The Sisters of the SSPX
"Tradidi quod et accepi: I have handed down what I have received"
Echoing these words of St. Paul, Archbishop Lefebvre wished to proclaim his fidelity to the Roman Catholic Church. On numerous occasions, he made it clear that his fight for the Mass and Tradition was not a personal crusade, nor the doctrine he preached his alone. Rather, God's rights, souls, the truth–the Faith–were his concern. Having received what the Archbishop has handed down, we can indeed marvel at the richness of the treasury of doctrine and holiness of which the Church is the guardian. A man fully attuned to the ways of God, he also included in this precious legacy the religious life: the Sisters of the Society St. Pius X. While not the only religious society founded by the Archbishop, it is, as the Congregation's name implies, the "sister society" of the Priestly Society, its counterpart in both spirit and purpose.
In 1970, Bishop Charriere officially approved the statutes for the Priestly Society St. Pius X. There we read the Archbishop's mention of a future Sister Society. However, this desire remained on paper for nearly three years. What was missing? The Sisters! But everything in its own time!
During these three years, the call for priests and the sacraments was world-wide. Consequently, the Archbishop travelled a great deal. In February 1973, he landed in Melbourne, Australia, where, he met a young lady, 19 years old, desirous to give herself to God in the religious life. The aspirant, Janine Ward, unable to find a convent to enter in her own country, had heard–only a rumor, it is true!–that the visiting French bishop had founded a congregation. And so she very simply asked to be admitted as a postulant. As for the Archbishop, he thought that she was begging him to begin such a foundation. With these two different ideas, the trip of the future postulant was organized.
In which language did the future founder and the first daughter communicate? English? French? The Archbishop had trouble understanding her accent and she did not speak a word of French!
September 1973 arrived and Janine left her homeland for Ecône. What a surprise to learn that she was the only postulant. There were no other Sisters, and there was no Congregation! Yet, Divine Providence, Director of all these events, did not abandon the new postulant. Before formation in the religious life could be given, however, the language barrier had to be broken. The Archbishop found a Dominican community in Brittany which welcomed the postulant and the others who soon followed. Then, feeling himself incapable of assuring the religious formation of the Congregation's future Sisters, he begged his missionary sister, Mother Mary Gabriel, for help.
For more than 40 years, Mother Mary Gabriel had devoted herself to missionary work in the Congregation of the Holy Ghost Sisters. Filled with a joyful zeal for souls, she had spent much time on the African continent. In 1974, Mother Mary Gabriel was in Europe, recovering from an illness. While waiting to return to her beloved Africa, she saw God's Will begin to point her in another direction. The signs became clearer: the crisis in the Church, the continual loss of faith and religious spirit in her own Congregation, her weakened health, her brother's insistent appeal for aid in transmitting the religious life. Despite her great love for her Congregation, Mother Mary Gabriel decided to make the big step, and the nascent Congregation of the Sisters of the Society was taken to her maternal heart.
The first novitiate was installed in Albano, near Rome. There Janine's postulancy continued under Mother Mary Gabriel's guidance until her taking of the habit–September 22, 1974–the real birthday of the new religious family. Two years later, September 29, 1976, the first profession was held. What a joy to count 12 novices and eight postulants in the chapel during the ceremony. Mother Mary Gabriel was happy to write to her sister, "I admit that more and more I am becoming attached to this new Congregation, so much do we see how Providence watches over it."
Indeed, God continues to bless this religious family. Completing now its 33rd year of existence [Oct. 2007], it numbers 138 professed (20 of whom are Americans) and 16 novices of 17 different nationalities. Among the 21 houses in 9 countries are 4 novitiates (France, Argentina, the United States, and Germany). The Motherhouse is located in St. Michel-en-Brenne, France.
Sisters of Our Lady of Compassion
Placed under the patronage of St. Pius X, whose protection would be solicited for the preservation of the integrity of the Faith, the Archbishop also gave another beautiful title to the Sisters: Sisters of Our Lady of Compassion. It is she whose soul he proposed as the model and ideal of the Sisters' interior life.
The Archbishop explained in the Constitutions, "The spirit of the Sisters of the Society St. Pius X is entirely centered on devotion to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass."
The roots of this religious Congregation are to be found on Calvary then. Here the Church was born from the pierced Heart of our Redeemer; here, every grace for souls finds its source. Here, too, united to this Heart, we find the sorrowful and transpierced heart of Our Lady, standing at the foot of the Cross, offering herself as a victim with her Divine Son.
It is the same intention which was behind the foundation of the Society of St. Pius X and the "Sisters of Our Lady of Compassion." As on Calvary, there must be a priest standing at the altar who offers the Holy Sacrifice, and near this priest, there also must be consecrated virgins completely devoted to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, completely devoted to the role of co-redemption and who, there at the foot of the altar, at the foot of the Cross, also offer themselves "in the image and following of Our Lady of Compassion." Indeed, the profound and distinguishing end of the Society Sisters marked out by Archbishop Lefebvre is this life of compassion and loving reparation.
Intimately united to this end was the Archbishop's desire that the Sisters be the spiritual support of the Society's priests, offering themselves for their sanctification and the fruitfulness of their apostolate. Even on Calvary, Our Lord did not wish to offer His sacrifice alone but desired that Our Lady be, through her union and oblation, the Co-Redemptrix of the world. Similarly, the Sisters support the unflagging action and intense apostolate of the Society's priests by their contemplation and sacrifice.
Soul of the Apostolate
The Congregation of the Sisters of the Society St. Pius X is a "semi-contemplative" order, that is, an order which observes the "mixed life," a blend of both the active and the contemplative. Our Lord Himself lived the mixed life, preaching and working miracles, then retiring to places of solitude where He spent many hours in prayer. While the Congregation does undertake active works of apostolate, its principle end is the Sisters' life of compassion, the source of the apostolate and religious spirit. Thus, in addition to the usual meditation, Mass, rosary, and Divine Office of most religious orders, the Sisters spend an hour of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament: an hour consecrated to prayer for the Pope, the bishops, priests, and consecrated souls, and, in particular, to make reparation, in union with Our Lady of Compassion, for the outrages committed against Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.
The formation of a Sister of the Society St. Pius X differs little in its fundamental requirements from most other religious orders. Any woman, aged 18 to 30, guided by a right intention and having sufficient health to be able to do the different works of the community, may be accepted into the Congregation. Firstly, a postulancy of at least six months is required. During this time, the aspirant turns her back on the maxims of the world, examines her vocation, is formed in the religious life, and seeks to be imbued with the spirit of the Society Sisters: "the spirit of charity, of prayer, of expiation, of zeal for the salvation of souls through the Sacrifice of Our Lord and the offering of oneself (Constitutions)."
At the end of this period of time, she may ask to receive the habit of the Congregation. After the reception of the habit begins the novitiate, the training proper to the religious life. Holy Mother Church requires at least one year of novitiate, and encourages a second year that is devoted to deepening the spirit of the Congregation in the novice; this is the practice in the Society Sisters.
"O Holy Ghost, create in me a new heart that I may advance without ceasing in the spirit and virtues of my holy vocation" (From the Oblation at the ceremony of taking of the habit).
The life of a novice, and later her life as a professed sister, is a very busy one, both interiorly and exteriorly. The novice works to deepen the supernatural life and to live it more profoundly each day. She must become a "new creature" as St. Paul says, that is, a soul detached from the things of the earth and oriented towards God so as to accomplish His Will and work for His glory. This transformation can only be effected by the Divine Guest in the chapel who is there silently teaching hearts, by "a knowledge and love of our Lord which are not so much speculative as experimental" (Archbishop Lefebvre). Nevertheless, there is also a most necessary (life-long) personal striving for virtue. The novice diligently pursues this work under the motherly direction of the Novice Mistress.
The novice is also given daily chores and taught "new trades" to help fulfill the needs of the community and which later will be used in the different houses to which she is appointed. She learns to sew, to cook, to garden, and even different maintenance skills. Above all, she must become familiar with her Faith. To this end, she has classes and spiritual conferences taught by the chaplain and certain professed Sisters in doctrine, liturgy, apologetics, Church history, religious life, etc. These are the solid basis not only of her future apostolate with souls but especially of her own spiritual and religious life, providing the substantial nourishment needed both for her mind and for prayer.
The novitiate is the time to become accustomed to the joys and trials of the common life as well. "We form in the Church of God a small family" (Constitutions). This "family life" is the rule in all the houses of the Sisters: governed by a superior general (the Mother) and a general council, each house's community must comprise at least three Sisters, one of whom is the local superior. It is in the perfect, cordial, and invariable union of their religious family that the Sisters find solace and consolation in the difficulties of their apostolate and inestimable help for the sustaining of their religious life, as well as the means of an efficacious apostolate.
Consecrated Totally to God
After two years of apprenticeship, the novice, knowing the obligations and the grandeur of the religious life, at last says "yes" to all by pronouncing the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Through the vows, the soul offers to God all that she has and all that she is–her whole person, all her goods. The bishop or delegated priest places a ring on her finger, saying, "I espouse you to Jesus Christ, Son of the Most High Father. Receive, therefore, the ring of conjugal fidelity, a seal of the Holy Ghost, that you may live as a spouse of God."
This ceremony takes place at the Offertory of the Mass, at the foot of the altar, before the open tabernacle. The Heart of Jesus opens itself to receive His new spouse, and the mutual gift of one to the other takes place in the shadow of the cross, the altar of the sacrifice. These vows, which are received in the name of the Church, consecrate her totally to God, detaching her from the goods of the world and from herself, so that she may be entirely given to prayer and the apostolate. She will renew her vows annually, making final vows after at least ten years of profession.
Once professed, she receives her nomination to one of the houses of the Congregation. She may be called to devote herself in a priory in Europe, the Americas, Australia, or any mission country. There, no matter what the particular apostolate of the house might be, she will keep all the spiritual exercises of the novitiate in order to draw therefrom all the necessary graces to cooperate, according to her abilities, in the extension of the reign of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Harvest Is Great, But the Laborers Are Few
In a general manner, the Sisters' apostolic activity has for its aim to facilitate and to complete the priestly apostolate.
How, one may ask, do the Sisters facilitate the priestly apostolate? In imitation of Our Lady and the holy women who followed Our Lord and the Apostles, the Sisters relieve the priests of material cares such as washing, ironing, cooking, and housework, thus leaving them more free to accomplish their priestly ministry. The Sisters devote themselves to all that centers around the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, from the sewing of vestments to the care of altars and linens to the singing and teaching of Gregorian chant.
And complete the priestly apostolate? In addition to the household tasks found in each house and priory, the Sisters undertake works appropriate to religious in parishes or missions: preparing children for the sacraments by catechism classes, teaching in elementary schools, visiting the sick and elderly, etc. A closer look at the Sisters' various works confirms the vastness of their field of labor.
The Motherhouse in France oversees a work entrusted to the Sisters by the Archbishop in 1983–Our Lady of Fatima Correspondence Catechism. Souls thirsting after a knowledge and love of the truths of the Faith are not lacking, yet Catholic schools are. Thus, the Catechism was especially destined to bring the seeds of doctrine to families seeking a profound religious education for their children. Existing in three languages, it has been able, over the years, to reach thousands of souls throughout the world–even within the borders of Russia. In 2007, the Catechism lessons were sent monthly to more than 700 French-speaking students. The novitiate in Browerville, Minnesota, counted nearly 400 enrollments, while the recent German translation was received by 200 souls.
The Sisters also complete the priestly apostolate in elementary schools, whether as principal, or as teachers of catechism, home economics, and other secular subjects. Such is the case in several schools in Europe: in Belgium (Brussels), Switzerland (Geneva and Wil), France (Unieux, Marseille, Bordeaux), as well as in the Society schools in La Reja, Argentina, and Sydney, Australia. In St. Marys, Kansas, the Sisters give a daily catechism class to around 500 children (grades 1-12). The older girls also profit from a weekly home-economics class.
Besides teaching, the Sisters educate souls in Christian virtue through sodalities (such as the Children of Mary), summer camps (a growing apostolate for the Sisters in seven countries), summer classes (with instructions in sewing, cooking, and other practical skills), striving to give the children and young women a solid foundation in doctrine and piety. In all their houses, the Sisters regularly visit the sick and elderly–the suffering members of Christ. This is accomplished on a daily basis at a nursing home in Le Bremien, France. There, the Sisters visit the residents and help them prepare for the sacraments and for a holy death.
What about the distant mission countries? There, too, the Society Sister can aid the missionary priest in bringing Christ to souls. For example, the Sisters in Gabon assist the priests and brothers in catechizing the children and adults enrolled at the St. Pius X Mission. The Sisters have nearly 400 natives in their care this year.
In short, in the service of Christ through His priests, the Sisters are dedicated to the spiritual and corporal needs of the faithful. May the Lord of the harvest send many generous laborers.
"Whatever I can give I will give" (Archbishop Lefebvre)
Daughters of two missionaries, the Sisters have the flame of the missionary spirit: living in God, intimately united to Him, the Sisters have at heart to give Him to souls, to make Him known and loved by all; called to the apostolate, they zealously give themselves, the diverse capabilities and talents of each one uniting in order to fulfill the needs of the vast field of labor and the numerous and varied requirements of the faithful. The Sisters accomplish all these tasks–whether they be humble and unseen, or more directly apostolic–with the same love, the same spirit of sacrifice: "Nothing in their lives will be small or insignificant, everything will be grace and will sanctify them" (Constitutions).
"It is slowly, very slowly, that one understands the religious life: its beauty, its fruitfulness–because of its profundity, its truthfulness, its goal....We understand that it is not what we do that is important, but what we are. Very slowly, new horizons appear...and then only do we understand that the Lord has spoiled us in giving us the best part" (Mother Mary Gabriel).
These reflections of a truly religious soul overflowing with gratitude in her vocation may be fittingly repeated by the Society Sister in the sublimity, humility, and simplicity of her vocation.
"Blessed are those who will have lived all their life in this spirit of oblation and of compassion! They will reach the end of their pilgrimage here below in the best dispositions for obtaining the eternal beatitude of heaven" (Constitutions).
Rev. Sister Superior
Sacred Heart Novitiate
540 West 8th Street
Browerville, MN 56438 USA
Rev. Mother General
7 allée du Chateau
36290 Saint Michel-en-Brenne, France
Houses of the Sisters of the Society of St. Pius X
St. Michel-en-Brenne, France (founded in 1973 in Albano, Italy; moved to St. Michel in 1977): the Motherhouse (and French-speaking novitiate, until its transfer to Ruffec)
Geneva, Switzerland (1977): school, parish work
Le Pointet, France (1979): retreat house
Unieux, France (1980): school, parish work
St. Marys, Kansas, USA (1981): school, parish work
Marseilles, France (founded in 1982 in Dijon, France; moved to Marseille in 1989): school, parish work
Brussels, Belgium (1982): school, parish work
La Reja, Argentina (1986): school, seminary care (Spanish-speaking novitiate until its transfer to Pilar)
Browerville, Minnesota, USA (founded in 1986 in Armada, Michigan; moved to Browerville in 1990): English-speaking novitiate
Sydney, Australia (1988): school, parish work
Pilar, Argentina (1989): transfer of the Spanish-speaking novitiate
Ruffec, France (1989): transfer of the French-speaking novitiate
Le Bremien, France (1991): retirement and nursing home
Goffingen, Germany (1992): German-speaking novitiate
Chateauroux, France (1992): domestic and parish work
Libreville, Gabon (1993): mission apostolate
Bruges, France (1996): school, parish work
Albano, Italy (1997): domestic work for the receiving of pilgrims
Suresnes, France (1998): domestic and sacristy care of District House
Wil, Switzerland (2003): school, parish work
Gastines, France (2006): retreat house
6:00 am Rise
6:30 am Divine Office, Mental Prayer
7:15 am Mass
8:10 am Breakfast and housecleaning
9:00 am Work
10:00 am Classes (or work)
11:45 am Adoration
12:15 pm Sext
12:30 pm Lunch
1:00 pm Dishes, recreation
1:45 pm Free time in silence
2:30 pm Work
4:30 pm Chant class
5:00 pm Study (or work)
5:45 pm Spiritual reading or conference
6:15 pm Adoration
6:45 pm Rosary
7:30 pm Supper
8:00 pm Dishes, recreation
8:45 pm Compline
9:45 pm Lights Out