The Immaculate Conception Province
Bishop Soter Ortynsky first asked the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate (SSMI) to work among Ukrainian immigrants in the US as early as the 1910’s. However, with only 19 members in Canada, it was impossible for them to fulfill this request. The hope of Bishop Soter was revived in 1924 when the Holy See erected two new exarchates in the United States, one for Ukrainian Catholics and another for Ruthenian Catholics.
Sister Elizabeth Kassian, at that time Provincial Superior of SSMI-Canada (the Christ the King Province), was a woman of deep faith, foresight, courage, and conviction. She agreed to the request of Bishop Constantine Bohachevsky, Bishop Soter’s successor, and in 1935 sent five sisters to minister in the Philadelphia Eparchy. As their initial ministry, the sisters would cook for the seminarians and priests at the newly-established St. Basil Ukrainian Catholic Seminary in Stamford, CT. Always flexible in their ministries, the sisters would soon take responsibility for the seminary library, the museum, and catechetical work in the local parish.
In 1937 Bishop Constantine provided a residence near the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on North Franklin St. in Philadelphia. Soon, a home was provided for the elderly, and there, the sisters began a new and much-needed ministry, sewing beautiful liturgical vestments. Afterwards, a third home, located in Chestnut Hill, PA was provided to the sisters to use as a residence for single, young women who worked in area factories.
By 1939, ten US mission homes had been opened, with two sisters in each. The sisters assumed an active ministry of education in local parishes. They began evening schools, teaching the Catholic faith, our liturgical rite, music, and customs; as well as the history of Ukraine and its geography, language, and customs. They organized sodalities, instructed altar servers, formed choirs and produced concerts and plays. In some places the sisters conducted kindergarten classes for children as young as three years of age. The sisters saw to it that no segment of parish life was ignored.
The need for a central, community-owned home in the US was obvious because the sisters were having to travel to Canada in order to maintain relations with the larger SSMI community. At the time, Mission homes, usually comprised of two sisters, stretched from New York to North Dakota and distances between missions were therefore great. Bishop Constantine advocated buying a home where sisters could gather to rest, pray, get to know each other, and have retreats. Sisters could then return to their missions physically and spiritually refreshed.
An ideal home was discovered in Sloatsburg, NY and purchased in 1941. Table Rock House on the Hamilton Estate, was located in a beautiful wooded area with sloping hills near a large pond. Later named St. Mary’s Villa, it would soon become a boarding school for girls, St. Mary’s Villa Academy (1944-1978), as well as a summer home for sisters. In time, additional land was purchased and horse stables were remodeled to become St. Joseph’s Adult Care Home. To maintain and support this complex, the sisters began to solicit funds, even in the subways of Manhattan. Daily, they listened as people stopped to share their concerns and problems with them and began asking for prayers. The sisters became known as “the angels of the subway.”
To celebrating the Marian Year of 1954, the sisters conducted a pilgrimage at St. Mary’s Villa in order to honor the Mother of God on the feast of her Dormition. The pilgrimage became a popular annual event, drawing thousands. The number of pilgrims steadily increased, and in the 1960’s an outdoor sanctuary and grotto designed as a replica of the grotto at Lourdes was built, followed soon after by outdoor Stations of the Cross. An outdoor food pavilion and large parking lots were also built.
In 1958, Sister Jerome Chimy, Superior General, made a canonical visitation to the US, and determined that the American members were ready to assume responsibility for their future. Thus, on December 8, 1959, the Immaculate Conception Province in the US was established. The Home of Divine Providence in Chestnut Hill, PA was chosen as the Provincial Home. Within two years of its establishment as a province, there were 86 sisters.
In 1968, Villa of Divine Providence Nursing Home was built in Lansdale. It would also house the province’s first novitiate when six sisters arrived from Ancaster, Ontario, to be joined by three postulants from the US.
In total, there have been 21 missions: Ambridge, Philadelphia, Lansdale, Chestnut Hill, Shamokin, Minersville, Sayre, and Saint Clair, PA; Buffalo, Rochester, and Sloatsburg, NY; Elizabeth and Passaic, NJ; Chicago, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Stamford, Detroit, and in North Dakota. After 1953, when the sisters were invited by the Ruthenian diocese, they also served in Youngstown, OH and Passaic.
Unfortunately, US Catholic religious communities experienced an exodus in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s; and the congregation was not spared. Those departing, along with those who died passed away and the general aging of the congregation have necessitated that the province close some missions and restructure others. Fortunately, as a large international congregation, SSMI is able to gain support from “sister” provinces abroad.
Over the years, the complexion of the province has changed. The nursing home in Lansdale, was sold and, later, the Home of Divine Providence as well. Sloatsburg is the only property still owned by the sisters. The Provincial House and Novitiate are currently located on the Sloatsburg property.
Many parochial schools closed because of declining enrollment, but always being flexible in the ministries in which they serve, SSMI has taken on catechetical and youth ministry, a retreat house facility, seminary library staffing, pastoral ministry, and have provided a chancellor for the Archeparchy of Philadelphia. SSMI maintains a presence in four parochial schools and continues operating the well-respected St. Joseph Adult Care Home.
The number of pilgrims attending the Marian Dormition Pilgrimage has actually increased. Parents, who have fond memories of the pilgrimage from their childhood, now bring their families. Happily, new immigrants attend the pilgrimage in large numbers. Having commemorated more than 50 years of honoring the Mother of God, the annual Dormition Pilgrimage continues to welcome pilgrims.
The beatification of our foundress, Blessed Josaphata Hordashevska, in 2001 brought new hope to God’s people as her relics traveled to parishes throughout the US. While rebuilding SSMI, the sisters know that God’s love has been an abiding presence, felt and seen. Indeed, God is with the SSMI sisters as they weather societal changes and will see them through!
Renewed commitment soars as we enter a new era in the country and community. A “fourth wave” of Ukrainian immigrants, changes in society and culture, and the developing needs of our church all have necessitated a fresh vision for the future. SSMI sisters are ever reminded of the words of our founders, “Serve where the need is the greatest.”
As the province looks forward to the celebration of 50 years as the American Province and 75 years of ministry within the US, SSMI is thankful for the opportunity to have made a difference in the world and optimistically looks to the future to rejuvenate SSMI-US – The Immaculate Conception Province.