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The Franciscan Missionaries of Mary celebrate 100 years in Malta

A Maltese youth made a choice. After graduating in social policy, Dorianne Rotin, worked as a project worker in a shelter for the homeless.

She did not simply want to work to earn money, her goal was to work with people who had dire needs.

At the shelter she realised that homelessness is the result of issues like domestic violence, drug abuse, mental health problems, alcohol, gambling, usury etc. Wanting to go further, she worked voluntarily in Tirana, Albania, in a home for the elderly run by the Sisters of Mother Theresa.

Dorianne was not satisfied with being involved on a short-term basis, she was in search of a long-term commitment which included a spiritual dimension. As she took time to reflect, the Institute of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary came to her notice.

Dedicated to a universal mission, the FMM reach out in a variety of ways to people of different cultures in every continent. She discovered that, day by day, the sisters live their mission within a Franciscan, Marian and Eucharistic spirituality.

After regular contacts with the FMM at their convent in Marsa, Dorianne had a live-in experience in an FMM convent in Ireland where she was guided to discern, eventually to choose to make a personal decision for life and join the FMM. Dorianne, 24, feels happy, at peace, enthusiastic and good to be with religious sisters.

“They are normal women,” she says with a smile. She joined the FMM in July last year together with a young Nigerian woman, a few years her senior, at the formation convent of the FMM in Putney, London, England.

But how did it all start?

It was 140 years ago, on January 6, 1877, Helene de Chappotin, (1837 – 1904) from Nantes, Normandy, in France, as a religious, Mary of the Passion, was authorised to found the Institute of the Missionaries of Mary. In 1882 it became known as the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary when it embraced the Franciscan spirituality.

Mary of the Passion was a charismatic woman daring in her drive for universal mission and internationality, favouring the promotion of women and giving first preference to the poor. The concepts “universal mission” and “internationality” were a novelty 134 years ago, but Mary of the Passion made them a reality. The world was her country. When she died on November 15, 1904 at the age of 65, 2,069 FMM from 24 countries were missionaries in 86 convents dispersed all over the world. Her strategy for mission was rooted in the spirituality of the Gospel as lived by St Francis of Assisi – totally given to God and humanity, in the Eucharist (Christ is the first missionary) – and, like Mary, always in tune with what is occurring around her and with the Lord.

This spirituality urged the FMM to go near and far, to the most dangerous and remote countries, to promote development, promotion of women, social formation, braving difficult situations where people were materially and spiritually deprived. Education, attending to the sick, care of the lepers, training villagers in different fields with a view to earning a living, were some of the priorities in the vision of the foundress.

She saw to it from the start that the women who joined her had to be trained spiritually and for tasks which responded to the needs of the times in specific insertions.

In April 1954, the church officially acknowledged the holy and virtuous life of a 26-year-old FMM, Blessed Maria Assunta Pallotta, an Italian who had died of typhus. St Marie Hermine and six companions, who hailed from France, Holland, Italy and Belgium, were sanctified in October 2000 and the Foundress, Mary of the Passion, was beatified in October 2002.

The Franciscan Missionaries of Mary came to Malta exactly 100 years ago, on January 27, 1911. Seventeen sisters came from Rome and Portugal to escape the purging of the Church in Portugal and the trouble looming over the rest of Europe preceding World War I. They lived in the seminary in Mdina for six months, where a noviciate was opened, after which they were very graciously welcomed in Villa Bologna at Attard for five years. After a short stay in Birkirkara they moved to their own convent in Balzan which became their terra firma since 1921.

The number of Maltese FMM increased rapidly and foreigners added to their ranks. Over the past century, Balzan has been a hub of prayer, long hours of daily Adoration of the Eucharist, the hallmark of every Franciscan Missionary of Mary and a vast variety of missionary activities. In the early days many young women were taught crafts, while catechism was taught to children. A Mission Circle attracted many generous young women who were guided to reach out to persons with special needs due to sickness or family difficulties. When the Maltese were emigrating to Australia, prospective women emigrants were prepared for a better future at the Marian Training Academy.

During World War II the school hall served as a refuge for the homeless as well as a dispensary. In the mid-1950s, kindergarten and primary education were progressively made available to meet the growing needs of that time. The children of vulnerable families were the first to be served. Today Stella Maris School offers education to close to 600 boys from all strata of society, academically prepared to step over to the Jesuit St Aloysius College for their secondary education, since the schools were integrated in 2008.

In 1972, the FMM were inserted at Marsa, contributing to the life of the Maria Regina parish. In 1973 a convent in Manikata made it possible for the FMM to be involved in St Joseph parish. In 1977, sisters reached out to boys from families in difficulty at Dar San Ġużepp in Għajnsielem, while in 1982, Ħal-Mula, limits of Żebbuġ welcomed the FMM who did pastoral work among the influx of young families.

Throughout these 100 years many Maltese FMM were sent far and wide in response to their missionary calling. Besides the scores who were sent to Europe, 125 generously lived their religious vocation beyond the shores of the Maltese islands, in 30 countries outside Europe. Thirteen nuns are currently abroad. The luggage of the sisters is the Gospel, the FMM spirituality, universal mission and internationality.

Today’s mission was aptly described by Padre José Cristo Rey Garcia Paredes, in his conference Mission: The Key To Understand Consecrated Life Today, given to religious men and women, in Malta last September in which he said that “the Spirit who has moved the Prophets, the Apostles and the great Missionaries, has not been extinguished… the Spirit is discreet and humble. It always acts in a gentle and subtle way, however it seeks to manifest itself and act through us, graced by its charisms. When a congregation, a community, a person, surrenders to the Spirit and is touched by it, everything blooms and flourishes. The face of the Church becomes rejuvenated and creative and the world feels the passing of God”.

Sr Rita’s first missionary experience was in Malaysia where she worked as a pharmacist in the FMM Assunta Hospital in Petaling Jaya. Her next missionary experience was as a pastoral counsellor in Canada, in the Frontier Mission of the Far North of British Columbia, in Ottawa and in Toronto, following her post graduate studies in counselling at St Paul University and the University of Ottawa. At present she works at Caritas Malta in the same field.

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