It was the weekend of Pentecost and the joy of the Holy Spirit seemed to fill the air last June at the Maryknoll Sisters Center in Ossining, N.Y. There, people from all over the world were gathering to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Maryknoll Mission Institute.
As she welcomed the guests, most of whom had been presenters or participants at the mission institute over the years, Maryknoll Sister Margaret Donovan, the institute’s current director, reflected on the world into which this vibrant mission center was born.
“Fifty years ago was a time ripe for change,” Sister Donovan said. “In 1969 Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and witnessed the ‘earth rise’; “Woodstock” took place practically in our backyard; the 5th Dimension sang out The Age of Aquarius, when ‘peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars,’ and we in the Church were experiencing the revolutionary effects of the teachings of Vatican Council II.”
A year earlier the Maryknoll Sisters had held a special assembly to discuss the changes that were affecting their ministries. That’s when Maryknoll Sisters Cathleen O’Neill and Alice Haller presented a proposal that in itself was revolutionary at a time when convents were reserved for religious sisters only. Sisters O’Neill and Haller proposed that the Maryknoll Sisters Center become a mission education center, open not only to Maryknoll sisters who were returning from their missions and looking for spiritual renewal and theological updating, but also to others—clergy, religious of other congregations, laymen and laywomen—in short, for anyone who had the desire and need to stretch their minds and spirits into the evolutionary happenings moving into the 21st century.
The idea was well received by the assembly delegates. And it was given the stamp of approval by Mother Mary Coleman, then Mother General of the Maryknoll Sisters, who urged that positive measures be taken immediately to make the dream a reality.
The Maryknoll Mission Institute opened its doors at the Maryknoll Sisters Center in June 1969.
Since then, the institute has annually hosted such prestigious speakers as: Father Anthony Gittins, CSSp; Sister Barbara Fiand, SNDdeN; Sister Janet K. Ruffing, RSM; Father Diarmuid O’Murchu, MSC; Sister Ilia Delio, OSF; Sister Catherine Vincie, RSHM; John Haught; Peter Phan and Edwina Gateley, to name just a few. Their presentations included topics ranging from theology and missiology to spirituality, liturgy, justice and peace and personal development and growth.
In just the last five years more than 2,000 people have come to the institute not only from the United States but from Asia, Africa, Latin America, Australia and Europe.
One lay woman who has been coming from California for 10 years finds that the level of personal international experience that participants bring enhances the nature of the questions asked and the sharing in discussions in a way she cannot find in retreat or conference centers closer to home.
A participant from Australia finds the experience “so broadening” and has come back multiple years. An adjunct professor of theology from New York City who has been coming for 11 years also plans to return for many more. They come for a variety of reasons, but the comment of one participant seems to sum up the feelings of all: “the content of the presentations and high caliber of the speakers stretch one’s understanding of the topics with new insights that are inspirational, challenging and spiritually renewing.”
Other benefits participants say they derive when they come to the mission institute are the sharing in conversations with Maryknoll missioners and people from all over the world during moments outside the presentations, including meals.
They also enjoy the warm hospitality of the Maryknoll Sisters, the beauty of the grounds and the multicultural environment.
One man from Texas said he had never heard of Maryknoll, but when he saw an ad about a presentation on Teilhard de Chardin, he decided to come to the mission institute. He was impressed not only with the presentations, but also with the times for reflection, discussion and prayer and a pervading spirit of joy. When asked if he would recommend the mission institute to others, he replied, “Absolutely!”
While thanking all who have contributed to the success of the mission institute during the last 50 years, the Maryknoll Sisters are now asking, “How can we make the mission institute viable and available to more people? What is the future role of the Maryknoll Mission Institute?
With the Spirit of God hovering over and empowering this mission with love, the Maryknoll Sisters are sure to find the answers.
Featured Image: Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio, theology professor at Villanova University, has been a speaker at the Maryknoll Mission Institute. (CNS photo, Roberto Gonzalez)