Dear Aemiliana, Dear Sarah

Note: Mother Aemiliana Dirr founded the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in 1849.  After difficulties fulfilling their mission, she and some other sisters left the order in 1860 and lived out the rest of their lives as lay women.  I have written Mother Aemiliana a letter.

July 28, 2011

Dear Aemiliana,

My heart is so tender as I write to you.  It’s been a while.

You came to the states leaving all and you met tragedy and you left all again.  You know renunciation, the acid smell of fear, the biting taste of anger, and His love which propelled you forward.

We are still your daughters.  We have not left.  I think we are faithful to these times.  We are wacky, prayerful, and down-home.  Your daughters spread Franciscan joy, do justice, honor the earth and strive to live authentic relationships with each other.  Your dream has spread.  We have prayed in perpetual adoration for 133 years.  Right now two sisters kneel before the Blessed Sacrament and pray for the needs of the world.  We use email now, to receive intentions from around the whole planet, but you probably knew that.

You may wonder why I am writing after all these years.  In a few weeks, I will profess final vows as a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration.  My heart is on fire.  I know God calls me here and leads me on to follow my sweet Jesus with my sisters.  I am not alone.  My sisters know me, they love me, forgive me, and have not left me.

Religious life is now beyond what you could ever imagine.  We are a balm to a hurting, searching humanity.  Yes.  We may be prophets of a future not our own.  Yes.  We are faithful and strong and small.  We sit in the dark night and wait.  We tend the fire you left and wait for the breath of the Holy Spirit.  We are singing new songs, one “in love and purpose, with diversity of persons and gifts” as our FSPA constitutions say.

And Aemiliana, with all the challenges the future could hold for us, I stand here on the cusp of my perpetual vows with a question of my own.  Will I be enough?  I am afraid my fragility will overtake my gifts.  I fear even that my gift of self will not be whole enough.  I am sure you may remember that feeling as you first stepped on this soil or when you left in faith.  And yet, God stayed with you.  And in a funny way, you stayed with us too.  Because you let the vision lead you and walked past walls of fear.

I need you to help me do that now.  My sisters walk beside me in love.  They help me name the pain and the joy and place both prayerfully in god’s hands.  I cannot do it alone.  But, somehow, it seems He didn’t ask me too.

May God Bless You,

And know you are in my prayers.


Sr. Sarah Hennessey, FSPA


Note: After writing our foundress a letter in preparation for final vows, I journalled back a letter from her.

Dear Sarah,

Fear is not a threat, but can be our friend, when held lightly and placed in God’s hands. I walked through the fire of fear and abandonment, through shame and uncertainty, but never alone.  My future seemed like a failure.

We do not get to choose the circumstances that try our faith, but only our faithfulness to God’s love.  So stop trying to grasp so tightly.

Child, you can let go of your harsh judgments and let the love of your sisters and Jesus into your heart just a little more.  You, my daughter, have an inner strength you do not suspect, and a mission of love to compel you onwards.

And you are right, you are not alone.

May God bless you and your sisters as you continue to build the kingdom.

In the Love of God,


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  1. Oh, Sarah, that is beautiful. I have often thought about Aemiliana and all she had to deal with in her life. I was so happy when I heard that our sisters went to Milwaukee to get her when she was ill (and elderly) and brought her to La Crosse to our hospital. I’m glad she could feel the love of our sisters in that time here. I hope that when she saw our convent and knew of all the ministry our sisters were involved in and saw the adoration chapel under construction that she could feel proud, like seeing a dream fulfilled, but sometimes I wonder if there would still have been that lurking sense of failure that comes so easily to people: “They did what I could not do.” She’s a person we could talk to every day of our lives. Blessings on you as you approach final vows. May you know always your strengths as you are aware of your vulnerability and may all of us be aware of our strengths, even as our vulnerabilities slap us in the face.

    1. Thanks Shirley and Maria!
      You are right we could talk to her every day of our lives. Her journey stays with us. Thank you for your astute sharing!

  2. Dear Sarah,
    thank you for sharing the letters with us. You captured your own reality and the reality of religious life in a poetic way, giving us a deeper glimpse of the beautiful person that you are. It seems Sr. Aemiliana is a wonderful mentor and friend to you. May you sense her presence and guidance in these weeks leading up to your final profession in a very special way.
    Warmly, Yvonne

    1. Yvonne,
      Thanks for sharing this journaling exercise with us during the life commitment program. And also for your graceful presence…

  3. Sarah, tears run down my face as I read your letter (and also the replies). I am so proud to be FSPA and so very proud to have you, Sarah, as FSPA. I have loved you from the first time I met you and that love has grown, especially when you allow yourself to be vulnerable. You are so real. Welcome, welcome, welcome as a perpetual member. I am with you in prayer and loving spirit.

    1. I think you know, Sarah, that even before I met you, I prayed for you. Now, these number of years later I can see how you have grown in so many ways. I’m happy and proud that you will soon be a perpetually professed member of our FSPA Community. May Mother Aemiliana continue to inspire you and be your mentor into the next phase of your life. She did what was hers to do. May she inspire you to continue doing what is yours to do.

  4. Appreciate your beautiful insights Sarah. Very inspiring. Excellent piece of history to review as you walk forward toward perpetual vows.

  5. Dear Sarah,
    How precious of you to share your letter to our dear Aemiliana as you prepare for your profession of final vows. Like you and all of us, at important junctures of our lives, Aemiliana also struggled and wondered aloud with concern for both herself and for the Order. What always touches me iare the vignettes in our Sister Bonaventure Schoeberle’s Chronicle when she describes Aemiliana’s expressions of sadness and concern followed by the encouragement from the small group of women. It is such a human story. …Does not the story of our foundress remind each of us what is ours to do and be? Know of my love and support as you trust your journey to our Beloved. Know, too, that I am delighted with Aemiliana’s letter to you.
    Fran Marie Sulzer

  6. Dear Sarah,

    A response from the heart, and much pondering on how one’s journey might unfold. What a creative way to talk to Aemiliana, our founder. And to hear her response. She reassures you that you are not doing this alone, and that you will receive the strength you need as you enter this life fully. Welcome, Sarah, and know that we are all in this together.

    Marie Kyle

  7. Dear Sarah,

    Thank you for sharing your heart with Mother Aemiliana and all of us. You have expressed hopes and fears that I and many other FSPAs have felt at important junctures of our lives as women religious.. May you continue to feel our support as you make your perpetual commitment as an FSPA and in all your days in our community. God’s love and blessings be yours now and every day in your future.

    Helen E.

  8. Sarah, Thanks for sharing your letter. I was touched and am keeping you in my prayers – not only now as you prepare for final vows but will continue through the years and days. We do not know where our journey will go or who we meet on the way. God is in charge and S/He will lead us, bring those into our lives that we need, and give us the words we need to say to help others on their journey. Walk in trust and love with your Beloved. Love and prayers, Pauline

  9. Sarah,

    What a beautiful reflection! Thanks for sharing it. Blessings on you as you continue to walk the FSPA journey toward and with our God.


  10. An Open Letter to Sister Sarah Hennessey, fspa, as She Approaches Her Perpetual Vows;
    from Brother Anton Josef Zahler, tosf: A Brother’s Perspective…

    Meine junge Schwester Sarah,
    [My young sister Sarah,]

    I write in the name of your four ancestor brothers – Fathers Francis Anthony and Mathias, Brother Leo and me, Brother Anton Josef – to express our deep joy as you enter final preparation for your Perpetual Vows with our beloved Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (fspa). ‘Tis heart-, mind- and spirit-warming to know that young women still seek to follow Jesus in the spirit of Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi, and of our dear Mother Aemiliana Dirr.

    ‘Twas equally soul-numbing and heart-breaking as Leo and I watched from a distance as Aemiliana and her companions left our humble Franciscan settlement in Milwaukee on that faith-filled and fate-filled Pentecost evening of 1860. (Truth be told, Leo and I seriously considered leaving with them; but we chose to remain, understanding fully why the women could not.)

    As difficult as it was to leave our native Ettenbeuren, Bavaria, for the wilds of mission Wisconsin, we had held together. As hard as it was to build from scratch our new homes in present-day St. Francis, Wisconsin, the burden was lightened by our Sisters, who helped us Brothers construct the many buildings on today’s South Lake Drive – from cooking and washing dishes, to mixing the very bricks, to caring for the orphans in their “spare time”! Long story short, those eleven years – 1849-1860 – were “quite a ride,” as you and your peers would say. And yet Aemiliana and her companions knew they had to move on from the Convent they loved, utterly convinced they had utterly failed.

    But with new leadership, your Community – the FSPA – flourished as the Spirit led your Sisters across Wisconsin: from Milwaukee to Jefferson, then to La Crosse and beyond. Know simply this: The “bonds of community are not severed by death.” Know too that I walk with you just as much as does my beloved spiritual spouse, Ottilie Dirr – known to you and all her spiritual daughters as Mother Aemiliana.

    As Blessed John Paul II so often said in your own day, “Be not afraid!” And so, Sarah, your Brothers say to you: “Be of good cheer and fear not as you ‘pay your vows to the King.'” Your ancestors in community walk with you every step of the way, as together we sing, Nun danket alles Gott [Now thank we all our God…]!

    Immer deine Bruder [Always your brother],

    Anton Josef Zahler

    1. Sarah,
      I write to you as one of the newest members on this journey with the FSPA.
      I write to you as one who too finds a kindred spirit with Aemiliana.

      I write to you humbled to stand on the shoulders of fine women like you and all who have gone before me – Women of faith, perseverance, and love and on fire for God. Yes, I must say I am proud to walk in their footsteps, to carry on what has been started so many years ago. I am truly inspired by this community and it gives me joy to now join with them as we celebrate your final vows.

      In some way I feel Aemiliana finds some consolation now these days as you make your final vows – as she loved religious life, but felt a failure you in some way are fulfilling her dreams, her desires, her hope and that prayer to Sr. Antonia for success in fulfilling it is now being past on to you and you are doing it with much joy and love as Aemiliana would have.

      May God, Aemiliana and all the sisters who shoulders we stand upon continue to bless you with great hope and joy.

      Laurie Sullivan

      1. Dear Sarah,

        Welcome again. From the first time I met you, when you visited us during our Assembly and helped our “small group” discuss the questions we were given, and come to a summary statement to present to the whole community, I have been impressed by your insights and ability to reflect deeply. I am so happy that you have chosen to stick with us. Yuo have much to give and our future will be bette for it.

        Mary Louise

    2. John,
      I love this creative witness/response to Sarah’s letters. Thanks for writing it! Thanks for sharing! Thanks for participating in Messy Jesus Business. 🙂 It’s a blessing to be in community with you. Loads of Gratitude, Julia

  11. Congratulations on your vows, Sarah. Glad you are now fully part of us. You have so many gifts our world needs and our community needs to help our world. Hope you have time to enjoy the lovely fall weather we are having. Love, Pauline