Springfield Dominican Sisters, left to right, Mary Clare Fichtner, Beth Murphy, Kathleen Gallagher and Lori Kirchman, in front of the house that will be their home and the location for Cor Unum.
SPRINGFIELD - At a time when women are finding their voices and creating waves of energy offering hope for positive change in U.S. culture and in the Catholic Church, the Dominican Sisters of Springfield have launched a new ministry of mutual support for young women who seek to be a part of the change they want to see.
The mission of Cor Unum (Latin for “One Heart”) is to be a place of mutual support for young women who want to discover their spiritual depth, create change for a better world, and realize the joy of service.
Three Springfield Dominican Sisters are missioned to the project, which includes opening a house in Springfield to welcome women for prayer, community, socializing, and-for some women-residency.
The home, now under renovation in Springfield’s Enos Park neighborhood, is designed as a gathering space that can also accommodate six residents. Once completed, the house will allow the sisters to welcome up to three women who want to immerse themselves in the values of community life and prayer, study, and preaching-ministerial service.
The rehabilitation is a collaborative effort of the Dominican Sisters and Fletcher Farrar, president of Old Neighborhood Rehab, Inc., a not-for-profit that believes creating neighborly spaces is a necessary foundation for a healthy civic community. The house was acquired from the Enos Park Neighborhood Improvement Association.
An anchor community of three sisters expects to move into the home in late 2018. They currently reside at Sacred Heart Convent, the Dominican Sisters' motherhouse on West Monroe Street. They are Sister Mary Clare Fichtner, Sister Lori Kirchman, and Sister Beth Murphy.
Plans for this new ministry began in 2015, but were stalled last spring when the use of a vacant convent at St. Francis Xavier Cabrini Parish fell through. While searching for a new location for their residence, the sisters began welcoming young adult women for prayer and social activities. In that process they discovered a great desire among women who are busy with school and work to find space for prayer, mutual support, and investment in activities that can help improve civic society. A new model for the project was born out of that realization, says Sister M. Clare.
"We thought we were beginning a ministry to impact the lives of a handful of women," she said. "What we've learned while waiting for the Holy Spirit to find us a house is that the need is much broader than that. The house will anchor outreach to many more people."
Sister Lori Kirchman's conversations with some of the women who have joined the sisters for occasions of prayer, movie nights, and game nights has convinced her of the need. "The women have told us they often feel isolated, even though technology seems to keep them endlessly plugged-in," she said. "They are very busy and socially engaged. Our goal is to provide support and a space for them to slow down, unplug, and discover what is missing in their lives."
This broader ministry will enable the sisters to reach younger women, too. "For practical reasons women seeking residency with the sisters need to work full time and/or attend college, and be 21 to 35 years of age," explained Sister Beth. "But we've discovered that women who are younger the 18, 19 and 20-year-olds-have the same desire for support. There is no reason they can't join us in creating a project that will take shape beyond the boundaries of our home."
Meet the anchor community
Sister Mary Clare Fichtner, Sister Lori Kirchman, and Sister Beth Murphy were selected through a discernment process that included an invitation to all the sisters to consider participation. "A number of sisters expressed interest," said Sister Kathleen Gallagher, a member of the Springfield Dominican General Council who is the project liaison. “Then, through a period of prayer and discernment it became apparent that Sister Mary Clare, Sister Lori, and Sister Beth were the right team.”
Sister Mary Clare has decades of experience in pastoral leadership and community organizing. After years as an elementary school educator and administrator, including seven years at St. Patrick School in Springfield, in the 1990s she helped to found the Dominican Sisters' first community project on Springfield's east side. She was most recently pastoral associate at Sacred Heart Parish, Colombia, Mo., and is a long-time member of the Springfield Dominican Sisters' Antiracism Team (SDART). For 12 years she ministered at St. Mark Parish, Venice, Ill., with 10 years as parish life coordinator. She represents the Dominicans on the Faith Coalition for the Common Good and oversees distribution of supplies at Sacred Heart Convent.
Sister Lori is a pastoral musician, organist, and pianist, who has led communities of prayer as a school musician and as parish liturgist. In central Illinois, she was liturgist at St. John Vianney Parish, Sherman, and at St. Patrick Parish, Urbana. She also accompanied young people in discerning their life's call as vocation minister for the Dominicans. She left a beloved ministry as pastoral musician at Sacred Heart Parish, Warrensburg, Mo., to begin her ministry with Cor Unum and now works as a pastoral musician and piano teacher in Springfield part-time.
Sister Beth Murphy is the communication director for the Dominican Sisters and is deeply engaged with social justice concerns including SDART and the Iraq Coordinating Committee, an initiative of the U.S. Dominican Justice Promoters. Her past ministry has included communications director for the Springfield diocese, a previous stint as communication director for the Dominicans, development work at St. Pius V Parish in Chicago, and community outreach coordinator for the Catholic refugee resettlement program in the Detroit archdiocese. She retains her role as communications director for the Dominicans while dedicating time to Cor Unum.
What to expect
Women who engage with the sisters and one another through Cor Unum can expect to find support for their desire to deepen their heart-connection to God, one another, and the world.
The Dominican Sisters have a 145-year tradition of accompanying marginalized communities and meeting unmet needs. It all began with their service to Irish immigrant families at their first mission: teaching children at what is today Our Saviour Parish in Jacksonville, Ill.
Today, they dedicate significant resources and energy to dismantling racism, analyzing and responding to social injustice, and, at their eco-spirituality center, Jubilee Farm, caring for creation and creating a sustainable future for Earth and its inhabitants.
"Four years ago, we made a commitment to one another to 'imagine the world we want to inhabit and accept the urgent responsibility to collaborate in bringing it to birth' and to ‘nurture mutual relationships that offer healing and courage to a broken world,’” said Sister Beth, quoting the statement from the Dominicans' 2014 governing meeting called a General Chapter. "Establishing this new effort will enable us to meet that vision a new way. We are so happy to welcome young women who want to work with us-heart-to-heart-to make this reality."
About the Cor Unum House
When the use of a vacant house at St. Francis Xavier Cabrini Parish fell through last spring, a committee who met periodically to plan for the new ministry had to regroup. "We were deeply disappointed and we began to question the Spirit's movement. Were we really called to do this?" said Sister Rebecca Ann Gemma, prioress general of the Dominican Sisters.
But, as the three sisters assigned to the project and other supporters continued their outreach, they came to see the need, and the-congregation continued looking for the right place to establish the ministry.
It proved difficult to find an appropriate property in a location that would meet the community's need. With the help of Fletcher Farrar, the commitment of architect John Shafer, and contractor Calvin Pitts, the sisters' dream is becoming reality. Farrar located and offered to help rehabilitate a century-old home just two blocks from another home he rehabbed for the Dominican sisters in 2000 and where two sisters now live. The new house will include an addition to make the ground floor accessible and provide the meeting and living space the new community requires.
"Enos Park is the perfect place for us," said Sister Rebecca Ann. "The involvement of the neighborhood association, the Springfield Art Association, and the proximity of the Medical District make it a wonderful location for our presence, providing many opportunities to build relationships and serve in a wonderfully diverse and thriving neighborhood. Another one of our houses of sisters is nearby, creating an even stronger bond with the neighborhood."
The rehabilitation is underway at the house and the sisters hope to move in by year's end.
Want to join?
Any woman ages 18-35 who wants to participate in the development of Cor Unum is welcome to be in touch with the sisters. To learn more, contact them via their website, www.springfieldop.org/cor-unum, by searching for @corunumoneheart, or by calling (217) 787- 0481.
Want to help?
"We want to make the house as ecologically and fiscally sustainable as possible," says Sister Kathleen Gallagher. "We invite your help to cover expenses for the installation of solar panels, the preparation of the gardens and grounds, other energy and earth-saving expenses related to the house, and some of the rehabilitation costs."
Contributions can be made by contacting Sister Kathleen Anne Tait, director of mission advancement for the sisters, at (217) 787-0481.