Catholicism first came to northern coastal California, in what today makes up the Diocese of Santa Rosa, both from missionary priests and the Ursuline Sisters of Ohio, who came to establish an all-girls school in the 1880s. Upon arrival, the sisters recognized that a more immediate need was to catechize the children of the pioneers who inhabited the region. After they began, the bishop of San Francisco, who oversaw the area at the time, recognized the crucial work of the sisters and began sending his priests to establish parishes where the sisters had been. The Diocese of Santa Rosa would eventually be established in 1962, and today numbers 140,000 Catholics.
The Ursulines were the dominant women’s religious community in the diocese for decades, but today, other than a few retirees living independently in the area, have withdrawn from the region. Filling the void has been a new, rapidly growing community of nuns, the Marian Sisters of Santa Rosa, who view the first Santa Rosa Ursulines as their forebears and see their role as continuing the work of the Ursulines, related the Marian Sisters’ superior, Reverend Mother Teresa Christe. In fact, the Marian Sisters regularly go to the Santa Rosa gravesites of those first Usulines to pray the Rosary and connect with them.
CWR featured the Marian Sisters in 2014; click here to read the story of their establishment. Since their founding, the Marian Sisters have gone from four members to 18, with several more slated to enter the community in August.
In the upcoming months the Marian Sisters will celebrate two milestones in the establishment of their community: 1) in March, their relocation to a larger convent built in 1957 which they purchased and which once housed the Ursuline Sisters, and 2) in January 2022, the 10-year anniversary of their founding. Reverend Mother Teresa Christe recently spoke to CWR about the Marian Sisters’ work.
CWR: What is the work of your nuns?
Reverend Mother Teresa Christe: Our charism is to communicate the beauty, goodness and truth of the Catholic faith. The way that is played out is that the Lord has called many of our sisters to teach in one form or another. One of our sisters, for example, is the religion coordinator for a parish school, preparing students for the reception of First Confession and Communion, and Confirmation. Another teaches religion in a parish, providing instruction to children who attend non-Catholic schools who might otherwise not receive such instruction. She is assisted by our other sisters and laypeople. One of our sisters is a religion and music teacher at the cathedral elementary school; we have another who teaches kindergarten and a fifth who teaches at a diocesan high school where I used to teach.
Additionally, pre-COVID our sisters went regularly in teams of two to our Catholic schools, presenting a devotion or a virtue of the month to students.
We have a high visibility at our chancery office. One of our sisters works there in faith formation in the Catholic Schools department. She is involved with education in the faith of our Catholic school teachers and promotes Catholic culture in our schools. She might organize, for example, an online Rosary with our bishop in conjunction with the different school sites.
Another has an administrative role with the marriage tribunal and a third works in the Office of Stewardship and is involved in many meetings with the bishop’s council. Our sisters love it, as it gives them the opportunity to know our priests well. Part of our spirituality is a spiritual motherhood for priests, praying and making sacrifices for them, and helping them in any way we can.
CWR: One comment you have made previously is that both you and Santa Rosa Bishop Robert Vasa have a zeal for evangelization and that you wanted your sisters to make a contribution to the spiritual revival of the diocese. Do you think your community has made such a contribution?
Mother Teresa Christe: I do. Our Lord has called us forth to integrate into our diocese and live out our charism. For nearly a decade now we have been establishing relationships with people who weren’t too sure about us when we arrived. When they first saw us, they wondered, “Who are these sisters in full habit?” Over the years a mutual appreciation and respect has developed between us that has allowed us to achieve success in our apostolates.
CWR: Part of your spirit is also to live out the fullness of the liturgical life.
Mother Teresa Christe: Yes. Our sisters participate in both the extraordinary and the ordinary forms, helping priests with the linens, as I mentioned, or caring for the sacred vessels. One of our sisters is the sacristan at the Cathedral parish. Several of our sisters are also very gifted musically and are engaged in music ministry. They promote the traditional musical treasury of the Church, including Gregorian chant or polyphony. You’ll find us singing at liturgies in the dioceses, and at ordinations or Confirmation ceremonies.
CWR: How is it that your community came to purchase the Ursuline convent?
Mother Teresa Christe: We first lived in the bishop’s former residence, and then moved into a single-level apartment convent where we have been for the past four years. This site has been a blessing. It is within walking distance of the cathedral parish, is private and gated, and has a grassy courtyard. But it can only accommodate 20, so we can see that we will soon run out of space.
To support the Marian Sisters, we have a Marian Sisters Lay Council, a group of about 12 individuals who love the sisters and support consecrated life. Our members include an architect, a real estate agent, a construction manager, a deacon and a priest. They are professionals, some former CEOs, who meet monthly to advise me on the business aspects of running a convent and to introduce me to potential donors. I’ve been very grateful for their advice; it has enabled me to focus less on business matters and more on the spiritual growth of the sisters. The council has been helpful in providing for our temporal needs, and helping us acquire what we need for growth.
For the past year and a half, the council and I have recognized that we needed a larger space. We looked at different areas of the diocese, but it was the bishop’s preference that we stay within the City of Santa Rosa, because of its population density and it’s where the Catholic schools we serve are.
After a lot of looking, I was resigned that we were going to have to buy land and build. I had contacted the Ursuline Sisters about acquiring their former convent, which is located at 400 Angela Drive in Santa Rosa, but they were not interested. In prayer, I told Our Lord that if we build, I will have to occupy my time getting permits and overseeing construction, which would distract me from the spiritual. I wrote the Ursuline Sisters one last letter last August reminding them of our interest in the facility, but they responded that they were still not interested. But, a few weeks later, they changed their minds, and approached Bishop Vasa giving him first right of refusal to acquire the property.
What a miraculous change in circumstances! The site has 37 cells, a large chapel, offices and a refectory [dining room], and is located on 45 acres. It is in Santa Rosa, 10 minutes from the cathedral, close to the chancery and close to the elementary schools and high school we serve. The Ursuline Sisters were using it as a retreat center until the October 2017 Tubbs fire, which burned down some of its buildings.
CWR: What is the Marian Sisters’ relationship with Bishop Vasa?
Mother Teresa Christe: He is our canonical founder. He has been very supportive of all we do. He lets the Holy Spirit work through our charism. I go to him for advice, and while he never tells me what to do, he will strongly advise me. I would be a fool not to follow his leadership.
CWR: What is the typical day like for your sisters?
Mother Teresa Christe: We gather in our chapel at 5:45 a.m. We have an hour of adoration with mental prayer, and have the chanting of Lauds. We have Mass at 7 a.m., celebrated by our wonderful chaplain, Fr. Jeffrey Keyes.
We have breakfast, and our sisters in formation at home begin their duties, such as cooking and laundry, and take classes. Our sisters in apostolates leave for their work; before they go I give them a special blessing, and pray to Our Lady to protect them.
Our sisters at home have mid-day prayer, the Angelus at 11:45 a.m. and lunch. Our sisters in apostolate pray the Rosary with their students or in pairs, or on a Rosary walk.
Our sisters at home have an hour of personal time from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. They can rest, study or develop their talents. Some sew, play musical instruments or exercise. At 2 p.m., we resume household duties and studies. At 4:15 p.m. we have community recreation time. Most communities have this later in the day, but we like to have it when the sun is still out. Our sisters might play volleyball or whiffle ball, or ultimate Frisbee. When it rains, we do handcrafts. It is a time of fun, joy and mutual good will.
At 5:15 p.m., we chant Vespers and have spiritual reading. We have dinner, Compline and there is time for evening study.
CWR: Where are your vocations coming from?
Mother Teresa Christe: They come from all over. We have a postulant class of four now. One is from Connecticut, another from Boise, Idaho, one from Southern California and the fourth from New York. We have an incoming class forming which will begin August 6. Three of five have been approved; one is from Spokane, Washington, and two are from Texas.
They find out about us by word of mouth; several came at the recommendation of their spiritual directors. We have a Facebook page, too, and have been featured in the New Liturgical Movement. Many women are attracted by our charism, and have a love for the liturgy and reverent worship. About half of the Masses we attend are the traditional Latin Mass, and several of our women were attracted to that, along with a reverent Mass in the ordinary form.
CWR: What kind of woman do you think would be a good fit for your community?
Mother Teresa Christe: One who has a love for the liturgy and reverent worship. One who has a great love for Our Blessed Mother, and who practices the total consecration to Jesus through Mary. The Marian spirit permeates our lives.
One who has a great love for priests, and who wants to participate in intercessory prayer and sacrifice for them. One who has a love for truth, teaching and communicating the Faith, although she doesn’t need to be a teacher.
CWR: Why do you think your community has attracted vocations?
Mother Teresa Christe: I believe firmly that in the first 10 years of a religious community, God calls those vocations who will be the living stones and foundational members who will live the charism and hand it on to the next group. It is not so much my doing, but the sisters embracing the charism, and offering the gift of themselves to the community and God’s work. These contributions lead to the blossoming of a beautiful community spirit which many find appealing.
CWR: The past year has been a hard one on the Church. Catholic schools have closed, and Mass attendance has dropped dramatically in some places. How can we return to a more vibrant and widespread practice of the faith?
Mother Teresa Christe: California was hit hard by the virus and its related restrictions. It has been very strict. We cannot enter our churches, but must have Mass outside. We don’t have snow here in Santa Rosa, but it gets cold in the winter. We’re also told that we have to wear masks and practice social distancing.
Some have given up going to church, but among others I have observed a real drive to continue to live the sacramental life. They are willing to sacrifice and put up with uncomfortable circumstances to receive the sacraments. I think this willingness to sacrifice is the way back.
I’ve also been pleased with the adjustments people have made under our circumstances. Groups such as the Knights of Columbus, for example, have put up outdoor tents for Mass to alleviate the effects of the cold weather. In my community, the sisters have been ingenious in using the Internet to continue teaching their religion classes, and have arranged for outdoor Masses and confessions for their students.
CWR: Santa Rosa has been hit by some harsh wildfires in recent years. How have the Marian Sisters fared?
Mother Teresa Christe: The 2020 fires affected many, but not us directly. Our sisters did not have to evacuate. We were ready to leave, and had an exit plan, but we did not have to. In fact, we were one of the few pockets in Santa Rosa that did not have their electricity turned off.
I went to the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, and asked him, “Why are you sparing us?” It came to my heart that the daily living of our vows, including our daily prayer and sacrifice, is precious to the Lord and he was preserving us so that we could continue to live for his glory and for the people suffering from the fires. Our daily routine was hardly interrupted by the fires, and, in fact, we added hours of adoration to pray for the victims of the fires.
CWR: Have any of your sisters been sick during the pandemic?
Mother Teresa Christe: No. Our sisters in the apostolate have regularly been tested for COVID-19, but no one has tested positive.
CWR: Do recent national developments lead you to fear that the Catholic Church will be persecuted in the United States?
Mother Teresa Christe: We are aware that that may be in our future. While not focusing too much on what the future might hold, we have to prepare for possible persecution.
CWR: Your original members came from a group not in union with Rome, the CMRI (Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen). Have there been any new developments in your relationship with the CMRI community? Are you still in communication?
Mother Teresa Christe: Our communication with that community has been very minimal. They continue their life, and we ours. We pray for one another.
CWR: What are your plans for moving into your new home?
Mother Teresa Christe: With all our prayers to St. Joseph to help us find a new home, it is appropriate that our target date for moving in is St. Joseph’s feast day, March 19. We will spend our first night in all-night adoration, followed by Mass with the bishop.
CWR: Is the convent ready for you to move in?
Mother Teresa Christe: The buildings are ready for us, but are in need of beautification, as are the grounds. We want to make the site a beautiful place for prayer.
CWR: What help do you need?
Mother Teresa Christe: We always need help fundraising. People can connect with us through our website or Facebook page. We also invite the people to join with our sisters in praying for a smooth transition, and that this new convent will be a place where Our Lord is loved and served above all things.
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