Sr. Sheila & Sisters featured in New Haven Register

President Sr. Sheila O'Neill, ASCJ, Ph.D., '71, Sr. Colleen Smith, ASCJ, director of mission advancement for the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and Sr. Mariette Moan, ASCJ, '77, provincial councilor for the order, were recently interviewed by the New Haven Register about the beatification of Blessed Clelia Merloni.

Sacred Heart Sisters rejoice as Mother Clelia is Beatified
By Ed Stannard | Published 8:00 pm EST, Monday, December 24, 2018 in the New Haven Register

HAMDEN — For the Sisters of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, this is Mother Clelia Merloni’s time.

The sisters, whose U.S. Provincial House is on Benham Street and who run Sacred Heart Academy, believe the Italian sister whom they call their “foundress,” is a model for a hurting world and a shaken Roman Catholic Church.

Merloni, who died 112 years ago at age 69, was beatified on Nov. 3 at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, which is the seat of Pope Francis, with 12 of the sisters from Hamden present. Now, the order’s 1,000 sisters around the world, and especially in Italy, the United States and Brazil, where they have their largest presence, are praying for a second miracle that would enable the pope to consecrate her as a saint.

A relic of Merloni — a piece of bone or cartilage taken from her foot — was brought back from the beatification and is displayed in the Mount Sacred Heart Chapel at the Provincial House at 295 Benham St.

To the Apostles of the Sacred Heart, including the 45 in Hamden, Merloni is already a model of a saintly life, and they follow her example of love and reparations — to help those in need in a variety of ways, through education, running orphanages, health care, parish ministries and work with immigrants and those in prison.

“Clelia always went where the need was and she had a particular love for those who were underserved, the marginalized,” said Sister Colleen Therese Smith, director of mission advancement.

The sisters, who serve in 15 countries, established a U.S. province in 1902 and moved from Boston to New Haven in 1906. They have served in numerous parishes in the state as well as at diocesan offices, and now serve at St. Rita School in Hamden, the Catholic Academy of Bridgeport and at St. Patrick Parish in East Hampton, as well as Sacred Heart Academy.

But following the example of Mother Clelia’s life seems to be spreading beyond the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. “She no longer belongs just to us,” Smith said. “She belongs to the world and the world loves her.”

That feeling could be seen at a fundraiser for Irish mission work held at the Lucky Ewe Irish gift shop, where Sacred Heart Academy alumnae, “these women of all ages from all different classes, were all talking about getting up at the crack of dawn to watch the beatification Mass … and swapping Mother Clelia stories,” Smith said. One woman described how she attributed her aunt’s cancer remission to the foundress.

“People are coming to understand her,” Smith said. “I truly believe the Holy Spirit is raising her now because she has something to teach us now.”

Merloni was not so well loved during her life, even by some members of her order. “She herself was really a victim of scandal, slander, jealousy,” Smith said. Her father had left her an inheritance, with which she opened an orphanage and schools for women and cared for the elderly.

She didn’t found her order until 1894, when she was 33, but since women were “not considered capable of managing money,” she had her funds overseen by a priest, Smith said. “He took all of it … and left the country. We did not know that until last year” when a biography was published.

Merloni did not expose the thief and took the blame for the lost funds. Her sisters, priests and bishops “didn’t believe that her intentions were right [and] pure and that she was capable of carrying those intentions forward,” said Sister Mariette Moan, provincial councilor.

“She bore the blame for the financial disaster … She did not reveal the name of this priest who had absconded [with] the funds … and so no one trusted her … and it snowballed into lawsuits,” Smith said.

“Finally, the Holy See sent an apostolic visitor to try to find out what was happening, and she was removed as superior general. Imagine how humiliating,” she said. “She bore that blame and then, as her reputation was ruined and even among her own sisters she was treated so poorly, she didn’t engage in revenge, she forgave,” Smith said.

“We made her the saint that she is,” Moan said. “All of our congregation around the world is coming to the close of what has been a Clelian Year of Reparation [to] reflect upon and ask forgiveness for the sins against the foundress.”

Forgiveness is sorely needed today, when “it’s all about one-upping, about the insults and tweets and whatever it is,” Smith said. “Hers is a spirit of forgiveness and nonretaliation and I think it’s a message. It’s captivating the image of people throughout the world, because ultimately the only way to stop the cycle is forgiveness, and she models that for us.”

“People fall in love with something they can relate to,” Moan said.

The sisters also have been “praying to her to please intercede for the church in our own country” which has been besieged by increased reports of sexual abuse of minors by priests, Moan said. “Our church has been lacerated by what has happened.”

Since September, the sisters have spent a “holy hour in reparation” at 7 p.m. on the first Friday of the month in the chapel. It is open to the public.

“We pray for the victims. We pray for healing. We pray for our bishops to do the right thing and for our brothers and sisters too. Our whole body is wounded,” Smith said.

While the cause of sanctifying Merloni began in 1988, the process has accelerated this year, since the bishops and cardinals of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints voted unanimously Jan. 9 to affirm a miracle attributed to her, beginning the path to her beatification.

That miracle was attributed to the recovery of a Brazilian doctor, who in 1951 was stricken with Guillain-Barré syndrome, which restricted his ability to swallow and breathe to the point where his doctors discontinued treatments because they believed he was terminally ill. He was given a cup of water in which a sister had placed a relic of Merloni, a bit of her veil. He was able to drink the water and ultimately was cured, according to the apostles’ website.

Since January, the Vatican prepared for the beatification surprisingly quickly. In order to prepare Merloni’s body, which the sisters said was incorrupt, for its new glass tomb in the chapel at the Generalate of the Congregation of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Rome, a doctor kept watch for six months “to make sure humidity levels were not having a negative effect on her body,” Moan said.

A wax mask was made, based on her facial bone structure, so that she appears to be a younger woman than she was when she died.

“I’m still amazed because the church moves at a different pace. They’re not at a New York minute,” Smith said. Merloni’s feast day was set as Nov. 20 (a day before her birthday, because Nov. 21 is celebrated as the Presentation of Mary) and “by September we had the Mass and propers [prayers],” Smith said. “That’s lightning speed for the church and … I don’t believe that was happenstance. I believe that the time was right for this to happen in God’s plan.”

“I think we have just become accustomed to this being in the works, but in the last two years things started to move along at a different pace,” said Moan, who participated in the beatification Mass, celebrated by Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu.

“It gave testimony to the fact of how widespread not just knowledge of Clelia has become but the spreading of her charism that has really spread through all the world and continues to spread through all the world. That was very impressive to me,” she said.

Moan prepared the 45-minute prelude of prayers, readings and music with sisters from Rome and Brazil and played the organ. “It was a humbling experience for me to be part of that,” she said. “We value community in the Catholic Church so that translates to a din of noise whenever we have a celebration.” The prelude served “to prepare ourselves to enter into a real spirit of prayer.”

But all of the sisters felt like they were there because all of the events leading up to the beatification ceremony, and the Mass itself, were livestreamed, with English commentary on EWTN by Sister Elizabeth Doyle. It can still be watched on Facebook from the sister’s webpage, www.ascjus.org. (The English commentary begins about 45 minutes into the video and the Mass starts shortly thereafter.)

“We experienced everything here in real time, just at some more unusual hours” because of the six-hour time difference,” Smith said. “It was just absolutely amazing. We didn’t feel left out at all because we were a part of everything.”

The day began at 5:15 a.m. and “we had a whole day of celebrating that continued through to the evening,” including Mass at Sacred Heart Manor, where retired sisters live, she said.

The sisters also appreciated that every member of the order was given what is known as a “first-class relic” — a part of Merloni’s body. There were also 30,000 second-class relics, bits of her habit, that were embedded in cards and which the sisters are handing out to those who ask.

They include the students and staff at Sacred Heart Academy, who relate to Merloni’s troubled life, according to Sister Sheila O’Neill, president of the high school. “We always had a great spirit in our school, but I think there’s something very calming, very transforming in our faculty,” she said.

She said the girls enjoy hearing quotes from Merloni at the end of Mass. “Teenagers can relate to someone badmouthing her,” O’Neill said. “Kind of like the MeToo movement. She was a very strong, vibrant woman who wasn’t controlled by the powers that be … so she’s a great role model for the young women.”

While not every Catholic appreciates relics, for the sisters the relics are precious. “When someone we love has gone home to God and that person is no longer tangibly there, we cherish something that belonged to them,” Smith said. “There’s something about being able to tangibly touch something, representative of another whole level of connection.”

Merloni’s beatification will be celebrated at 2 p.m. Feb. 9 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and at 2 p.m. April 7 at the Cathedral of St. Joseph, 140 Farmington Ave., Hartford.

edward.stannard@hearstmediact.com; 203-680-9382.
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