Janette Howe is founder of the Seven Sisters Apostolate, an organization for Catholic women in which members commit to pray for priests. The organization is celebrating its 10th anniversary and has enjoyed remarkable growth with 1360 groups of seven (or sometimes more) women today who offer an estimated 10,000 holy hours each week for priests in 18 countries. And, she receives inquiries every day about founding new groups.
Howe is a registered nurse who lives in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, where she began her apostolate. She holds a Masters in Pastoral Theology from Ave Maria University, and is a married convert to the Catholic faith. She has two adult children; her daughter works for a Catholic apostolate in Omaha, her son is a priest of the archdiocese who is currently forming an oratory of priests.
CWR: Ten years ago, the Seven Sisters Apostolate began when you decided to pray a Holy Hour once a week for your pastor. What prompted you to begin doing this?
Janette Howe: My pastor was Fr. Joseph Johnson, rector of the Cathedral of St. Paul for six years. He’s a generous priest, and my Holy Hour was a response to his generosity, and an effort to help support him in his vocation. I prayed a Holy Hour for him once a week for nine months. I grew to love the hour.
One day, while I was doing the Holy Hour, I had an impression on my heart of the words “seven sisters.” I thought this was a direction that I should pray the Seven Sorrows devotion to Mary, so I reached for the beads in my purse. But I was mistaken. I heard the words more clearly, “seven sisters.”
It was my sense that the Lord was clearly inviting me to ask six other women, or seven total, to offer one Holy Hour a day for Fr. Johnson.
I spoke to Fr. Johnson about it, and he first learned that I was praying for him. I told him that I thought it was an inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and he suggested I test it, to see if it was the Spirit. I contacted women I knew in six churches, who would reach out to six other women in their churches, so that we’d have a total of seven women in seven churches praying for specific priests. These churches were in different parts of the city, as well as rural parts of the archdiocese. It was never my intention to start a worldwide apostolate, however. There were only two requirements I had of the women: 1) it must be for the pastor of their parishes, and 2) they should pray that the pastor’s devotion to the Blessed Mother deepen.
In 2011, those seven groups of seven women started, and in June of 2012, I visited each of the groups to see how it was going. What I discovered when I visited these groups was amazing. The women, in particular, talked about the effect the prayer was having in their own lives, which surprised me. They’d say, “I’m really changing,” or “I’ve really begun to consider all that my priest does,” or, “I’m grateful for his vocation.” These women were more at peace, had a desire to grow in holiness and wanted a greater devotion to the Blessed Mother.
In some cases, they’d talk about the fruit they saw. They’d say that Father was more at peace, his homilies seemed more fluid, he wasn’t as tired, or that he seemed “strengthened.”
This first year went so well, that on the advice of Fr. Johnson, we decided to expand our efforts.
CWR: How does it work?
Janette Howe: We seek a committed group of seven women, in which each does a Holy Hour on a particular day of the week for one priest for one year. So, Father will receive a Holy Hour every day for a year. Our key goal is to help him grow in his sanctity, as well as have a deeper devotion to Mary.
Ideally, we’d like the woman to be in front of the Blessed Sacrament exposed. But in some cases, if a woman is homebound, we’ll let her pray her hour at home.
CWR: You frequently discuss distractions in prayer. What have you found to be the best way to have a successful Holy Hour?
Janette Howe: It varies from person to person. I tell women who are a part of our apostolate that they are entering a school of intercession. They may be comfortable with prayer, but it can be difficult to pray for one person for an entire hour.
One woman may be attracted to the rosary, and they can do that during the Holy Hour. Another may like the Memorare prayer, and want to repeat that often. One woman I met said she wanted to pray a Hail Mary for each hour of the priest’s day during the week, 24 hours for each day for seven days. The Hail Mary, she noted, includes the words “pray for us now and at the hour of our death,” the two most decisive moments in our lives. I said, “Okay, if you are drawn to do that, go for it!”
So, the technique depends on the person. Each of our groups, though, has an anchoress, who prays that the women in the group are faithful to their commitment.
CWR: You have enjoyed remarkable growth, with 1,350 groups.
Janette Howe: Yes. And, we may have more groups than that, as I’ve discovered that some women don’t realize that they’re supposed to register with us.
CWR: What other thoughts have participants shared with you?
Janette Howe: One woman wrote to me to say that she and her husband had not practiced the faith when they first were married. They had no religious vocations among their children; in fact, their children left the faith.
The couple was drawn back to the faith by a wonderful priest. She joined our apostolate as an act of reparation, for her own time away from the faith, and so that there would be more priests like the one that drew her and her husband back to the Church.
Another woman revealed to me that before she had joined our apostolate, she had never done a Holy Hour. She now can confidently and devoutly complete her hour.
I like to think of our prayers as incense … we don’t know where the fragrance goes. It may have affected a particular priest, parish or the diocese. We don’t specifically know, but we’re comfortable with that.
It is nice when we hear from priests, though. Some may tell us that they sense that something is happening in their lives. They say they feel stronger, more equipped or at peace, and that it may be connected to our prayers. We delight when we get this feedback, but we don’t seek it. We know something good will happen; we don’t need to be told.
I recall the story of a Florida priest who was a pastor in a university setting. Students regularly came and went. He said he needed a lot of prayer. We started a Seven Sisters group, and told us later on, “I stood taller.” It’s such a beautiful way a man speaks. A woman would never say that. But what this priest said is what I think most of our priests would say: that they are strengthened.
We have priests who are reassigned to other parishes, and before they even take up residence there, they say, “I want a Seven Sisters group.” It is our practice to pray for a particular pastor, but when he is reassigned, our prayers continue for his predecessor and do not follow him. It can be hard for women who have grown fond of the priest, but it is a way of detachment. We’re not spiritual mothers.
We do have exceptions. We started out praying for pastors, but we do have groups now that pray for retired priests, and parochial vicars. We’ve added to our list canon lawyers, seminary spiritual directors, military chaplains and monks.
One of our groups is led by a high school junior, who is praying for the chaplain of her high school. She is planning to do that for two years. We have another that is led by a young mom who just had her 4th baby; she says it is her most powerful hour of the week, and the greatest investment she can make.
We also have three dozen groups for bishops and cardinals, comprised of three groups of seven women. We have four groups for the Pope, which we hope to increase to seven.
CWR: Is Seven Sisters your way of responding positively to scandals in the priesthood?
Janette Howe: When I started, it was not related to the scandals. But, it certainly is a positive way to respond. There is a case recently of a Seven Sisters group that was praying for a priest in Iowa. One day, he got up in the pulpit and admitted that he had a challenge with alcohol, and was going away for a time to seek treatment.
A woman in the group called me and said she didn’t know what to do. I suggested she pray about it. She called back later, and said she believed that the group’s prayers gave him courage, insight and the judgment needed to admit that he had a problem and to go seek help for it. We don’t pray for priests who have been laicized, but we do pray for priests who have left active ministry for a time.
When the scandal of the former Cardinal McCarrick became public, it really led to a jump in interest in our group, with two to three new groups a day being started. Some may have left the Church because of men like McCarrick, but I think many others turned to our apostolate as a positive response.
CWR: Why are only women allowed to be part of the groups?
Janette Howe: Because my initial inspiration was that it be made up only of women, and I don’t want to go against that inspiration. We allow men to substitute a Holy Hour for a woman unable to make hers, but not to be part of a core group. Men can also go with the women when they do Holy Hours, so the priest can be the beneficiary of two Holy Hours, rather than one. We have groups where men fast while women do the Holy Hours; we call them “the fasting brothers.”
CWR: What needs do you have?
Janette Howe: We always welcome volunteers. It would be nice, for example, to have more people to help manage our website. And, I am sometimes asked to speak in different parts of the country, so we’d welcome donations to cover travel expenses. We also welcome prayers for the success of our apostolate.
CWR: Any other thoughts?
Janette Howe: As Catholics, we have an obligation to pray for our priests. Seven Sisters is one way to do so, and if it reaches out to your heart, get in touch with us. But regardless of the method, please do not forget to pray for our priests.
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