Cray: At 175, ‘no turning back’ for S.S.E. ‘little flock’
If the next 175 years for the Society of Saint Edmund, founding religious order of Saint Michael’s College, are as challenging, persevering, fruitful and ultimately hopeful as the first 175, the “little flock” is in for further unpredictable but grace-guided faith sojourns – Destination: God knows where.
Such, in spirit, were the encouraging reflections by the new “Edmundite” Superior General, Very Rev. David Cray, S.S.E. ’67, in his homily for the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Society-administered St. Anne’s Shrine in Isle LaMotte on August 15 – a late-morning liturgy officially concluding the 175th Anniversary year of celebration for the Edmundites.
“Little flock,” Cray explained, are words from Jesus reportedly used by an earlier Edmundite superior, Fr. Victor Nicolle, to exhort his then-also-small band of Edmundites after their “near-death experience” of dwindling to only about 25 members in the 1920s before moving headquarters from France to Vermont — a move that helped to quickly and remarkably revitalize the Society to a peak of over 140 members in the mid-1960s, before gradually diminishing again to the present membership of 26.
Cray said he and his brothers religious, past and present, have “come this far by faith” with “no turning back” as the Society of Saint Edmund continues to draw strength from the Virgin Mary’s patronage and a persevering history, even with its smallest numbers since those uncertain times in the 1920s. Yet, now as then, the Edmundites — nimble precisely because they are relatively few in number — remain ever ready to “pick themselves up, dust themselves off and start all over again,” he said — though cautioning that, even with the optimism of faith and hope, Edmundites must remain with “feet firmly planted on the ground” and ready for whatever eventuality their faithful discernment of God’s will directs — including “to provide for further decline if that should happen.”
Cray, who was elected to the Society’s top post at its General Chapter meeting earlier this summer, was the principal celebrant and homilist for the liturgy, attended by most of the campus-based Edmundite community of priests and brothers (a dozen or so), along with faculty and staff members and other friends.
Among them were Lorraine Sterritt, the new Saint Michael’s College president since July 1, with her husband, Bert Lain; the recently retired President Jack Neuhauser; and representatives, present or emeritus, from the President’s Office, Human Resources, Student Life, Academic Affairs, Counseling, Marketing/Communications, and academic departments of religious studies, fine arts/theater, psychology, and perhaps a few others.
Regular summer pilgrims to the Shrine and Edmundite supporters from all over also attended the Mass, nearly filling the new-this-year pews under the open-air pavilion, with the younger Edmundites, Frs. Michael Carter and Lino Oropeza hearing confessions on either side of the outdoor pavilion on a muggy and warm August day with rain clouds holding off till after the ceremony. Keyboardist and vocalist Armand Messier SMC ’97 provided beautiful music before and during the Mass that featured primarily Marian-themed hymns. The readings were by Brothers Thomas Berube and Frank Hagerty, S.S.E. A reception in the Shrine’s All-Purpose Building followed the 11:15 a.m. Mass, with delicious little sandwiches, fruit salad, vegetables, chips and dessert. Saint Anne’s Shrine has been a significant ministry of the Society since 1904, and it was there that the Anniversary year was inaugurated on August 15, 2017.
Other special occasions during the 175th anniversary year have included the ordination of a new Edmundite, Fr. Michael Carter, SSE, on September 16; celebration of St. Edmund’s Day on Nov. 6 with a special Saint Michael’s campus lecture and Mass in the college chapel; an Edmundite Heritage Trip to France in May led by Fr. Marcel Rainville, S.S.E.; the primary anniversary celebration on July 3 — Mass and picnic at Holy Family Church in Essex Junction (also with the new Saint Michael’s President Lorraine Sterritt in attendance), marking the Edmundite founders Frs. Muard and Bravard moving into the Cistercian Abbey in Pontigny in France in 1843; and the Quadrennial General Chapter of the Society last month, which was an opportunity for Edmundites to acknowledge important events and developments in Society of St. Edmund history and plan for the future.
Some of Fr. Cray’s preaching themes for this Feast of the Assumption Mass drew from directions set at this recent Chapter meeting. The superior general noted at the start of his homily that the particular date of August 15 is not of historical significance for the Edmundites as such — but Mary has been a principal patron of the Society since its foundation in 1843 at the abandoned Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of the Assumption at Pontigny, Yonne, Burgundy, France.
Cray said that Mary, born of human parents, is our sister “who knows what it is to deal with the vicissitudes of human life with both feet firmly on the ground.” She carried Jesus to the home of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth, which in a sense made her the first evangelist, he said — just as the Edmundite founders “carried the Gospel first to their own relatives and neighbors in their home archdiocese” but later, to more of France, and then to Vermont, Montana, Switzerland and England, the U.S. southern missions stretching from North Carolina to Texas and missions in Quebec and Venezuela. Mary, he said, “proclaimed a revolution: the total conversion of human hearts.”
“Edmundites have always strived to follow Mary in identification with, and in advocacy for the poor, the marginalized, the physically and spiritually hungry,” Fr. Cray said, sharing how, at the recent General Chapter meeting, the ambitious agenda he and his brothers set included not just the possibility of needing to provide for further decline, but, “much more importantly, to work on strategic planning for the future; to refurbish our public image and make our good works more visible, and to take new initiative in attracting and welcoming new members.”
He wrapped up by quoting a Gospel song by Donnie McClurkin with the lyric “No turning ’round: We’ve come this far by faith.”
“To my Edmundite brothers, Happy Anniversary,” Fr. Cray concluded. “And, Ad multos annos!” (To many years!).