MERIDEN – Before a jubilant gathering of friends, benefactors and the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran dedicated the 6,000-square-foot Chapel of St. John and adjoining meeting room during a solemn Mass on Nov. 1.
A longtime friend of the Franc
iscan community, Cardinal Tauran, who resides in Rome, is president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and also the cardinal who announced the election of Pope Francis to the world in 2013.
“This is a joyous occasion,” said an emotional Mother General Shaun Vergauwen as she welcomed 250 guests to the dedication of the stone, glass and wood chapel and meeting room, designed to serve the sisters’ 24-acre campus and motherhouse.
In his homily, Cardinal Tauran drew applause when he shared that after celebrating Mass with the community on Palm Sunday in 2009, he saw that the chapel was “too small for a growing community,” and became its first benefactor.
“This chapel is the heart of your community,” said the cardinal, a place for prayer, meditation, contemplation and liturgical celebrations. “Here you will find in the Eucharist the engine you need for your apostolates.”
Principal concelebrants were Archbishop Leonard P. Blair and Archbishop Emeritus Daniel A. Cronin of Hartford, and Father Douglas L. Mosey, president and rector of Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, who has been the sisters’ chaplain for 40 years. They were joined by 14 concelebrants.
In his remarks at the end of the Mass, Archbishop Blair said, “This is a happy duty and privilege to be able to congratulate you sisters” on this occasion. “Your joy is our joy; your presence is our gift.”
Archbishop Blair, who noted that he had worked with Cardinal Tauran in the Vatican 25 years ago, said that the cardinal’s homily reflected not only upon the day, but also upon “all of consecrated life in the church,” now amplified by Pope Francis’ declaration of the Year of Consecrated Life, which began on Nov. 30.
Expanding on the Holy Father’s statement last year that the church is a “field hospital” for the materially as well as the spiritually and morally wounded, he complimented and encouraged the sisters, noting, “I know how you reach out to all those in destitution.”
“May this place always be a house of God, a place of contemplation … and peace,” he said.
Designed to reflect elements of Franciscan spirituality, the stone and wood structure faces east and features a 40 percent glass exterior “to bring the creation of God into this place of worship,” said Mother Shaun.
In addition to large windows that rise to the ceiling on either side of the altar, natural light streams into the chapel from a cupola called a lantern centered atop the middle of the structure, which is affixed with a cross outside that can be seen from some distance.
The ambo, sanctuary chairs, credence table and tabernacle shelf are made of cherry wood harvested from trees on the property. A clay holy water font, made by one of the sisters, is nestled into a stone that was found on the land and that is thought to have been hewn out by Native Americans.
The sanctuary candle was recycled from the former chapel, as was the altar, which was refashioned with a larger altar top made of Roman stone. The pews are made of oak, and the tabernacle was designed and fabricated in Rome.
Cardinal Tauran blessed the altar with holy water and Archbishop Blair sprinkled holy water on the walls. The new altar stone was consecrated with holy oil by Cardinal Tauran. Following the consecration, the sisters placed a new altar cloth, candles and flowers in the sanctuary, following many details carefully orchestrated by foundress Mother Rosemae Pender.
Mother Shaun commended the diligent work of general contractor John Sullivan of Sullivan Brothers in Waterbury, architect Don Hammerberg of Farmington, landscape architect Biff Schechinger and sound technicians HB Communications Inc.
Funded entirely with “thousands of” donations, including some from sisters’ taking on second jobs in order to contribute, the 150-seat chapel opens at the back into a meeting room to accommodate another 100 people. The project was completed in just 15 months, with outside paving and landscaping to follow next spring.
The new chapel replaces a 50-seat chapel. After the community’s first chapel was destroyed by fire in 1988, the sisters erected a new chapel in 1989 and named it for Pope Paul VI, who granted permission for the sisters to become a new religious order in 1973.
David Hunter, CEO of Mary Wade Home in New Haven and the father of Franciscan Sister Mary Clare Hunter, was in the congregation.
“What’s so moving is how the universal church just blossomed today,” he said. “In a world that needs God, I felt strengthened by these sisters in their dedication to the Eucharist and wearing of the habit that serves as a contradiction to modernity.”
Today, the community has 86 sisters in 12 domestic and international centers, with 33 sisters in Meriden who primarily minister through counseling, education, home care and hospice care.
The new chapel accommodates 150 people, tripling the capacity of the former chapel. Cardinal Tauran suggested that the sisters build a larger chapel when he visited in 2009, making a donation toward it and a promise to return for the blessing. Construction began 15 months ago.
The front of the structure is adorned with stone and features two large windows. The altar, from the former chapel, is uniquely designed with a metal base holding a globe, symbolic of the community’s daily prayer for the needs of the world. A new, larger altar top is of Roman stone and was consecrated during the liturgy. The sanctuary chairs, credence table, tabernacle shelf and ambo (lectern) are made of cherry wood that came from trees on the Franciscan Sisters’ property.
The project is being funded entirely by donations. The Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist have served in the Archdiocese of Hartford since 1970. The community continues to grow as women enter the order to serve the Church in consecrated life. (Photo by Bob Mullen/The Catholic Photographer)