Agrégée Information Day: A rock, a rose, a rabbit — and Vatican II

September 21, 2013 by

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As sisters and candidates gathered at the Nazareth Motherhouse Saturday for the sixth annual Agrégée Information Day, they explained a form of religious life that began some 370 years ago.

But their focus was more on recent history — the Second Vatican Council that was meeting in Rome 50 years ago.

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The annual fall event is designed to provide information and education to mature, single Catholic women who may be interested in entering the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia. But it also provides a day for sisters and current candidates to reflect on their own lives and vocations.

The Sisters of St. Joseph have vividly embraced the renewal of religious life called for in one of the major Vatican II documents, said Sister Ann Ashwood, one of more than a dozen sisters and candidates who participated in the presentations.

Yet even as important as Perfectae Caritatis (or the Decree On Renewal of Religious Life) has been for the congregation, Sister Ann cited a second documentLumen Gentium (or the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church) — as central to the entire Church.

With three simple props, the longtime teacher from Grand Junction, Colo., made her point:

“A rock, a rose, a rabbit — God made each of these,” she said. “God created a rock to be a rock, a rose to be a rose and a rabbit to be a rabbit. Each is unique and loved, and each has its own purpose.”

And like those three simple objects, Lumen Gentium proclaims that each person has a special vocation, or calling, as a gift from God, she said

That special individual calling explains, in part, the revitalization of the type of membership in the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia called “agrégée.”

The word — pronounced ah-gre-ZHEY — comes from the French for “attached to” or “aggregated with.”

When the Sisters of St. Joseph were founded in France in the mid-17th century, two distinct forms of membership in the religious community developed: “City sisters,” who gathered in larger areas like LePuy, and “country sisters” (or agrégée sisters) who lived and served in villages and throughout the most rural areas. That structure existed, and flourished, for nearly 150 years, until the French Revolution when religious communities were disbanded.

The Sisters of St. Joseph came back together in the early 1800s, but the autonomous small communities of “country sisters” had disappeared. It wasn’t until around 2004 that U.S. sisters researching their earliest roots realized that “agrégées” made up a distinct form of membership that had been recognized by the sisters themselves and the people they served as “real religious.”

The Concordia congregation approved a revitalized form of agrégée membership in 2006, and accepted the first two candidates, who would then become the first two modern agrégées: Sister Rosabel Flax of Ness City, Kan., and Sister Rosemary Foreman of Topeka.

In June, the congregation welcomed Sister Elizabeth Weddle of Concordia as the 10th agrégée sister. The other agrégée sisters are living and serving in the Kansas cities of Topeka, Augusta and Chapman, as well as Kansas City and St. Louis, Mo., Grand Junction, Colo., and Fruita, Colo. Another five women – from Kansas, Colorado and Georgia — are agrégée candidates, in varying stages of the process of deciding if this form of religious life fits them and their spiritual needs.

Agrégée sisters are defined as women who commit themselves to active and inclusive love of God and the dear neighbor as expressed in the spirit and spirituality of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia. They are viewed as members of the congregation in almost every aspect, but there are a couple of significant differences:

• “Canonically vowed sisters” profess the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, as defined by canon — or church — law. As part of the vow of poverty, an individual sister relinquishes all personal wealth and income; at the same time, the congregation assumes responsibility for her economic well being for the rest of her life.

• “Agrégée sisters” profess a vow of fidelity to the congregation, but it is noncanonical, meaning that it is not governed by Church law and is instead a private vow between that sister and the Concordia congregation. It also means that the agrégée does not relinquish her finances to the congregation, and the congregation assumes no financial responsibility for her.

Sister Loretta Jasper, who has served as a mentor to agrégée candidates, noted that she particularly appreciates that the “list of things we have in common is much longer than the list of what sets us apart.”

As part of Saturday’s program, a number of agrégée sisters and candidates talked about their journeys to the Sisters of St. Joseph and then answered questions about both forms of membership.

Sister Marcia Allen, who serves as president of the congregation, was also on hand, to give a presentation on the charism of the Sisters of St. Joseph. And she, too, quoted Lumen Gentium: “The classes and duties of life are many, but holiness is one. …”

“I like that,” she told the crowd gathered at the Motherhouse. “It had never really struck me before. But it’s I Corinthians 12, and it speaks to why we are all here today:”

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.
There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.
There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone
it is the same God at work.

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