'Doing God's work'
As Carlotta Williams sat relaxing on the porch steps at a neighbor's home, she didn't think much about the white Toyota Camry parking in front of the house next door, on Maple Avenue in north St. Louis.
Then, the car doors popped open and the occupants emerged, catching Williams' attention. The three sisters from The Society of Our Mother of Peace wore blue habits — dark blue veils and lighter blue ground-length dresses.
"This is the first time I've ever physically seen a nun; that's what I thought at first," Williams said later. She then wondered whether the women were related to church services held sometimes at the house next door. "Does that denomination even have nuns?" she asked herself.
Nope. These were Catholic sisters, and they were on a mission of door-to-door evangelization, their order's charism. The Society of Our Mother of Peace, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary, is based in High Ridge, with a chapel, hermitages and more nestled among trees off Antire Road. Community members — 10 sisters, three priests, a brother and seven lay members for 21 people in all — live a hybrid life in ministry, with a contemplative side and an apostolic side to make them apart from and a part of the surrounding world.
The rustic setting at Mary the Font of Solitude provides just that, solitude, with ample time for prayer similar to a cloistered community. But unlike in a strict cloistered community, apostolic work takes members into neighborhoods spreading the Good News of Jesus' death and resurrection, the forgiveness of sin and the promise of eternal life. They share this message of love, hope, forgiveness and mercy with non-Catholics, primarily in north St. Louis but expanding into areas with large Hispanic populations.
Father Placid Guste, the order's founder, estimates "at least a couple thousand have come into the Church in St. Louis through that work." That averages out to roughly 45 per year, or one convert every eight or nine days for the past 45 years.
Father Placid, as he's known, took a long and winding road in founding the order in 1966 and in establishing the base in High Ridge in 1971. A native of New Orleans, he has three brothers — two lawyers and a diocesan priest of 60 years — and attended St. Joseph Abbey and Seminary College in St. Benedict, La., and Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. He first went into formation to be a diocesan priest, but he wanted to "combine the contemplative and apostolic" and concluded time for prayer would be lacking as a parish priest.
He briefly explored the Carthusian order before settling on the Discalced Carmelites. He was ordained in 1961 and spent nine years with the Carmelites. "But I was still feeling that was not the answer," he said. "It was very close, but not the answer."
In formation, Father Placid had met regularly with his spiritual director, Father Thomas Dubay, who years earlier suggested God might be calling Father Placid to something other than diocesan priesthood and prompted the move to the Carmelites. This time, Father Dubay was unequivocal in his assessment.
"He said, 'Look, you've been thinking about this for many years; do it!'" Father Placid said, with a laugh.
The Carmelite provincial gave Father Placid a year to find a host diocese for his new order. Ultimately, Oklahoma City Bishop Victor Reed signed on and gave it the use of 40 acres to set up its first foundation, Bella Maria Solitude. He also agreed to pursue the community's canonical establishment — recognition by the Vatican — after five years, but Bishop Reed died of a heart attack before doing so.
The order moved to High Ridge in 1971, for the benefit of young men to receive priestly formation at Cardinal Glennon College and Kenrick Seminary in Shrewsbury. However, the archbishop at the time, Cardinal John J. Carberry, opted not to pursue canonical establishment, so Father Placid needed to find another host diocese and a bishop who wouldn't require a move to that diocese.
The Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau agreed to that arrangement and The Society of Our Mother of Peace received canonical establishment in 1976, while maintaining the High Ridge foundation. The Society added the Queen of Heaven Solitude in Marionville, for its base in the Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese, and has since added solitudes in the Philippines (1999) and Nigeria (2002 and 2012).
"Our evangelization work in the Philippines is going very well," Father Placid said. "We've had 2,300 come into the faith. They're doing well in Nigeria also."
At 83 years young, Father Placid has trips to the Philippines and Nigeria on his agenda for the coming years "because they're moving ahead, and I want to check out the situation." He traveled to both places several times in the 2000s through 2012, before he stepped down as the leader of the community to make way for the election of Father John Hansen as major superior.
Over the years, Father Placid has overcome a stroke, a heart attack and a knee replacement. He estimates that he has "about six stents" and has had "all kinds of broken bones, but the Lord brought me through it, and presently I'm doing OK."
"Though I'd love to be up there, I'm delighted the Lord allows me a life here," he said after the jubilee Mass on June 25 in High Ridge.
Father Placid was among priests concelebrating the Jubilee Mass with Springfield-Cape Giradeau Bishop Edward M. Rice, who summed up Father Placid by saying, simply, "He's still going strong." In the homily, Bishop Rice also commended the society for still going strong after 50 years ago in service to the Lord.
"While it is popular to speak of the New Evangelization these days, it is nothing new to all of you," he said. "You were at the forefront of the New Evangelization before we even coined the term."
At times, the work of evangelization is difficult, physically and spiritually. There's the heat and humidity of St. Louis summers but also downright rude residents or passing motorists. At other times, the experience is uplifting, rewarding and fruitful, with residents receptive to the message.
"It's not easy work, but it is God who empowers us," said Sister Mary Paschal, who spearheaded the evangelization on Maple Avenue in early July. "We're doing God's work."
On that particular morning, unseasonably temperate for St. Louis, the Society of Our Mother of Peace sisters evangelized in the 5300 block of Maple, two blocks south of Page Boulevard and about 1 1/4 miles from St. Augustine Catholic Church in north St. Louis. They packed lunches and water, and came armed with Bibles, literature about Catholicism and information about St. Augustine Parish or the order.
Sister Mary Paschal spoke at length with several people, as did Sisters Mary Grace and Mary Monica. The two sisters also were invited into a home in which a visitor told them about passing "sacred spots" on a taxi ride in Bethlehem.
"I said, 'Maybe God is drawing you to the Catholic Church,'" Sister Mary Monica said later, adding, "He's interested. Actually, his sister is Catholic and lives in Chesterfield. I told him to come and see us" in High Ridge.
Meanwhile, Sister Mary Paschal visited with Chris Madison, who has been attending West Side Missionary Baptist Church but previously joined a friend in a youth group at St. Mary Magdalen Parish in the city. There, he spent "about three years going to Mass," he said. "He wanted me to convert."
With Madison's permission, Sister Mary Paschal read from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 16, verses 13 to 20. In the reading, Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus responds by saying, in part, "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church."
Sister Mary Paschal also found an attentive audience in Williams, beyond the habit, and talked with her for about 25 minutes.
"Oh, yeah, I listened," said Williams, 30, who described herself "in-between" from a religious standpoint. "I don't mind gaining information about different things. The only way you can make it in life is by learning."
Williams and Sister Mary Paschal ended their time together in prayer, facing each other and holding hands.
Later, Williams called it "a nice little prayer. ... It brought joy into my life; I had a lot on my mind today."
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