Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Middletown Native and Bishop McDevitt Grad Serving as General Superior of Adorers of the Blood of Christ

A native of Middletown, Sister Maria Hughes, ASC, now serves as General Superior of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ.
A native of Middletown, Sister Maria Hughes, ASC, now serves as General Superior of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ.

Sister Maria Hughes, ASC, originally from Middletown, was recently elected General Superior of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, currently serving at the congregation home in Rome.

Born and raised in Middletown among two siblings and numerous foster children, Sister Maria grew up in the Church. Active Church members, her father served as sexton and her mother cooked for the priests. Often, the young Mary tagged along with her father when the religious Sisters needed repairs at the convent or to deliver the meals with her mother. She was involved in the Church, she says, and grew up around priests and sisters.

She recalls that when her parents drove the Sisters to Ohio in the summers, “I’d go along and ask them questions that thoroughly embarrassed my parents. My sister, who was 12 years older, had told me things that were not true, so I’d ask, ‘Do you have hair under your veil?’”

She was also influenced by the Dominican Sisters who taught at the schools she attended: her parish school of Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Middletown and Bishop McDevitt High School in Harrisburg. Often as a child, she told her family that she wanted to grow up and be one of the Sisters. When she was a junior in high school, however, the Adorers came to her school and she became involved with their youth group, singing in the choir and playing guitar. The Adorers of the Blood of Christ are an international community, founded in Italy by Maria De Mattias in 1834; in 1870 a group came to the U.S., teaching school and caring for the elderly and sick. Mary asked the youth director questions, this time about religious life.

One day, one of the Adorers asked Mary if she’d like to attend a retreat at the Mother House in Columbia, Pa.

“She failed to tell me that it was a live-in weekend for people discerning religious life,” said Sister Maria. Although she was dating someone at the time and had told him it was just a retreat weekend, the experience, she says, “started me thinking. There was something that clicked within me when I was with the Sisters.”

“It was just such a place of welcome. We’ve often said that of the three provinces, Columbia Province [prior to merging into one U.S. province] was known for its hospitality. My family was a hospitable family. We always had foster children. My younger brother—my forever brother—was adopted as a baby from foster care.”

During her senior year of high school, Sister Maria decided to enter the convent directly and attend college. “It became real clear to me. At that time, girls went right to the convent after high school, so I applied.” She was accepted with the Adorers where she began her formation while attending Millersville University to study elementary/early childhood education.

During formation she changed her name slightly from her baptized name, Mary Louise. Her parents, she says, prayed for many years along with the Dominican Sisters for her birth. If they had a girl, her mother promised to name her Mary. Mary Louise, however, had always thought the name “too plain.” She eventually changed it to Maria Louise because there was already a Mary Louise at the convent, which created frequent mix-ups in mail delivery. Sister Maria laughs now, explaining that in Rome the Italian Sisters translate her name to the American version, Mary, anyway.

Sister Maria recalls vividly the day that she made her final profession in July 1983. In groups of three at a time, she says they experienced a mix of joy and fear because this was to be their life forever. “The day before, some of us cried because we were afraid.” However, once the liturgy started, surrounded by family and friends, “It was just so right.” It was especially meaningful to her that Father Harry Flynn (the rector of Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Md.) had been the homilist for her first vows and again for her final vows at the ASC Provincial House in Columbia, Pa. “It was a beautiful, beautiful day,” she said.

Sister Maria Hughes, ASC, third from left, is pictured with members of the General Council of the congregation, which includes Sisters from Tanzania, Zagreb, Italy and Poland.
Sister Maria Hughes, ASC, third from left, is pictured with members of the General Council of the congregation, which includes Sisters from Tanzania, Zagreb, Italy and Poland.

Since that day, Sister Maria has served in many educational and leadership roles. She taught first grade in several schools before being assigned to Sacred Heart School in Lewistown. After receiving her master’s degree in education administration from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, she served as principal of Sacred Heart, and, in total served as teacher and principal there for nine years. “In my mind,” she says, “my world was about education and being a Sister.”

She never considered that she would be asked to become the Vocation/Formation Director for the Adorers in Columbia. This involved attending St. Louis University’s Institute of Religious Formation (1990-91) along with 48 other men and women from all over the world. Here, she says, she “learned how to accompany people in their vocation.”

When the three provinces of the Adorers merged into one province, Sister Maria then became the first novice director of the new U.S. province. She moved to Illinois for this ministry, where she served for seven years, calling it “a wonderful experience.”

“God kept moving me farther and farther from home,” she says. “My mother would say, ‘You just do what you need to do. That’s what God is calling you to do. Don’t you stay here for us.’”

Along the way, however, Sister Maria says that she did experience doubts while facing challenges in the congregation.

“There were times when I wondered what it would have been like if I had fallen in love with someone. Somewhere in my 30s, I really had a time of ‘Is this how I want to spend my life?’”

She recalls one visit, sitting in the kitchen with her mother and complaining about how hard her life was and how terrible everything was in her congregation home. “She looked at me and said, ‘You’re going to take yourself with you wherever you go. If you want to leave the community, we’ll support you. But just remember that no life is easy.’” Her mother then pointed out the challenges in a vocation as a wife and mother.

“Sometimes when people come into formation, they have a romantic idea that you live this life of prayer,” Sister Maria says. “Everybody wants to serve God, so there are no problems. Jesus didn’t have it so easy, so I don’t think we can think we’re any different from Jesus if we’re following Jesus. He had a motley crew following him and it worked.”

Moving to Chicago, she became the Director of the Institute of Religious Formation at the Catholic Theological Union. Sister Maria served in this ministry for five years, directing the program she had once attended during her own formation. “It taught me a lot and I appreciated the women I accompanied. Some chose to move on to other vocations doing absolutely wonderful things for God not as Adorers, but they have the spirit of the Adorers.”

“Everything that I’ve done, I feel like that one thing got me ready for the next thing and the next thing and the next,” she says.

After serving a term in leadership to the U.S. council, Sister Maria was officially elected on July 18, 2023, to the role as General Superior of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ. The General Assembly of the Adorers met to elect the leadership for the next six-year term, which also includes four council members, a secretary and a treasurer, and to choose the overall direction for the congregation.

She says her responsibilities include, “To be the unifier of the congregation, so every Sister, from the time she enters to the time she dies, can live her vocation fully. To be the connection among all of the provinces all over the world. To make sure that we’re living our charisms and our mission.”

Today the Adorers work to be “a compassionate presence. Reconciliation is a high value for us in a fractured and fragile world, so we serve among our neighbors where the wounds are deepest, as sowers of hope,” she says. In the congregation home in Rome, where she has lived since October, the Sisters have extended hospitality to a refugee Muslim family.

Adorers of the Blood of Christ within the Harrisburg Diocese still teach school and work in parishes to help the sick and shut-in. They also serve in justice and peace outreach, such as tutoring and translating for immigrants. Notably, the Adorers sponsor the St. Anne’s Retirement Community in Columbia. The Sisters started a small house almost 100 years ago in response to a need to care for the elderly. Their charism also includes caring for our common home, making news when they protested against a natural gas pipeline running through their property, which is now a place of reflection.

Instead of guiding individual formations, Sister Maria explains that as General Superior she is now the public face for the congregation in the Church and society. She’ll take a bigger view and work with the regional leaders and formation coordinators to keep the congregation on mission in all of the 27 countries where the Adorers are located.

“In the six years, we’ll visit every area of the congregation in the world, one of the requirements of the role,” she says.

Reflecting on her vocation over the past 40 years, Sister Maria says what she has enjoyed most is whatever she is currently doing.

“The life itself has offered so many opportunities to experience God in ways I never imagined. I was happy to live in central PA, but God had some other plans. My ministry in leadership has taken me around the world. I’ve travelled to Korea, Vietnam, Bolivia, Peru, India, Liechtenstein and Guatemala. Now, to live in Rome, I think that’s pretty awesome.”

(Kathy Stewart is a freelance reporter for The Catholic Witness.)

(Photos from www.adorers.org and the congregation’s Facebook page.)

By Kathy Stewart, The Catholic Witness

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