Four Franciscan 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.”
The sisters 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 Drogheda, Ireland.
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?
Sister 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 friends.
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?
Sister 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?
Sister Clare: 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?
Sister 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?
Sister 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?
Sister 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 life.
CWR: Tell me about the clothing you wear.
Sister 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.
CWR: What reaction do people have to the habit?
Sister 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 funded?
Sister 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 day-to-day?
Sister 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?
Sister 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.
CWR: Father Andrew Apostoli is the founding father of your community. What roles do he and the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal play in your work?
Sister 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.
CWR: What memories do you have of Father Benedict Groeschel?
Sister 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?
Sister 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?
Sister 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 Divine Providence.
CWR: What are some of the greatest challenges you have as a community?
Sister Clare: We want to be led by God. Discerning His will each step of the way is a challenge.
CWR: Your 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?
Sister 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?
Sister 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?
Sister 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?
Sister 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.
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