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Issue Date:  February 27, 2004

It's a family reunion for Irish, North American institute


It wasn’t a family feud that caused the sisters who belong to the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM) to live as two separate congregations for 122 years. But September 2003 marked a family reunion for the Irish and North American branches. After a century-plus of separation, they were again formally one.

Like many religious orders, distance -- two continents separated by the Atlantic Ocean -- was one of the impediments to maintaining one unified congregation.

The IBVMs’ foundress Mary Ward began her then-novel experiment in religious life in Elizabethan England, when being Catholic frequently meant persecution and even death. A great admirer of the Society of Jesus, Mary really wanted her women’s group to be a type of “lady Jesuits,” with the mobility and flexibility that the Jesuit rule provided. She wanted her women -- she didn’t want them called nuns or to have the trappings of cloistered religious life, the main expression then in vogue -- to dress like the common folk and to be mobile, going wherever the need was to educate people in the faith. In so doing she raised more than a few clerical eyebrows, and Mary and her nuns were given the uncomplimentary label “the galloping girls.”

Since their founding in 1609, the IBVMs have done their share of galloping. Today the institute spans six continents, with sisters working in 16 countries, including three African nations, Australia, Canada, India, Ireland, Mauritius, Peru and Spain, as well as the United States and the United Kingdom.

In 1821 the Dublin-based branch of the IBVMs -- called the “Loreto” sisters in Ireland -- began sending missionary sisters overseas, including to Toronto in 1847. From Canada a small group opened the first IBVM house in Joliet, Ill., near Chicago. As many congregations experienced at the time in pioneer North America, distance and delays in communication made it impractical to keep close ties with the community and even nation of origin. In 1881 the North American branch of the IBVMs --spelling their popular name with two t’s, “Loretto” -- became a separate entity, independent of the Irish motherhouse.

But the sisters were never really happy with the division, and talk of reunion began as early as 1900. The decision to vote for formal reunion came in 1995 and the two branches actually cast their votes for the union five years later, in January 2003. Following Vatican approval, the two IBVM branches formally reunited as one congregation last fall during a three-day gathering of members at Loretto Abbey in Toronto.

Like communities who have entered into mergers (see related story), the IBVM reunion strengthens both the numbers and ministries of the institute. The merger joins the relatively small North American branch, with 202 sisters in Canada and the United States, to the much larger Irish branch, whose 800-plus sisters serve in eight international provinces and two regions. As is often the case, the “mission” countries have more vocations and younger members, and this is another plus of the reunion. With the average ages of the European and North American sisters hovering at 70, the reunion with a younger international population lowers the median age significantly -- in effect, an instant fountain of youth for the order.

As with mergers, the IBVM reunion meant some not insignificant details to work out -- like going from two superiors general to one, and having one general council to serve the entire congregation.

Although the IBVMs considered themselves international before, the new united institute has even more global reach. The order is establishing a New York headquarters and an office of the IBVMs as an independent nongovernmental association with the United Nations.

“In today’s global village, our coming together as one community will enable us even more powerfully to speak to and live out the Gospel vision of peace, justice and love of neighbor,” said Sr. Maria Bierer, former superior general of the North American branch and now a member of the new generalate team.

Ward’s “galloping girls” also know that the reunion fulfills the original vision of their founder. “What Mary Ward really wanted was a worldwide institute whose sisters would live in the heart of ordinary life,” said Sr. Pat Murray, formerly a member of the Irish branch. “We are thankful that we have the opportunity to realize her vision at a time when it is more important and relevant than ever before.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 27, 2004

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