Handmaids celebrate 75th anniversary of founding

The cloistered order that prays for priests makes its home in a monastery in the town of New Market 

By Gabrielle Nolan

Bishop Richard F. Stika celebrated a special Mass on May 25 honoring the diamond jubilee for the Handmaids of the Precious Blood.

Bishop Stika leads Benediction before the Blessed Sacrament with the Handmaids of the Precious Blood on May 25 for their 75th anniversary.

The morning Mass took place at Cor Jesu Monastery in New Market, the private residence of the cloistered contemplative community of religious Sisters.

Bishop Stika’s executive secretary, Sister Maria Juan Anderson, RSM, was also present for the Mass. The bishop and Sister Maria Juan presented the community with 75 flowers, one for each year of their community’s existence.

Bishop Stika greeted the Sisters at the beginning of Mass, acknowledging that they were “coming together on this special day, in which we kick off 75 years of grace.”

The bishop’s homily, which tied into the Gospel reading from John 15, focused on the theme of vines and branches.

“The one thing about vines is they grow; they move along,” he said. “And I was thinking, since the foundation of your community, recognized by the Holy Father himself, even though the community’s been smaller, it has grown.”

Bishop Stika stated that the community has endured “all kinds of soil,” with various locations previously in Italy, England, New Mexico, Illinois, Vermont, South Dakota, Washington, and Missouri.

“Here, it seems like you fulfill the mission of the founder: to pray for priests, to pray for the world, to give yourself totally to the Lord,” the bishop said. “And since I have such a unique connection to your community, both living and dead, I feel so privileged and blessed, as do I think the Church throughout the world, especially priests.”

“You might not know their names. Their names might appear on your blackboard,” the bishop continued, noting the blackboard in the monastery that lists the intentions for priests among different dioceses.

“The vine just continues to grow, and it grows out away from the core, from its roots,” he said. “I think that [by] the mission of your community, people might never see the root, where the vine starts, but they’ll see the effects. They’ll feel the effects. Because grace is one of those mysterious things that you really can’t get your hands around . . . The graces of the wonderful experience of the Spirit of the Father’s love of Jesus’ gift that allows everything to work out.”

Bishop Stika celebrates the anniversary Mass for the Handmaids’ 75th jubilee in their residential chapel in New Market.

Bishop Stika mentioned the community’s fluctuation in numbers over the years.

“There’s growth here, and just like anything in life, there’s ebbs and flows and moments, challenges, and yet life continues here,” he said. “That’s why your community is like that vine that reaches out in growth and the leaves that absorb the sun, absorb the grace to allow it to continue to grow and to touch the lives of people who will never see you, never speak with you, and yet are very, very much connected with you.”

The bishop also touched on the specific ministry of the community: to pray for priests.

“Your work continues because there are still broken priests and lost priests and strong priests, priests edifying because of your prayer,” he said. “So what a grand celebration it is, 75 years. And the work will continue. You know, there’s ad multos annos, many more years. I have no doubt about that at all.”

Bishop Stika noted that Cardinal Justin Rigali wrote a letter to the community for their jubilee.

“[The cardinal] extends to you his blessing, his love, his care. He’s been here before, and he’ll be here again, especially during this whole year of celebration,” the bishop said.

Following the Mass, the Sisters hosted Bishop Stika for lunch and fellowship inside their home.

A display featuring artifacts from throughout their community’s history, such as photographs and old habits, lined tables in the living room.

‘We’ve managed to survive’

The community was originally founded in 1947 in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe in New Mexico. Father Gerald Fitzgerald, the founder, desired a community of women to pray before the Blessed Sacrament in adoration for the souls of priests.

Their motto, Pro Christo In Sacerdote Suo, translates to “For Christ in His Priest.”

Mother Sarah Michael, the mother prioress of the Handmaids of the Precious Blood community, participates in the 75th-anniversary Mass.

After the community was founded, “we were just getting our feet wet when the Second Vatican Council took place in the early ’60s and that time of upheaval in society, as well as in the Church,” said Mother Sarah Michael, the community’s mother prioress.

“We’ve retained not just the appearances of religious, but just the core principles of what it is to live a vowed life in fidelity to the Church, and good morals, and we’ve been blessed in that way,” she continued.

“The 75th anniversary of our foundation is remarkable on several levels,” Mother Sarah Michael said. “I say that the first level is the fact that we’ve managed to survive through many vicissitudes.”

In 2010, the Handmaids began to discern relocating their motherhouse from the mountains of New Mexico due to challenges making it difficult to sustain a contemplative lifestyle.

“There’s one road going in, and when we first went there, it was a dead-end street,” Mother Sarah Michael explained. “It became a national scenic route, and it went all the way through to other cities, other places.”

“And so we had a tremendous amount of traffic, a tremendous amount of intrusion because we had a bit of an oasis where we lived,” she continued. “People would think it was a park, so they’d be coming onto our grounds even though we had things posted, you know, private property.”

A display table in the Handmaids’ living room featured artifacts from the community’s founder and earliest Sisters.

In addition, there were cultural influences entering that made the area more dangerous.

“We had been advised by somebody, a churchman, that we should probably look elsewhere, and we hadn’t considered that,” Mother Sarah Michael said. “We were just suffering with it because that’s where we were founded; you don’t leave your home if you don’t have to.”

The Sisters held a community-wide chapter to meet on the issue, and the community received permission from Rome to look for a new location to live.

“We put the invitation out to several bishops, the ordinaries of dioceses, and by word of mouth,” Mother Sarah Michael said. “We had gotten invitations from several, and we might have gone on to personally visit some, but we ended up being wooed by Bishop Stika, and this is where we came.”

The Handmaids arrived in East Tennessee in May 2013, originally living on the grounds of the Christ Prince of Peace Retreat Center in Benton. In July 2015, the community moved to its current location in New Market.

‘A great blessing to be in East Tennessee’

The move to East Tennessee made the Handmaids the “first women’s cloistered monastery and community motherhouse to be in the Diocese of Knoxville,” according to their website.

Their 55-acre property includes peaceful views of farmland and mountains and is partially bordered by the Holston River.

“We’re in an ideal spot, that we have the physical beauty and enough property that we have a natural seclusion,” Mother Sarah Michael said. “We have a lot of space that’s ours. There’s the natural beauty. There’s the quiet.”

The community also has accessibility to medical or commercial needs, being located less than 30 miles from downtown Knoxville.

For practical needs, such as buying groceries, the Sisters go out when needed and also receive help from volunteers.

Bishop Stika, accompanied by Sister Maria Juan Anderson, RSM, joins the Handmaids for lunch and fellowship following the Mass.

“We go out, usually once a week to get perishable things like milk, and some of the produce things,” Mother Sarah Michael explained. “We have people that will buy things in large amounts and send them through Amazon, (such as) nonperishables. And we have several benefactors in Knoxville or elsewhere nearby that will go to Sam’s Club or Costco and go and get us things there.”

A group of helpers, called the Handmaid Advisory Team, consists of professionals from various backgrounds: engineering, project management, law, real estate, and finance.

“They have been able to help us when we make big decisions to steer us in the right direction,” Mother Sarah Michael said.

Spiritually, the Sisters remain nourished in the sacraments from a priest who volunteers to visit the community.

Father Andres Cano, a priest in residence at Holy Trinity Church in Jefferson City, visits the monastery every day to celebrate Mass.

“He’s a very, very generous priest,” Mother Sarah Michael said. “He hears our confessions every two weeks, so then we don’t have to go out; he comes in.”

The community, which currently consists of 13 professed Sisters, is seeing the potential for growth with three women in formation at the motherhouse.

Twenty-eight-year-old novice Sister Maria Crucis of St. Joseph has been discerning with the Handmaids for just over a year.

The Handmaids of the Precious Blood sing during their anniversary Mass.

“I started discerning a contemplative vocation about a year and a half after I left formation with the Little Sisters of the Poor, and they’re an active community,” she said. “I really felt that the Lord was calling me to offer my life to pray for priests, and in particular to pray for priests in front of our Blessed Sacrament.”

Sister Maria Crucis found the Handmaids through their website and was recommended to visit them after visiting with a cloistered Dominican community in Alabama.

“It’s been so beautiful to have the Lord guide me on this journey,” she said. “It’s such a beautiful community of simple, humble women who just give their lives for the Lord every day. The joyful community life is beautiful.”

Originally from south Louisiana, Sister Maria Crucis moved around growing up. She lived in Knoxville for one year before entering the Handmaids community and was previously a member of Holy Ghost Parish.

“My parents, they live in Knoxville now, and so they’re very close,” she added. “It’s just a great blessing to be in East Tennessee.”

For more information on the Handmaids of the Precious Blood, visit nunsforpriests.org.

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