The Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate in the Heart of the Church
The Beginnings of the Franciscans of the Immaculate
The Franciscans of the Immaculate were founded by the two Franciscan friars, Fr. Stefano Maria Manelli and Fr. Gabriel Maria Pellettieri. The name, Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate, was actually chosen by St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe who, in his time, foresaw a future feminine branch of the Friars who would also live this vow of total consecration to the Immaculate.
Together they outlined a form of life for the friars, sisters and the laity after the example of St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe, giving the fullest expression to the Marian dimension of St. Francis’ ideal and Rule. Today both the friars and sisters are religious Institutes of pontifical right, and they constitute the single religious Family of the Franciscans of the Immaculate, vitally inserted into the Church as a new, chosen “portion” of the Mystical Body of Christ.
The Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate, a new Franciscan branch rooted in the Rule of St. Francis of Assisi (Regula Bullata, 1223) and in the Marian Plan of Franciscan Life (“Traccia mariana di vita francescana”), are a fruit that blossomed forth from the first missionary expedition of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate took place in August 1979 in the Philippine Islands, nine years after the beginnings of the experience of our Founding Fathers with this Marian-Franciscan way of life. The Immaculate blessed the efforts of these two holy priests and there was a marvelous blossoming of vocations and of their apostolate. The first fruit was the birth of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate.
They, like the Friars, were founded by Fr. Stefano Mary Manelli and Fr. Gabriel Mary Pellettieri, and their Institute was erected by the Cardinal of Manila, Archbishop J. Sin, in 1985. They are the true sister Family of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, a branch of the Franciscans for women, bound by the same approved Rule of St. Francis of Assisi and the same Marian Plan of Franciscan Life (the Traccia).
The first step in the foundation of this new Family was taken at the same Casa Mariana of Frigento on November 1, 1982 during the meeting of a small group of young women from the Philippines with the two friar Founders. The meeting was held in order to organize the first community of women consecrated to the Immaculate according to this form of life.
The erection of the new Institute was on May 31, 1985, in the Philippine Islands. They began with a group of five novices and numerous aspirants consecrated to the Immaculate, desiring to live the religious life according to the Rule of St. Francis and the Marian Traccia with the additional grace of the fourth vow of total consecration to the Immaculate.
Three brave and generous sisters left the Philippine Islands and came to Frigento in August of 1988, called to Italy in order to open a religious house for the reception of a number of young Italian women who were asking to consecrate themselves to God and the Immaculate so as to form a “House of the Immaculate,” a feminine community in Italy.
Welcomed and blessed by the diocesan Bishop of Avellino, Msgr. Gerardo Pierro (who later paid them visits in their house and received them in the bishopric for the celebration of Holy Mass in his private chapel) the sisters were able to receive immediately a number of vocations and to open the “Mother of Good Counsel” Novitiate House for the first Italian novices.
It was really a miracle immediately to have vocations to the sisterhood from Italy, where a very serious vocational crisis continues to afflict almost all the religious Institutes, both male and female alike, painfully forcing convents to close and good apostolic works to stop. The arrival of vocations, therefore, immediately and clearly showed that it was the will of the Immaculate to make this new seraphic garden of consecrated virgins bloom.
These sisters have the same charism as the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate. They live the same form of evangelical life and they work for the same “Mission,” consecrated as they are to the Immaculate as her “property and possession” in an endeavor to give the greatest glory to God and to obtain the salvation of the greatest number of souls possible. Their presence brought joy and enthusiasm to everyone, both to the clergy and to the faithful, to the shrine and the town.
They carry on an important apostolic work for young women (with retreats, religious gatherings, and vocational outings) and for families (with visits and meetings, especially for the more needy). To enliven liturgical celebrations they have formed a splendid polyphonic choir called “The Choir of Twelve Stars,” which has sung in many parts of Italy and elsewhere (Lourdes and Fatima included), inspiring emotion and enthusiasm everywhere.
The hearts of these sisters overflowed with joy and enthusiasm when, through the intervention of the Supreme Pontiff, Pope John Paul II, the friars of the Casa Mariana became a religious Institute entitled the “Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate.” Their same ideal of consecrated life, wholly Franciscan and wholly Marian, will now be shared in the new religious houses which have opened and which will open to receive young vocations arriving from every part of Italy and from other countries.
The Immaculate has welcomed these sons and daughters under her motherly mantle as her Seraphic Family, like the angels of a new “St. Mary of the Angels” which will increase in number, by her grace and mercy, in the “Marian Houses” (friaries) and in the “Houses of the Immaculate” (convents) planted according to her will, in every part of the world for the rejoicing of the Church and of mankind unto the glory of the Most Holy Trinity.
After the friars’ pontifical erection of religious life by His Holiness John Paul II on January 1, 1998, Solemnity of the Mother of God, the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate hastened to request for the pontifical erection of their Institute as well. They did this in order to bind themselves more directly and fully to the Church in the person of the Holy Father, in order to place themselves in the heart of the Church.
The practical procedure for the pontifical recognition of the Institute of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate immediately showed itself to be much more simple and rapid, since the Institute in question was a twin – so to speak – to that of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate. As a religious family, the sister’s Institute has the same fundamental and constitutive elements as that of the friars: the same Founder and Co-Founder, the same Rule and Constitutions with the Book of Sanctification, the same Marian-seraphic ideal, the same mission, the same habit, the same structure for daily community life (save the due differences for a community of sisters).
The actual launching of the process for their pontifical recognition with the Congregation for Religious (CRIS) was very quick indeed, requiring relatively little from the Congregation’s officials who had already thoroughly examined and scrutinized the legislation of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate.
It was the life of the already existing communities of the sisters in Italy, the Philippines, the United States, Africa, and Brazil, and the relations of the Bishops who had already welcomed them into their dioceses that constituted the most valid and precious ‘bonus’ for the Congregation of Religious. They lingered to examine, discuss and approve in particular two very important points.
The first point regarded the Seraphic Rule, namely the First Order Rule, the Rule of the Friars, the Regula Bullata of Pope Honorius III, which the sisters had made their own; for the sisters it is a primary, fundamental text, taken together with the Marian plan of Franciscan life by the Father Founder. The approbation of the Congregation, therefore, was vested with great importance both historically and spiritually since it constituted a true first within the Church. The Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate are indeed the first and only pontifical community of sisters to have taken the Regula Bullata of the First Order of St. Francis as the basic text defining their form of life. The inspiration for the sisters to live according to the Rule of the Friars – minus a few necessary modifications – presents itself as a new and original enlightenment which likewise shall not fail to bring forth new and original fruits. The Holy Spirit blows where He wills and when He wills…
The second important point was with regards to the Marian Vow of unlimited consecration to the Immaculate, which was approved as the first of the four religious vows for the sisters as well. For the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate too, therefore, the Marian Vow is the vow placed in capite, that is, at the head of their form of seraphic life, just as St. Mary of the Angels was placed in capite of the seraphic experience of evangelical and missionary life. To use another image and analogy, one could say that as the Portiuncula was symbolically the Marian womb of Franciscanism, so too the Marian Vow becomes like unto the Portiuncula and constitutes, so to speak, the completely Marian Portiuncula of the Franciscans of the Immaculate, friars and sisters, who are a genuine fruit of the ever so valuable and fecund “Womb of the Immaculate”.
For the sisters too, obviously, there was the waiting period that had to be undergone for a number of years before they could obtain the erection of pontifical right. If the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate were born as a religious Institute of diocesan right in 1990, the sisters, on the other hand, were born three years later on August 2nd, 1993. A waiting period up to 2000 and beyond, therefore, was retained as mandatory according to the exigency that they have at least a decade of experience in the religious life as a diocesan right.
However, following the example of the friars, the sisters too decided to put into action the crusade of Rosary beads along with the novena of Bl. Bartolo Longo to Our Lady of Pompei. If the friars were successful in obtaining pontifical recognition after just seven years as diocesan right, who knows if the sisters might not be able to obtain it in less than seven years… Of course the undertaking was truly an arduous one, and legendary…
In April, 1998, therefore, the sisters organized the crusade of Rosaries with the novena to the Queen of the Rosary of Pompei. There were many sisters involved and it is difficult to calculate the number. Perhaps fifty or more. They all nourished hope in a miracle through the Rosary, notwithstanding the tight-locked position of CRIS (they usually only give indications after great delays). Yet the ‘Rosary march’ continued tenaciously, without discouragement: April, May, June, July, August, September, October of 1998… At this point well over 20,000 Rosaries had been prayed in their crusade. And at this point a legendary miracle took place!
The Dedication of the Lateran Basilica
November 9th, 1998: pontifical status
The news of the decree of pontifical status caused an explosion of joy in the hearts of all the sisters (and friars)… It was impossible to rejoice without tears… The immediate commotion made them speechless and to the point that they could only ‘babble’… or cry out for joy!… The news was absolutely an outpouring of graces all too “violent.” And the miracle of the Rosaries yet again!… as had happened for the friars, or rather even more so than the friars, since the pontifical erection of the sisters came after only five years as diocesan right.
“Most Holy and Immaculate Mother, Queen of the Rosary, thank you!”
Particularly meaningful was the date of the decree, November 9th, Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, the Basilica of the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, the Basilica which is the Caput et Mater (“Head and Mother”) of all the Catholic Churches in the world. It is precisely on this day that the celebrated episode in the life of St. Francis of Assisi comes to mind where Pope Innocent III, uncertain whether to approve the Poverello of Assisi’s way of life, saw St. Francis in a vision – the little man who upheld upon his shoulders the Lateran Basilica which was falling. From this the Pope understood that the seraphic life of St. Francis and his friars would be the support and salvation of the Church, and thus he approved the Rule and blessed him.
So then, let this new, feminine branch of the seraphic life be the same. These sisters too are called to be, by their very life, the support and salvation of the Church. May the Supreme Pontiff be able to lean upon them and confide himself in them by finding in them a sure comfort and strength, especially in the moments of struggle and travail. Along these lines, one can readily see the special significance linked to the memory of the events which, some years ago, took place in an encounter of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate with Pope John Paul II at Castelgandolfo. At the moment when he was coming to join in with the group of sisters for the photo, the Pope tripped on a little step or protrusion and was falling when, all of a sudden, the sisters grabbed him, sustained him and held him upright. This too is a delightful detail for the legend… But this is the mission of every Franciscan Sister of the Immaculate: she is called to personify the Mother of the Church, the Immaculate, She who always sustains the Church and the Pope with the love of a Virgin Mother.
Sister Maria Cristiana
Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate
House of the Immaculate
4 Brownhill Road, Catford
London SE6 2EJ
tel: +44 (20) 8697 0601
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