By Linda Scherer
WINSTED, MN When Claire Roufs, daughter of Frank and Terry Roufs of Winsted, graduated from Holy Trinity High School in 1997, she was ready for the next step in her life and knew exactly what she wanted.
She had been accepted at the University of St. Thomas as an accounting major, studying business. She was going to finish school, get a job, get married, and have children.
But life doesn’t always turn out the way it’s planned and, for Roufs, her journey of faith led her down a completely different path one that was not always easy to follow.
Today, her name is Mother Mary Clare. She is the founder and head of a new religious community established in the Diocese of New Ulm called Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus.
“Did I ever think I would be religious? No. Did I ever think I would be happy as a religious? Never,” Mother Mary Clare said.
“But I am so happy. There are hard days when I cry; others when I laugh, and it is the most beautiful gift to be chosen by the Lord,” Mother Mary Clare said. “I have come to know His love and that is why it is the greatest honor to bring his love to the world.”
It was a historic occasion for the Diocese of New Ulm when Bishop John M. LeVoir established the new religious community March 24. This was the first religious order to be established within the diocese since it began in 1957, and this is the first Motherhouse located in its boundaries.
By being established in the diocese by LeVoir, the Handmaids became a Public Association of the Faithful.
“It allows us to fully live our lives as a religious community, and the public association is a great blessing for us because we are public, our acts are public acts and not private acts, but also acts of the church,” Mother Mary Clare said.
The next step will be to become a Religious Community of Diocesan Right and then, eventually, to become a pontifical community, which would be directly under the pope.
“The process could go really quickly,” Mother Mary Clare said. “Not more than 10 or 15 years, or it could take 100 years.”
Technically, titles such as “superior general,” given to Mother Mary Clare, and “sister,” given to each of the women when they receive their habits, do not have formal, canonical (church law) significance until the Handmaids become a Religious Community of Diocesan Right, but the sisters will continue to live their lives as religious while seeking that final approval, making them a true religious community in the church.
Mother Mary Clare is responsible for overseeing day-to-day life of the religious community and she is responsible for the formation of the sisters.
She has been in contact with several other religious communities, who have given her guidance in forming the foundation for the Handmaids.
“We have had really good help,” Mother Mary Clare said. “These superiors tell us what is wise and what is not. What do we really need and don’t need? The things that need to be put into place before anything else.”
The Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus started in August 2007 in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis after asking permission from Archbishop Harry Flynn.
But Mother Mary Clare’s journey began long before 2007.
It started soon after she started attending St. Thomas, where she got involved in the Catholic Studies program and St. Paul’s Outreach. There she was meeting young people “who were really living their Catholic faith.”
“I started to meet seminarians who were actually thinking about becoming priests and they were my age and they were normal,” Mother Mary Clare said. “I started asking the question, ‘What am I doing in my life?’”
She transferred her major to Catholic Studies and the study of theology and philosophy.
“I just wanted to be serving the Lord in the Church, but really wanted to be married and have kids to do it,” Mother Mary Clare said.
In 2002, she joined the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal in New York and thought she had finally found her true vocation.
“I wanted to live their life, but I wanted them all to move here (Minnesota) but it was not an option.”
By 2004, she felt it was the Lord’s will for her to return to Minnesota, leaving the community of Franciscan Sisters.
Soon after her return, she began to work for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in the Vocation Office, and in December 2006, the message she had been waiting for came through loud and clear.
“The Lord really made it clear in my prayers,” Mother Mary Clare said. “He wanted the religious life, he wanted it to be here (in Minnesota), and he wanted it to be in the parishes and schools where we would live in imitation of our Lady.”
After several months of prayer, Mother Mary Clare understood that God wanted her to ask other women to join her in her vocation.
“I thought the Lord was crazy. No one is going to say yes,” she said.
She didn’t ask anyone right away, but continued to pray for guidance in who she should ask. Her prayers were answered. There was something that told her (“not a human thing”) which women to ask, and each time she asked, she got a yes.
Currently, there are seven women in the community. All are under the age of 30 and are college graduates working toward advanced degrees at the School of Divinity in St. Paul. On March 24, four of the seven women of the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus received their religious habits and their new names in religion.
Mary Shaffer is now Sister Miriam Rose; Megan Marshall is Sister Magdalena Marie; Mary Therese Foley is Sister Regina Marie; and Claire Roufs became Mother Mary Clare.
After receiving their habits, the sisters became novices, which means they are being formed in the religious life, but haven’t committed to it for any length of time. They remain novices for one to two years.
Mother Mary Clare is the first member of the community to profess her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
At the invitation of LeVoir, the Handmaids moved to the Diocese of New Ulm in December and currently reside in the convent at the Church of St. John the Baptist in Searles.
The Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus do not have strategic recruiting plans.
“I really believe, if we effectively live our lives, God will call others to join us, and the call actually comes from Him,” Mother Mary Clare said.
When women seek out the community, asking if they can join, the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus make it clear that their community’s religious life isn’t easy and they should come only if it is really their calling.
Besides living a very structured life, the sisters live off of divine providence.
“We trust that God will provide for what we need,” Mother Mary Clare said. “We trust that as we are faithful to the Lord, he is going to care for our needs.”
Have they ever been down to bare essentials, and wondered what they would do next?
“All the time, especially with food,” Mother Mary Clare said.
So far, their needs have always been met. They have a roof over their heads, clothing, and food. Most often, they will get donations of food and very rarely do they have to go to the grocery store.
The sisters have story after story to tell about how they have received what they needed or managed to do without.
When one of the sisters used the last bottle of dish soap, within minutes someone rang the door bell and dropped off some random things, and one of them was a donation of dish soap.
Another time, a sister was trying to bake a birthday cake for one of the sisters only to realize they were out of flour. One of the sisters found a flourless cake recipe and the sisters agreed it was the best dessert ever.
“We never would be able to make that dessert at other times because we wouldn’t have had all the ingredients needed, but this time we did,” Mother Mary Clare said.
“Have we ever gone without a meal? Never,” Mother Mary Clare said. “We try to be wise about it. We don’t want to be destitute or sick, but we also want to live in radical faith.”
For the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus, something as simple as eggs becomes a very special gift from God.
Because of the generosity of others, the sisters have received donations to help pay their education, health insurance, and other daily needs.
The Motherhouse doesn’t have a television, which is something they do not miss. All of the news, both locally and around the world, they are able to keep up with from the people they are continually in touch with.
“I didn’t know that Brett Favre was playing for the Vikings,” Mother Mary Clare said. “I had gone home and my brother told me. He was shocked that I didn’t know it, but it was not a salvation matter. There is just so much that we don’t need to know and our whole purpose of our life is to focus on God and to be given to him,” Mother Mary Clare said.
Their day begins at 5 a.m. with a bell that rings to wake the sisters.
Prayer is a big part of the day, beginning at 5:30 a.m. and a number of times throughout the day. There are also times during the day that the sisters must be silent. At 10 p.m., lights are out.
The sisters visit the sick, teach CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) classes, are planning a family camp this summer, sing for Masses, wash and iron linens for Mass, and are willing to serve wherever they are needed.
There is also time during the day to do things the sisters enjoy like riding bikes, playing Ultimate Frisbee, and going on picnics. No matter what the activity, all of the sisters remain in their habits until 10 p.m. when the lights go out.
“We want to be reasonable about this, but it is very intentional because we have chosen this life intentionally,” Mother Mary Clare said.
Daily household chores are scheduled on a monthly basis, with everyone taking turns cleaning, ironing, and sewing.
The Handmaids of Jesus are content right here in this moment and with the number of girls that are part of the community, according to Mother Mary Clare, although there are plans for two new members to join in the fall.
They are working on formation so they will be ready, possibly as soon as next year, to start an apostolic house of sisters in one of the parishes of the diocese.
“Right now, we are serious about letting the Lord form us. We are learning more about our faith and really getting to learn our religious life, getting a sense of the state of the church so we are able to serve, and to serve well.”