We Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ trace our roots to Dernbach, Germany where our foundress, Catherine Kasper was born in 1820.
Growing up, Catherine heard a “voice within” calling her to be compassionate and caring. She was faithful to the Spirit within her. Alert to the needs of those around her, she helped the poor and sick and took in those who were abandoned.
Other women joined her forming an Association of Charity. Catherine would walk many miles to consult with the Bishop of Limburg in the process of realizing her vision of a religious community. Her persistence and deep humility finally convinced Bishop Blum that God was at the center of her vision.
On August 15, 1851, Catherine and her four companions professed their vows in the parish church of Wirges, thus formally beginning the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ congregation.
What gave Catherine the strength to persevere in spite of the misgivings of Bishop Blum and others?
We need to look at Catherine’s love of Mary, the Mother of God—a love nurtured by her frequent visits to a small chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Heilborn. Our Lady’s faith response to what God asked motivated Catherine to respond in courage to the promptings of the Spirit within her.
That attentive heart and courageous spirit caught the first group of handmaids!
Onward to America
Catherine’s deep concern for God’s people and her trust that God would provide the resources needed strengthened her through difficult times. Soon a request for help came from Bishop John Henry Luers of Fort Wayne, IN. He had heard of Catherine and the community and asked for Sisters to serve the German immigrants in his diocese. Thus began the PHJC story in America!
Two hundred Sisters volunteered to go to the New World. Catherine, then known as Mother Mary, sent eight brave Sisters on the long trek to Indiana. These young Sisters journeyed by boat, train and farm wagon to arrive in Hessen Cassel, IN in August, 1868. Within a few days they opened St. Joseph School and began the characteristic PHJC response to requests for help.
The Sisters lived Mother Mary’s vision, journeying into new territories and ministries, building “little houses” in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri and Pennsylvania before the start of the 20thcentury—bringing God’s love to the poor, the sick and the needy.
In the 20th CenturyThe PHJC Community in the United States moved, opened, and closed many missions over the years. Poor Handmaids continued to minister in health care, education, and child care; as well as retreat, parish, and pastoral work.In the early 1920s the Motherhouse in America moved from Fort Wayne, IN to Donaldson, just west of Plymouth, IN.
In This Millennium
We have grown from an American Province focus to understanding ourselves as an international congregation. Sisters have served in Southeast Asia, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Germany, Brazil and Kenya. We’ve started missions in Mexico. We’ve done some soul-searching to get back to the roots of our foundress.
We’ve moved from many persons working in large institutions to working on a smaller scale meeting the needs in neighborhoods once served by some of those large institutions. We’ve changed our government structure to enable greater participation and accountability on the part of leadership and individual members. The Motherhouse is no longer simply a convent for the Sisters but now supports many ministries serving the surrounding community as the PHJC Ministry Center.
If you look at who we are as Sisters today, you will know that we look and live and pray differently than we did in 1868, 1968 or even 2000. We are fewer in number and we engage in different ministries. We welcome and struggle to realize different ways of living as followers of Catherine. We come together as Sisters, Associates, and the Fiat Spiritus Community.
The future of religious life in the United States is not as clear as it once seemed. Even amid the changes, we live as persons of faith who can hear Catherine’s vision in our hearts and know God’s presence and challenge in our journey.
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