The Sisters of the Society Saint Pius X Celebrate 50 Years

Source: District of Australia and New Zealand

A little more than 50 years ago in Melbourne, Australia, a young lady approached Archbishop Lefebvre, “Your Excellency, I wish to enter the Sisters of the Society St. Pius X...” What a surprise for the Archbishop for the Sisters of the Society St. Pius X did not yet exist! The idea for such a congregation, however, was not foreign to His Excellency. Already in 1970 he had noted in the Statutes of the priestly Society, “The non-priest members and the religious, when Providence will raise them, also will bring their vitality and fervor to this community.” In this situation as in all his undertakings, Archbishop Lefebvre did not want to outstep Providence: he always awaited God’s time. Had that hour now come?

Since speaking another language sometimes leads to misunderstandings, Archbishop Lefebvre had the subsequent surprise of seeing two English-speaking young ladies arrive at Econe in the autumn of 1973 to try out the religious life...but nothing yet was organized! To whom should he confide their formation? While the two aspirants were spending several months at Pontcallec to learn French, His Excellency looked for a “Mother” who would be able to transmit the traditional religious life according to the spirit of the Church to these young ladies and to a future congregation. He turned toward his own sister, Sister Marie Gabriel of the Holy Ghost Congregation. At the age of 64, Sister had acquired a vast experience thanks to her 44 years of religious missionary life. Having been a superior for a long time—assistant general of her congregation—she had a sense of souls. And moreover, Sister Marie Gabriel was animated by the same love of the Church as her brother Marcel. Like him, she suffered the crisis which was so quickly devastating parishes, missions, and religious communities. Her own congregation was in the middle of rallying to the aggiornamento. But Sister Marie Gabriel loved her religious family profoundly and to distance herself from it, even for the good of the Church, was a very great sacrifice. Nonetheless, with a generous heart she consented to her brother’s wish and having received her superiors’ approval, she went to put herself at the disposition of her brother.

Thanks to her collaboration, Archbishop Lefebvre was able to write these lines in the February 1974 Letter to Friends and Benefactors, “While the Society of priests and Brothers is developing, the Society of Sisters has had a good start as well. The religious will be the helpers of the priests in all the ministries asked of the priestly Society. As the Mother of Jesus participated in the sacerdotal work of Our Lord dying on the cross for the redemption of souls principally by her compassion, so will the Sisters of the Society St. Pius X have a particular devotion to the sacrifice of the Mass and to the Eucharistic Victim; they will associate themselves to the presence of Mary, Co-redemptrix. That is why, in addition to the ordinary spiritual exercises, they will have one hour or two half-hours before Jesus in the tabernacle every day.”

What is this “good start” which the Archbishop mentions? In the mind of our founder, the place of the Congregation of Sisters was very clear, and he had almost finished writing the Constitutions. As for Mother Marie Gabriel, she went to Albano near Rome, in order to prepare the house that would serve as the novitiate. During the month of September, the little group of aspirants assembled at Econe, and on September 22, 1974, the taking of habit of the first postulant marked the birth of the Congregation.

Destined to be the “helpers of the priests in all the ministries asked of the priestly Society,” the young Sisters had a lot to learn! The Archbishop and Mother Marie Gabriel took care that the formation received at the novitiate was vast but solid, wholly centered on the special character of the Society: the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and “all that it signifies, all that flows from it and all that is its complement.” Consequently, there were doctrinal studies, classes on spirituality, Church history, Holy Scripture, Gregorian chant. There was also training for various functions which would permit the Sisters to help the priests in priories efficaciously: sacristy, sewing, and vestment making, without forgetting the hidden tasks which Mary fulfilled in the service of Jesus such as cooking, laundry, and housekeeping.

Helpers in all the material domains, the Sisters are even more so in the spiritual. “As the Mother of Jesus participated... principally by her compassion... so will the Sisters of the Society St. Pius X associate themselves to the presence of Mary, Co-redemptrix.” The hour of adoration is at the heart of the vocation of a Sister of the Society, prolonging the morning Mass. The other forms of help given to the priests are varied—and even greatly varied!—but these tasks do not overstep the spiritual aid which is primordial: the daily adoration is not a privilege of the Motherhouse nor of the novitiates, but an integral part of each day for every Sister. Even if there is a large number of seminarians in the incoming class, or a great number of students in school, or many retreatants following the spiritual exercises, or a large number of young girls participating in a camp, the hour of adoration has its place during the day. There the scope of intentions is vast, for Archbishop Lefebvre gave the entire Church as a field of apostolate: “They will participate more intimately in the Passion of Our Lord, making reparation for the outrages committed against His Divine Sacrament, praying for priests, bishops, the Pope, for all persons consecrated to God.” (Constitutions) And so, in each house of the priestly Society where there are Sisters, the priests can count on the special help of the Sisters’ prayers for their ministry with souls.

The Sisters’ houses have reached the number of 30 during the past 50 years of the Congregation’s existence. After the apostolate of prayer, the next service rendered wherever the Sisters are located is that of teaching catechism: in schools or in parishes for children who live locally, or by correspondence for hundreds of children who live far away (more than 1,500 to date), including adults who desire to discover or deepen their Faith. The catechism by correspondence was particularly dear to the Archbishop whose missionary spirit saw it as a means to reach as many souls as possible. The first “correspondence school year” was 40 years ago in France, in September 1984. Following after, the Sisters of Germany and of the United States translated the texts into their respective languages. Besides the numerous families enrolled, many primary schools have decided to benefit from the lessons and homework sheets.

In a similar fashion, the work of the Eucharistic Crusade can be seen in almost every one of our houses, no matter what the principal apostolate might be. Since 1995 in the district of France, the Sisters guarantee the secretariat of the Crusade at the Motherhouse, the Abbey St. Michael.

During the beginnings of the priestly Society, Archbishop Lefebvre welcomed the first overseas foundations with joy: shouldn’t each work of the Church be catholic, that is to say, universal? Likewise, the Congregation of Sisters did not delay in going to foreign countries. After the establishment of little communities at Geneva, Pointet, and Unieux, the Archbishop sent several Sisters to Saint Marys (United States) in 1981. Argentina (1986), Australia (1988), Gabon (1993), and the Dominican Republic (2009) followed suit, at the same time as other closer foundations in France, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, and Italy.

Since 1977, the Motherhouse of the Congregation has been established at St. Michel-en-Brenne, in the center of France. In the beginning, this location also served as the novitiate, and young ladies of diverse nationalities and languages did not hesitate to make the necessary sacrifices to enter there, sometimes coming from very far away. The Archbishop foresaw rather quickly the development of novitiates, as he had done with the seminaries. A Spanish-speaking novitiate was opened in Argentina in 1986 and in the same year a foundation for English-speakers was opened in the United States, and lastly one in Germany in 1992. During this time, the French-speaking novitiate was relocated to the town of Ruffec-le-Chateau, close to the Motherhouse.

Archbishop Lefebvre desired the presence of the Sisters in the seminaries. While he was alive he had the joy of seeing them established in La Reja, Argentina in 1986. More recently founded at Dillwyn (United States) and at Econe, the Sisters devote themselves to the formation of future priests in a hidden fashion: the material service that they render, in particular by the laundry and sewing, forms the discreet but real framework of their life of prayer. The familiar invocations, “O Lord, grant us priests” are for them a daily, living reality!

Many are those who have caught a glimpse of a Sister or two at the occasion of an Ignatian Retreat at Pointet or at Gastines (France). The silence that envelops the house for the week almost keeps their presence invisible—but retreat responsibilities oblige! Retreat weeks do not represent the entirety of their apostolate: parish catechism, workshops with ladies of the parish, the Eucharistic Crusade, and activities for young ladies are also offered.

The Sisters also work in two nursing homes. There, the Sisters’ apostolate permits the residents in their retirement to benefit from the rays of sunshine of the consecrated life. Varied activities, personal visits to their rooms, times of prayer, guidance in receiving the sacraments are the supports that prepare these souls for their last voyage, and in particular help to open the way for the priest, who sometimes otherwise would not be welcome. In their last hour, these individuals are even able to benefit from a privilege which is rare in our days: the Sisters of the community take turns day and night watching with the dying.

Many of our Society priories have schools. The presence of Sisters allows the priests to have the necessary help in this very absorbing apostolate. It is the principal work in more than half of our houses, most of which are primary schools where the Sisters fulfill responsibilities such as principals or homeroom teachers. In high schools, the Sisters complete the education of the adolescents by offering classes of catechism, home economics and practical arts, music, and after-school activities with boarding students. Even when school life is the central aspect of the life of the priory, the Sisters never limit their help to the school only: the upkeep of the priory, sacristy, visits to the sick, workshops with the parish ladies are among the abundant tasks that the religious accomplish in a parish.

Just as Archbishop Lefebvre turned toward his little sister for the formation of young ladies as religious in the Society, so his priests can call upon the Sisters for the apostolate with girls and young women. Day trips and activities, summer or winter camps, weekend camps, Marian youth groups, pilgrimage chapters, formation in running a house: according to the country, climates, and the distance to travel, the setup of this apostolate has many possibilities! Nevertheless, the objective is always the same: to prepare the women of tomorrow to receive today the graces, light, and strength that they need; to lead them to Our Lord so as to learn His Holy Will for them and then to give themselves to this Will with all their heart.

In this apostolate as in all the others, the Sisters’ role is to lead souls to the priest. Their prayers, teaching, advice: the purpose of all their action is to “complete and facilitate the priestly apostolate,” thus continuing the co-redemptive work of the most Blessed Virgin Mary at the foot of the Cross. As the priest renders the redemptive sacrifice present on the altar, the mission of the Sisters is to continue the compassion of Our Lady. Alas, during these past 50 years the end of the sorrowful passion which the Church is going through has not been seen. These words of Archbishop Lefebvre are still pertinent even today: 

The Virgin Mary stayed next to Our Lord. He was crucified: she did not abandon Him. Everyone fled but the Virgin Mary did not—she stayed. And we also, we ought to stay with the Church. One cannot say, ‘Oh, too bad, we are going to flee with everyone else; we are afraid of public opinion, of being treated as rebels, as traditionalists, etc.’ We are with Our Lord; we will stay with the true Church. We cannot betray the Church. One day the Church will rise again, one day the Church will triumph. We cannot abandon the Church. This is the same spirit that ought to guide us, the spirit of the Blessed Virgin. This is your role also, your role as religious, for you are completely consecrated to Our Lord and to Holy Church, for Our Lord and the Holy Church are the same thing: it is His Mystical Spouse, it is His Mystical Body. And we are devoted to the Church, unto blood if necessary. That is what makes vocations. One does not find vocations anymore because it is no longer about self-sacrifice, because it is no longer about following Jesus on the Cross, of being with the Blessed Virgin next to Our Lord on the Cross; there is no longer an attraction, one is no longer drawn. But we are drawn by the Cross of Our Lord, by sacrifice, by the oblation of one’s whole life with Our Lord to the sacrifice of the Mass. Here is the raison d’être of religious vocations.

 (Excerpts from a conference given by Archbishop Lefebvre to the Sisters at the Motherhouse, St. Michel-en-Brenne, October 6, 1983)