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  • Writer's pictureFr. Vili Lehtoranta

Maria Stein Visit

Dear friends of the Oblate Sisters,

On February 13 Father Simpson said the school High Mass of the Holy Face, after which St. Gertrude the Great School held its annual Mardi Gras celebration for the students and teachers. The feast of the Holy Face is the principal feast of the Oblate Sisters, and a festive lead-up to the holy season of Lent, which starts on Ash Wednesday. The ceremonies of that day are always a big event at our little school, whose students serve and sing the Solemn High Mass, and everything went very smoothly. The only trouble of the day was that one of the schoolboys did put meat in his lunch sandwich, but a special delivery from home solved that problem.

Father Brueggemann visited our Seminary in February. The Seminary is joined with Father Ercoli’s St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church in Mount Vernon, Washington, the home of the annual Skagit Valley Tulip Festival and the birthplace of actor Jim Caviezel. Father Brueggemann teaches in the Seminary every weekday afternoon by Internet call. Our own SGG Seminarian recently wrote a little insert piece for the Credo, which the choir sang for the first time on Sexagesima Sunday. He is also teaching 9th grade catechism in the parish school.

The Sodality of Charity, SGG’s youth group for girls, made a field trip to Maria Stein on February 24. Sister Ulrica and I went with them. That area in western Ohio had many Catholic immigrants from Germany, and therefore, in 1843, John Baptist Purcell, the Bishop of Cincinnati, called some German-speaking priests and brothers from Switzerland to start an apostolate among them. The priests were members of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood, founded by Saint Gaspar del Bufalo. The call of Bishop Purcell was answered by Father Francis Brunner, who had been a member of the Benedictine Monastery Mariastein, before joining the Missionaries of the Precious Blood after hearing Saint Gaspar preaching.

In 1844 the first Sisters arrived at New Riegel, Ohio, to help the priests. The Sisters were founded by Father Brunner’s mother Maria Anna Brunner. She had been widowed at a young age, and when her son joined the Missionaries, she started a group of young ladies who in the spirit of oblation helped the priests in any way they needed, for example in teaching Catechism to girls, taking care of orphans, etc. The Sisters first wore a simple, traditional Swiss laywoman’s dress with a black bonnet. They later adopted a black habit made of serge wool and added a black wimple. This was the habit the Sisters wore when they in 1846 arrived in Maria Stein, Ohio, which became their motherhouse.

Originally there were no separate orders of men and women, but all were considered the members of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood. This was the case in Maria Stein, too, where the Sisters lived in the brick convent building, which in 1860 replaced the old frame house, while the priests and brothers lived in a separate house at the entrance gate. This arrangement was not altogether unique; for example the Bridgettine order of St. Bridget of Sweden had used it. But in 1887 Rome ordered that all religious orders must be governmentally divided to male and female congregations. Therefore the Sisters separated from the society of the priests and brothers and started their own congregation of Sisters with a superior general under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Cincinnati.

In Ohio the Sisters of the Precious Blood helped the priests in many ways. Those who were engaged in active apostolate worked mainly as teachers, both in Catholic and in public schools, or acted as nurses in hospitals or nursing homes. Those who stayed at the convent were doing farm labor, or baked hosts, or did all kinds of manual work to support the convent.

What makes Maria Stein convent famous is its big collection of relics. It is the second largest collection of relics in the United States, after that of St. Anthony Shrine in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The 1800s were dangerous times for the Catholic churches in Europe because of many revolutions, and Father Brunner saw America as a safe haven for relics because her Constitution had granted full freedom to Catholics to exercise their religion.

Among the most impressive relics are those of Saint Victoria, who died in the persecution of Decius in 250 after refusing marriage to a pagan man and to worship idols. She was killed by the executioner who stabbed her in the chest. Saint Victoria was originally buried in the Roman catacombs, and Father Brunner received her relics as a gift from the Church when he was visiting Rome. The Sisters crafted a beautiful wax figure as a reliquary and sewed the relics inside the royal dress they prepared. Saint Victoria is holding in her hand a collection of rings. Those rings are gifts from the postulants of the monastery. Since Maria Stein had made Saint Victoria very famous in the area, many girls prayed to her to ask her intercession to decide if they had a religious vocation. And when they did enter the convent, they gave their ring to Saint Victoria as a token of appreciation for her help in becoming a bride of Christ.

Other impressive relics of the shrine include the body of Saint Cruser. Normally first class relics consist of only tiny fragments of the saint’s body; but the reliquary of Saint Cruser contains many of his bones. If you have never heard of Saint Cruser, it’s because we know nothing about him. His body was found in the catacombs among the martyrs’ graves in 1826 and was given to Father Brunner. The shrine also has the top of the skull of Saint Rogatus, who was a member of 18 martyrs from Africa who were killed by the Romans. The collection also has second class relics of Our Lord, for example a piece of the purple robe from His Passion, a piece of His burial cloth, and some dust from the garden of Getsemani. There are many second class relics of Our Lady, too, such as her veil. And then there are hundreds of relics from almost any saint you could name. Saint Eulalia is there, too, although they don’t specify whether she’s of Merida or Barcelona.

In the shrine chapel there is also an oil painting of Our Lady of the Rock, after whom the abbey of Mariastein was named. This devotion started in Basel, Switzerland, in the 1300s, when a boy was playing near a cliff and fell, falling about 150 feet down to the rock ground. But, as he told his mother, a beautiful woman caught him and he was left completely unharmed. The people placed an image of the Blessed Virgin in the grotto nearby, and later on a chapel was built on the spot where the boy had fallen. When Father Brunner left to America, the Abbot of Mariastein gave him the oil painting as a gift and told to pray to Her for a safe journey. While Father and his companions were sailing to their new home, a big storm arose, and they all prayed to Our Lady of the Rock and the storm im-mediately ceased.

Another pretty oil painting in the convent is that of the Holy Face. Its origin is unknown but it was found in the barn of the convent in 1980. It’s painted on wood, which is not very common for oil paintings.

The chapel where the convent Mass was celebrated is called Mary Help of Christians, but it has always been referred to as the Adoration Chapel. This is because the Sisters had in their convent chapel perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Already when they first arrived at Maria Stein in 1846, they kept the nocturnal adoration, and when there were enough Sisters, they started perpetual adoration. The hour bell of the convent rung always 10 minutes before the allotted slot ended. When the Sister, who was in turn to take the slot, heard the hour bell, she stopped whatever she was doing at the moment, and headed to the chapel. For 100 years there were always at least two Sisters, day and night, in the chapel, adoring the Blessed Sacrament, praying for the priests and doing reparation for the sins of men.

On the ceiling of the chapel there is a painting depicting Mary Help of Christians. It was painted by a Precious Blood priest, Father Paulinus Trost, whose chalice is in the convent museum. Next to Our Lady is Pope Saint Pius V with a knight, a reference to the battle of Lepanto, where Catholic armies saved Europe from the attack of the Muslims. With them is Saint Teresa of Avila, whom the Sisters adopted as their patroness. Above the main altar there is the pretty rose window. For a long time it was covered by a crucifixion scene, until it was removed in the 1970s. Above the window there is a painted banner which says in German St. Anthony, pray for us, and in Latin, Blood of Christ, cleanse us.

In 1923 the Precious Blood Sisters got a new motherhouse in Dayton, which was much closer to the people and allowed the expansion of their apostolate. As the result, the number of Sisters living in Maria Stein started to decrease. That made the people of the Mercer County to realize what an enormous blessing the perpetual adoration was to the community, and caused them to worry that the Sisters might not be able to continue this important devotion for much longer. Therefore, in the spirit of Catholic Action, the local people started the Adoration Guild in 1957 to help the Sisters with the perpetual adoration.

There were many interesting tidbits to learn from the history of Maria Stein. In the 1920s Archbishop of Cincinnati John McNicholas made a suggestion about reforming the Sisters’ habit. He was concerned that the all-black habit was too severe for the people involved in their active ministry, such as the schoolchildren and the elderly. Archbishop McNicholas therefore asked that they would add a bit of white in their headgear and collar, which they did. But I doubt that school-children really found the all-back habit that intimidating; and if they did, I don’t think adding a little bit of white in their wimple and collar changed the matter in any way. At the same time the Sisters added to their habit a red cord cincture with seven knots, in reference to the Seven Wounds and the Precious Blood, and also changed their crucifix cord to red.

The final modification to the habit came in 1955. A decree from the Archbishop authorized the change of the Precious Blood Sisters’ habit to a gray colored lighter material, which was machine washable. On August 22, 1955, the new gray habits were worn by the Sisters for the first time.

When the Sisters arrived from Europe, one nice thing they brought with them was the art of making wax dolls. These became popular gifts. Parents in the area brought to the convent hair of their children to be used in the making of the dolls.

The visit to Maria Stein was really a striking reminder of not so much what we had, but what we have lost. Because there has been no Blessed Sacrament, no adoration, and no Sisters for 50 years now, the convent is now nothing more than a museum. The visit therefore told us, that as important as the active help which an Oblate Sister gives to us priests in the sacristy and in the school, equally important is the work which she does in private, i.e. the work of charity, devotion, and reparation.

Yours in the Charity of Christ and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart,

Fr. Vili Lehtoranta


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