Incarnate Word Sisters of Houston establish international novitiate in St. Louis

Lisa Johnston |

The Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word of Houston have established a new home for their international novitiate, right in the heart of the old Gaslight Square district of St. Louis.

Work was completed in December on the two-story, 3,300-square-foot facility at the intersection of Olive and Boyle streets in the Central West End. A blessing of the house was to have taken place Feb. 18.

The community previously had novitiate programs — a formal period of formation in which a novice prepares to become a permanent part of a religious congregation — in St. Louis, Kenya and Guatemala. At an international meeting of the sisters in 2015, the decision was made to place the novitiate solely in one location. St. Louis was later selected as the location.

The novitiate currently includes Sister Helena Adaku Ogbuji, formation director; Sister Maria Otilla Guerra Chinchilla, novice director; and Sister Ita Harnett, postulant director. They are joined by three novices: Sisters Benedicta Chidinma Ohaeri, Cecilia Lich Thanh Tran and Immaculata Chinonso Ugoeze; and a postulant, MaryAnne Ta. Two more novices are currently taking part in a community experience in other cities.

Even though the international headquarters is in Houston, the Incarnate Word sisters chose St. Louis for the novitiate because of the appeal of the Intercommunity Novitiate, explained Sister Ita, a native of Ireland. Started by several religious congregations in St. Louis in 1978, the program serves as a support system for novices from various religious communities. (see item on next page.) The program is especially beneficial among communities that have one or two novices at a time.

The sisters attend classes at nearby Aquinas Institute. And they receive formation at the novitiate that is specific to their charism, said Sister Helena, who is from Nigeria. "We teach the novices and postulants our history, our constitution, our way of life, our spirituality, prayer, community life, Scripture — all those things they generally cannot get from Aquinas or ICN," she said.

Founded in 1866 in Galveston, Texas, the sisters have been known for ministry in health care and education. The charism, said Sister Ita, is that "we're called to be Gospels of God's love, and to bring the healing ministry of Jesus Christ to those who are suffering.

Beyond health care and education, the sisters also are involved in ministries related to social concerns and spirituality. Today they also have a global reach, serving in El Salvador, Guatemala, Ireland, Kenya, Mexico and the United States. They sponsor retreat centers, health care clinics, schools, and ministries for the elderly and children, among other endeavors. 

>> Intercommunity novitiate

Started by several religious congregations in St. Louis in 1978, the Intercommunity Novitiate (ICN) serves as a support group for novices, a term generally used for men and women religious preparing, through a formal period of formation, to eventually become a permanent part of a religious congregation. The program is fitting for religious congregations that might have only a few novices at a time.

Currently at ICN are 13 novices from seven congregations: the Adorers of the Blood of Christ; Daughters of Charity; Dominicans (women); Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate; Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word of Houston, Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word of San Antonio, Sisters of Providence. Novices are from the United States, Canada, Zambia, India, Nigeria, Ireland, Philippines and Vietnam.

"We don't have the big novitiate classes anymore, so this is an opportunity to collaborate and share resources," said Sister Megan McElroy, OP, of the Collaborative Dominican Novitiate and one of the ICN formators. "It's also for novices to build a support group of men and women in a similar position of discernment and formation."

Novices meet weekly and have some overnight sessions. Each community takes a turn hosting and sharing more about each community's charism. They cover topics including human development, discernment, communication, community, the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, Catholic social teaching, theology of mission and restorative justice.

Sister Megan noted that it's dually beneficial for the novices as well as the formators. "It's good to know that you're not alone, and to be able to share the highs and lows," she said. 

Founding of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word

In 1866, three French nursing sisters responded to the appeal of Bishop Claude Marie Dubuis to minister in his diocese, which encompassed all of Texas.

The sisters have been involved in health care, including as sponsor of the Sisters of Charity Health System (SCH), co-sponsor of CHRISTUS Health, and co-sponsor of several Catholic hospitals within Dignity Health.

Most Catholics in St. Louis know the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word of San Antonio, which sponsors Incarnate Word Academy and the Incarnate Word Foundation. And yes — they are related to the Houston sisters. The San Antonio community was founded three years later in 1869, when Bishop Dubuis asked three sisters from Galveston to begin a new foundation in San Antonio and start a hospital there. 

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