At 175, Edmundites affirm that small is beautiful
It was the perfect occasion to ponder notably small yet mysteriously powerful agencies of God’s creation and work on earth: mustard seeds, Israel … Edmundites.
At the Edmundite-administered Holy Family church in Essex Junction, nearly full on a steamy late Tuesday afternoon with about 150 faithful including the new president of Saint Michael’s College Lorraine Sterritt, the celebrant was Very Rev. Stephen Hornat, S.S.E, superior general, for a special Votive Mass for the Sacred Heart commemorating 175 years to the day since the founding of the Society of Saint Edmund in France on July 3, 1843 in the ruins of Pontigny Abbey.
In his homily, Hornat quoted a National Catholic Reporter opinion piece of recent months. The writer, he said, mentions civil rights activism by the Edmundites, founding order of Saint Michael’s, and “seemed surprised by the fact that a small religious community could be at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, have a large mission operation in Selma and have a college in Vermont.”
Yet, Hornat said, faith and patience have demonstrated for the Edmundites that small is not necessarily a liability, as witnessed powerfully in the Gospel parable of the mustard seed (one of the readings for this Mass) or by God’s choosing relatively obscure Israel to be his people. “Our size, 25 members, is not a liability. Our average age is well over 70 but our age is not a liability. In God’s eyes, these things do not matter. Not having the zeal, the passion, the commitment for what we do in God’s name is our only liability.”
Hornat preached mostly to true believers where Edmundites and their commitment are concerned, given that a majority attending Tuesday’s 5:30 p.m. Mass (and packed parish hall barbecue catered dinner reception afterward) were members of Chittenden County parishes that have Edmundites for pastors: Holy Family and St. Lawrence in Essex Junction and St. Pius X in Essex (Fr. Charles Ranges, SSE, pastor); St. Stephen in Winooski (Fr. Hornat, pastor); St. Jude in Hinesburg and Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Charlotte (Fr. David Cray, pastor), along with the Chapel of Saint Michael the Archangel’s regular weekly congregation. Diocesan priests present included Fr. Richard LaValley, pastor of St. Francis Xavier in Winooski and dean of the local deanery. Also attending the special Mass were several former and current members of the Saint Michael’s College faculty and staff, including the new president, her husband, Bert Lain, and members of the President’s Office staff who were seated with incoming Saint Michael’s Student Association President Jake Myers as part of their group.
A majority of the current Edmundites, about 20, also attended, most entering together in procession at the start of Mass from the front side wearing white liturgical albs and sitting together in the front left several rows, with many also joining Fr. Hornat on the altar for the consecration. The other Major Concelebrants were Rev. David Theroux, SSE, local superior, and Fr. Ranges, pastor of Holy Family. Beautiful music was offered by Jeff Firlik, the Holy Family-Saint Lawrence parish musician, who played his guitar and sang. Fr. Brian Cummings came down from his summer quarters at the SSE’s St. Anne’s Shrine, while Fr. Tom Hoar was up from Enders Island in Mystic, CT, where he administers an addiction recovery and other programs at a former Edmundite location. A good number of local religious sisters who have worked with the Edmundites also came, including from the Sisters of Providence, Sisters of Mercy, the White Sisters of Africa, and the Daughters of the Holy Spirit.
The Society’s lasting impact on individuals became evident during post-Mass conversations. While waiting to enter the reception after Mass, Gail Tisseur told of knowing and loving the Edmundites since she was a young girl in Greenfield Park in Quebec when the local parish priests there were Edmundites many decades ago.
“They were so beloved – our town had Catholic and Protestant Schools, and Fr. [Anthony “Tony”] Larkin would always say his breviary out in the parking lot of the church and all the kids coming home from Royal George School, the Protestant school, they’d all stop and talk with Fr. Larkin and get their lessons,” Tisseur said. “So I had them all my life and then when I moved here to Vermont in 1998, I was at St. Joseph’s in Burlington and Fr. Steve Hornat was there, and when they left that parish I just missed the charisma of the Edmundites, so one Sunday I decided I’m going to go to St. Mike’s, and when I got there, I said, ‘Well I’m home!” and I’ve been there ever since.”
Fr. Hornat thanked all who turned out at the non-air-conditioned church on such a hot day from all the parishes and religious congregations. Shortly after President Sterritt and her entourage arrived, they quietly took a place near the back, but Hornat invited them all to come forward to a reserved front pew for the Mass and introduced the new president near the end of Mass to a round of appreciative applause. “You honor us with your presence,” he said.
Jesus’ words from the Gospel for this Mass, spoken by Hornat in his homily, hinted at the history and future of Saint Michael’s College and other sown-in-faith Edmundite missions: “This is how it is with the Kingdom of God. It is as if a man would scatter seed on the land and he would sleep and rise night and day and through it all the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how.”