More than 200 years after her death, a Canadian widow who founded several congregations of "grey nuns" has managed to create among her many daughters throughout the world a sense of unity they never before experienced.
That is the feeling Buffalo-based members of the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart brought home after attending the canonization Sunday in Rome of St. Marguerite D'Youville, founder of the Sisters of Charity of Montreal.
The Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart are the U.S. branch of that congregation.
"It gave us a feeling of connectedness, a great feeling of bonding, knowing we all had the same roots," Sister Mary Ellen Hoen said.
Sister Hoen, who works in the Department of Services to the Aging at Catholic Charities, was one of more than 20 Grey Nuns from the Buffalo area who attended the ceremony. Others came from Canada, Japan, Brazil, Africa, the North Pole and other parts of the world.
"I was struck by the diversity of the gathering -- the feeling of universality," said Sister Alice McCollester, who works in the business office at D'Youville College. "You felt you were related to everybody on earth."
Although it was a thrill to be present as Pope John Paul II added the name of Marguerite D'Youville to the roster of saints in the Catholic Church, Sister Ruth Marie Penksa had two other once-in-a-life-time experiences during her visit to Rome.
One was a chance meeting with Lise Normand, the Canadian woman whose cure of untreatable leukemia provided the miracle that paved the way for the canonization.
Mrs. Normand was cured miraculously in 1978, after she and her family prayed to Marguerite D'Youville. After Mrs. Normand participated in the gift procession during the Mass in St. Peter's, Sister Penksa found her standing alone in the basilica.
"I said 'I want to thank you for that witness,' " she said, meaning the role that Mrs. Normand had played in making possible the canonization. "Then I touched her, and I felt I'm touching a miracle."
"I had never seen a person who was cured by a miracle. It was heart-warming to be walking around and going to Mass with her," Sister Hoen said.
For Sister Penksa, another big moment was meeting the Pope John Paul and presenting him with a sweat shirt. She got it for him, she said, because his birthday is the same as her own -- May 18.
The sweat shirt, which she had printed at Walden Galleria in Cheektowaga read: "Happy Birthday, May 18, Pope John and Sister Ruth Marie, GNSH."
Sister Penksa said she handed the gift to Pope John Paul during the Grey Nuns' audience with him Monday.
When the pope realized she had given him a gift, he put his hand on her head and spoke, she related.
"But the only thing I can remember is that he said 'Merry Christmas,' " she said. "It was very exciting." During the audience, Sister Hoen said, she was able to get within a couple of feet of the pope but could not reach him to touch him.
To Sister Penksa, the canonization of Marguerite D'Youville, who was known for her work with the poor and unfortunate, was a remarkable event. During her lifetime, she was viewed with derision as the result of the activities of her husband, a gambler who sold alcohol to the Indians.
After her husband died and she became a sister, Marguerite D'Youville chose to wear gray as a symbol of her low status, Sister Penksa said.
"Today, she is looked on fondly, and her work is validated," Sister Penksa said.
"From my perspective, she did not need to be canonized," said Sister Hoen, adding that she never doubted that Marguerite D'Youville was a saint. "But now the world and the church have another model, and it is nice that it is a woman model."
Sister Penksa said the canonization will make the Grey Nuns better known in the Buffalo area and throughout the United States. Most people in Buffalo think the Grey Nuns are associated only with D'Youville College, she said. Few realize that the sisters also are involved in social work, nursing, parish work and teaching in other schools and colleges.
Sisters Hoen and McCollester were able to go because friends of D'Youville College raised money to send a delegation of eight sisters who otherwise would have been unable to witness the canonization.
Sister Penksa's trip was a gift from the students and faculty at Erie Community College.
"They held a raffle to raise the money to send me. They called it 'Project Flying Nun,' " she said.