"The greater the work the more
important it is to establish it on
a solid foundation. Thus it will
not only be more perfect; it
will also be more lasting.”

St. Louise de Marillac

“Be diligent in serving
the poor. Love the poor,
honor them, my children,
as you would honor
Christ Himself.”

St. Louise de Marillac

 

Called by Spirit, United by Love

By Erin Reder

The four directors of Associates (from left) S. Rita Hawk, S. Mary Ann Humbert, Mary Jo Mersmann and Chanin Wilson have each played a pivotal role in the development of the Associate program.

Taking a look back on the 50 years since the Sisters of Charity Associate program commenced, one can’t help but reminisce on the joys and challenges, evolution and graces that have presented themselves. Past and present directors Sisters Rita Hawk and Mary Ann Humbert and Associates Mary Jo Mersmann and Chanin Wilson all gathered before the Sept. 2 Motherhouse celebration to remember the past, honor relationships and imagine the future.

Even though the program began in the 1970s, it wasn’t until 1992 that S. Rita Hawk was hired as the first director of Associates. She had been involved prior to that serving on the Co-Membership Committee for the Dayton province. Those early years she remembers as quite a challenge. There was much resistance and hesitation to the program; many Sisters did not understand what the relationship was or its purpose. Yet, the program continued to grow. “It was organic,” says S. Rita, “a real sign of the Spirit. People were drawn to the charism.”

As she began to dive in to her role, S. Rita said she needed to bring some organization to the program. She formed an Advisory Committee of Associates and Sisters to assist in developing policies and procedures, as well as educating the congregation on its purpose. She also created an Associate handbook to serve as a guide and orientation to the program.

“One of the first things I did was go around to all the different places where we had Associates (New Mexico, Colorado, Florida) and get acquainted with the Associates and even the Sisters,” S. Rita said. It was during a visit with S. Mary Loyola Mathia and the Associates down in Florida that she realized the Associates wanted to feel more connected to each other. That conversation was the impetus for the first Associate Convocation held in July 1995. With more than 140 Sisters and Associates attending, the goal for the convocation was for Associates to clarify, identify and intensify their relationships with the Community; to become more connected with the SC roots; to further a sense of mutuality between the Sisters and Associates; and to offer an opportunity for SCs and Associates to pray with, socialize with and become more acquainted with one another. S. Rita explains that the convocation was a turning point with more Associates being accepted.

In 1997 S. Mary Ann Humbert took the reins as director. She too felt the challenge to help Sisters realize the value and blessing in the Sister-Associate relationship. She worked tirelessly to stretch Community members’ thoughts about the Associates and the possibilities. S. Mary Ann advocated for more integration – in publications and celebrations. “I felt good that there was a lot more interconnection,” recalls S. Mary Ann, “of Sisters appreciating the Associates, and offering reverence, respect, sharing – that was really what I wanted to do.”

In 2000, S. Mary Ann invited Sisters and Associates to respond to a questionnaire entitled, “Can You Picture This?” One of the questions asked was if members thought the director of Associates could be a lay person. The majority of responses said ‘no.’ However, in June 2002 Associate Mary Jo Mersmann was hired as director of Associates. “That was a challenge,” Mary Jo says with a laugh. Her many years of experience as a director of religious education and lay pastoral ministry and her life-long relationship with the Sisters helped prepare her for the role. “From what I learned from S. Mary Ann was one of my biggest roles was to advocate for Associates. Whenever there was a letter that went out to just SCs, I’d call and ask if Associates could be included. My first duty, always, was to advocate.” Persistence through resistance and misunderstanding was key.

(From left) Both current and former Associate directors Chanin Wilson and Mary Jo Mersmann agree that one of the memories they cherish most has been the opportunity to take part in pilgrimages to the Shrine of St. Elizabeth Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

Many milestones occurred during Mary Jo’s 15 years as director. When she started in her role there were approximately 100 Associates; when she retired in 2017, the number had doubled. Helping Sisters gain a better understanding of who the Associates were and why they were a part of the charism, was a large part of her sense of duty. Mary Jo was proud of the development of the Associate formation program; the 2012 Caritas Convocation planned by the Associates for the congregation as a way to build community and strengthen the Sister/Associate relationship; and her involvement with NACAR (North American Conference of Associates and Religious), which offered her the ability to share with the SC Community what others were doing all over the country and world.

Another special memory involves the pilgrimages to Emmitsburg, Maryland and the Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. “The Shrine has a special place in my heart,” she says. “Going there over and over again with new people who saw something different or shared something different in prayer or discussions, that’s a really important memory for me.”

In 2017, Chanin Wilson was named director of Associates. In addition to facing the same challenges as past directors, Chanin was the first Associate director living outside of Cincinnati. Based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, she found herself depending on technology. “Not being in Cincinnati has been good,” she says. “It’s a changing world. Not all Associates are in Cincinnati. It’s been a challenge at times, but it’s been a good growth for us. We have been forced to be more creative to find ways to connect.”

“Having Chanin outside of Cincinnati has helped those in Cincinnati see that everything doesn’t have to happen here,” adds Mary Jo. “There are people in other places and they too can carry on the charism. It’s empowering Associates to plan their own gatherings and activities and to carry forward the mission themselves.”

One way of doing so was the implementation of regional representatives, which were developed in 2017. Six Associate leaders committed to helping Associates stay in touch, providing leadership for and building relationships with Associates in their region. The structure provided Associates and SCs with new connections and opportunities to get to know each other. In addition, COVID had a huge impact on the ability for Sisters and Associates to gather. Through technology, Chanin and administrative assistant Sue DiTullio created opportunities for gathering through Zoom. Associate Shares take place monthly and provide a topic of conversation and scheduled time for Associates and Sisters to meet virtually to connect on a deeper level.

(From left) Associate Mary Jo Mersmann, S. Mary Ann Humbert, S. Rita Hawk and Associate Chanin Wilson were part of the Mass on Sept. 2 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Associate program.

The four women agree that each Associate has been called by God to be a part of the charism/mission of the Community; whether it be daring to risk a caring response, living life through love and friendship, and/or connecting to Mother Seton, Associates are charism carriers, living it in their own unique ways. It’s a connection that continues to inspire them in their own lives. “Every time an Associate makes their commitment, I feel like we are being called to be better Sisters of Charity,” says S. Mary Ann. “When they say how they want to connect with us or what they see in us, it feels like a call. It’s important for all of us.”

The 50th anniversary celebration on Sept. 2, 2023, as well as the visioning celebration at the Motherhouse on Oct. 2 were opportunities to honor the past but, more importantly, to look to the future and where the Associate program and the Community are headed. “It’s continually changing,” says Chanin. “Just like the Sisters, it’s evolving.”

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