Finding Mary and Martha throughout Church history

Father John A. Kiley

According to the First Official Directory and Information Guide for the Diocese of Providence (1953), the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary (PM) staffed St. Ambrose school in Albion, St. Vincent DePaul School in Coventry, Christ the King, St. John the Baptist and Our Lady of Good Council schools in West Warwick, Our Lady of the Presentation school in North Providence, and Our Lady of Victories, St. Louis, St. Ann and St. Joseph schools in Woonsocket. It would appear that at that time only the Religious Sisters of Mercy (RSM) operated more parish schools in Rhode Island than the Presentation sisters. Largely from French-Canadian ancestry themselves, these sisters first tended to the children of Rhode Island’s millworkers, many of whom immigrated from Quebec and settled in mill villages like Albion, Anthony, Arctic, and Marieville as well as the city of Woonsocket. The Diocese of Manchester also could boast of the services of these sisters. And just to set the record straight, these PMs should not be confused with the PBVMs (Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary), often referred to as Irish Presentation sisters who conducted schools in Central Falls, Warwick and Woonsocket.
Although the Presentation Sisters’ presence in the classrooms of Rhode Island as clearly diminished, their ministry to working families continues in Canada and throughout the world. North America’s Indigenous people and recent immigrants as well as foreign missions and work with prisoners and the infirm continue to receive the sisters’ attention. Through these good works the motto of their foundress St. Marie Rivier continues to be fulfilled: “To make Jesus Christ known and loved everywhere!” This devout woman and religious foundress was happily and recently canonized by Pope Francis on Sunday, May 15, both for her piety and for her courageous work in rehabilitating the Catholic Church in France after the horrors of the Revolution.
Born in 1768, St. Marie Rivier fell out of bed as child and remained severely handicapped for the rest of her life. Brought daily by her mother to a local Marian shrine, the young Marie’s devotional life grew and was even more enhanced by her First Communion at age 12. Her first request to be admitted the religious life was denied due to her ill health. Nonetheless, beginning in 1786, initially as a lay person, Marie taught children, instructed young women and tended to the sick and needy. The reign of terror stopped all this good work but eventually, with the guidance of a Sulpician father, Marie began a new Congregation dedicated to the instruction and religious formation of youth. On November 21, 1796, the feast of the Presentation of Mary in the Temple, with the permission of the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Vienne, together with four companions, Marie promised to “devote herself and their work to the Queen of Heaven.” Thus was born the Congregation of the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary. The following year, eleven companions made their religious profession.
After Napoleon and the Holy See reached some accord (1801), local bishops welcomed Mother Marie Rivier’s charism and work and promoted vocations. In the years 1802-1810, the Sisters of the Presentation amazingly opened 46 houses, and in 1803 started the first novitiate. Schooling, especially the teaching of the catechism, was the chief apostolate of these religious. In 1820, the Rules of the Institute, in use since 1802, were canonically approved. They remained in force until 1899. Saint Marie Rivier’s own activity had to stop in late 1837 as her strength began to wane. She died on February 3, 1838. She left 130 religious houses behind her. She is buried in Bourg-Saint-Andéol, in southern France, north of Marseilles.
The ministry of women religious has shifted dramatically in the past 50 years. Women religious locally minister more as nurses than as teachers and in fewer numbers. Yet, this Sunday’s Gospel passage about Martha and Mary remind the Catholic world of the many and assorted services that women, both religious and lay, are called to render to the Church community. Habited sisters in community life continue to be an inspiration to the Catholic laity. Women religious with individual ministries add considerably to the Church’s effectiveness in the social apostolate. And, if Pope Francis has his way, the future will see “still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church (6/26/2019).” The Church that survived the French Revolution and Napoleon will also survive the decrees of Vatican II and the push toward Synodality. The practical Martha and the contemplative Mary will always be found, in various degrees and in assorted circumstances, throughout the Church’s long history.