International bicentenary celebration

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NEWPORT – In the gardens of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny Motherhouse in Paris stands a gingko biloba tree planted by their founder, Blessed Anne-Marie Javouhey, before her 1851 death. Almost 160 years later, the tree still stands as a testament to the flourishing religious community she founded.

“It’s kind of a symbol of our longevity and of hope," said Cluny Sister Joan van der Zyden, the provincial of the Cluny province that spans the United States and Canada.

As the Cluny Sisters across the world approach the end of what has been a year of celebration in honor of the congregation’s bicentenary, the sisters in Newport look toward the future with hope and carry with them fond memories of the past.

Since its foundation in Paris on May 12, 1807 by Blessed Javouhey, the Cluny congregation has been a missionary order. The sisters serve God and their calling by ministering to people across the world – from Europe to Africa, the Americas to Asia. There have been celebrations at the many provinces throughout the world as well as on international celebration at the motherhouse in Paris.

“Each provincial throughout the world has their individual celebrations,” said Sister van der Zyden. “The whole congregation has really spent this as a bicentenary year,” she added.

In the province that encompasses the United States and Canada, there have already been two celebrations in California and next weekend, the province’s celebration of the bicentenary year will conclude with a Mass and gathering at St. Augustin Church in Newport. Sister van der Zyden described the event as a “kind of a climax” of the year-long celebration for the American and Canadian sisters. “It’s always wonderful when we have people who we’ve worked with and ministered with come back (to celebrate),” she said.

The Newport observance will gather together people from the Cluny School, local parishes, the diocese and the entire province together. “Everyone is invited to attend the Mass,” Sr. van der Zyden said. “We think 200 years is great and we want to celebrate with the people who we’ve spent time with here,” she added.

At the international celebration in Paris, each of the 28 provinces worldwide sent three representatives to join in a three-day pilgrimage across France that took them from the motherhouse to important sites in the life of Blessed Javouhey.

Also, students at all of the Cluny schools across the world participated in their own celebrations of the bicentenary and World Peace Day by writing messages for peace and sending them to France, where the messages were tied to balloons and released from the motherhouse in Paris on May 12, the official 200th anniversary.

The Cluny congregation is a multicultural group of women. The United States and Canada province was founded by Irish missionaries and is now home to sisters from Haiti, Portugal, Ireland, as well as the U.S. and Canada, including the province of Newfoundland.

“Usually every house is a multicultural group of people,” said Sister van der Zyden. The United States and Canada province has only 20 sisters, but provinces in places such as India and Africa have been attracting new vocations.

In India, the four provinces are preparing to split into six because of their huge growth. “While individual areas might be downsizing, as a congregation we’re holding our own,” she said.

Even in small numbers, Cluny sisters have made “availability” one of the hallmarks of their ministry. “We’re really a congregation that says ‘Is there a need there?’ and if there are two or three sisters willing to work there, we’ll open (a house),” the religious sister said.

In honor of their bicentenary, the Cluny sisters of the U.S. and Canada have also set up a ministry fund so sisters can apply for grants to continue ministry projects across the province.

Earlier this year, a property on Brenton Road in Newport where the Cluny Sisters had lived for many years was put up for sale by the diocese. The sisters living there have since all relocated to new facilities in Newport and Middletown and the Brenton Road house has been sold. Though their physical address may have changed, the Cluny Sisters of Newport plan to continue their tradition of service to the community. “We have a great history here,” said Sister van der Zyder.