have no relationship with their fathers.
The problems can be very severe.
CWR: What needs
do you have as a community?
Clare: We trust in God for everything. But we’d love to grow, and have more
women attracted to our way of life. We’re eager to grow and go forth. We have
“come and see” weekends for interested women; opportunities for women to
experience and discern our way of life.
CWR: How did you
decide to enter the community in 1998?
Clare: I was a student at Franciscan University of Steubenville. I
participated in a World Youth Day event, and first met the sisters. I knew if I
was called to religious life, I would join them.
I had quite a process of discernment, when I received
the grace of knowing. When that clarity came to me, I called the community
immediately. I didn’t need to look at other communities. I visited New York,
discerned, and entered. I haven’t looked back.