BY ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD, THE WESTERN KENTUCKY CATHOLIC
The election of a Kentucky native as the first-ever Mother President of an international monastic congregation of nuns is historic, to say the least.
Despite her initial hesitation, through prayer and “powerful graces” Mother Catherine Marie Schuhmann, formerly of St. Joseph Monastery in Whitesville, came to have “Mary’s open heart, and a clear awareness that I would not be alone if I were elected,” she said.
On Jan. 29, 2019, Mother Catherine Marie was elected the first Mother President of the newly-erected Congregation of the Nuns of the Passion of Jesus Christ.
Mother Catherine Marie had spent more than 57 years of her life as a Passionist nun at the cloistered monastery in western Kentucky. Her years included serving as the community’s mother superior and helping to bring about a flourishing of vocations at the monastery.
But in 2018, she was summoned to Lucca, Italy, to step in as temporary superior of the monastery attached to the shrine of St. Gemma Galgani, a Passionist saint.
The Italian monastery had been struggling with vocations and maintaining the shrine, and needed a strong mother figure to guide them.
At the time, Mother Catherine Marie believed that her stint away from her beloved Kentucky home was temporary. She anticipated returning to Whitesville in spring 2019, after Lucca had been helped back to its feet.
God was not finished with Mother Catherine Marie, however.
On June 29, 2018, the Holy See had officially erected the Congregation of the Nuns of the Passion of Jesus Christ. The congregation encompasses all female communities of Passionist nuns across the globe.
This juridical structuring is taking place in all female monastic groups throughout the world, which is “a great blessing,” said Mother John Mary Read, the current mother superior of St. Joseph Monastery in Whitesville.
Previously, the female monastic communities were “autonomous, isolated monasteries” who shared some rules and perhaps communicated at times with those who shared the same language, Mother John Mary said in a Feb. 26 interview with the WKC.
But as Mother Catherine Marie explained in a Feb. 6 letter she sent to her friends, family and home monastery, “from long experience, the Church knows we will be stronger if we are united, rather than continuing in isolation (each monastery ‘on its own’).”
The congregation held its first General Chapter from Jan. 21-Feb. 3, 2019. Passionist nun delegates from around the world attended the chapter, which was held in Rome.
Besides discussing many orders of business that come with gathering previously-isolated monasteries into a unified congregation, the chapter needed to elect a Mother President.
“I had arrived at the chapter with a mind made up that at my age (75), God was not calling me to this service of authority and I was returning to Whitesville in the spring,” said Mother
Catherine Marie in her Feb. 6 letter.
However, thanks to the prayers and support of her fellow nuns, she realized: “These nuns would be walking forward with me, supporting me with their own gifts of nature and grace.”
Mother Catherine Marie’s tasks will include serving as a liaison for all female Passionists to the Holy See, holding visitations of monasteries around the world, looking at each monastery’s financial situation, and being involved if a nun is dispensed from vows. She will also be involved when a new female Passionist monastery is founded, as well as if a monastery is closed.
These tasks span “from the most mundane to the most glorious,” Mother John Mary told the WKC.
She added that Mother Catherine Marie “is so graced; the grace of God is really carrying her… She is very peaceful, she’s a problem-solver, a dreamer, she is so gifted – but, she is begging for prayers.”
It is bittersweet that Mother Catherine Marie will not be returning to Whitesville, but her community knows she is the right woman for the role.
“We are grateful for what this will do for our community and Passionist nuns around the world now, and into the future,” said Mother John Mary.
To continue following Mother Catherine Marie’s journey, visit passionistnuns.org/blog.
Originally printed in the April 2019 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.
Copyright © 2019 Diocese of Owensboro/The Western Kentucky Catholic