An unexpected gift came my way the other morning as our daughter dashed out the door to school at St. Ursula Academy. A copy of the book Planted in God’s Vineyard: The Story of the Ursulines of Cincinnati, written to commemorate the sisters’ and the school’s 2010 centennial, had been presented to each family, but ours had resided in her book bag throughout the Christmas vacation. Its epiphany arrival proved fitting.
I started with curiosity about how the community’s founding would be described. They had spun off from the Brown County Ursulines (whose high school I attended), and I wondered how the tension of that separation would be treated. Mary-Cabrini Durkin’s brief but factual handling of it in the opening chapter, in a tone of gentle candor, drew me further into the narrative.
Knowing that the community had shrunk to 14 sisters, next I flipped to chapter three, “Transformation and Pruning: 1960-1985,” to see how those developments would be depicted. Here also, the facts are presented without glossing over. “Between 1963 and 1985, seventeen finally professed members left; so did all but two of the women who had entered during that time, part of a worldwide exodus from religious life.” (p. 49). The resultant grief, distress and loneliness for the remaining sisters also are plainly acknowledged, as are the diminishing effects on their ministries, at least initially.
Yet the book is entirely hopeful. Over the past two decades, the sisters have discerned new directions individually and communally and are facing the future in complete trust. The elementary school and girls’ high school they founded both continue to flourish under lay leadership. Their lives are deeply grounded in the spirituality of St. Angela Merici, their founder.
I juxtapose their story against emerging trends toward restoration of the church as it was before Vatican II, particularly regarding women religious. The Vatican official who ordered the visitation of American women’s orders, Cardinal Rode, has blamed the drop in their numbers on secularization. Last February, in a speech in Naples, Italy, he said, “The secularized culture has penetrated into the minds and hearts of some consecrated persons and some communities, where it is seen as an opening to modernity and a way of approaching the contemporary world.”
A visit to the Ursulines of Cincinnati would reassure him that such is not the case. Their faithful trust in God is a powerful and prophetic model for reading the signs of the times in today’s world.