Lex Cordis Caritas - The law of the heart is Love

by Bishop Thomas John Paprocki

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

The first day of this month of July marked a momentous occasion for our local Church: the official welcoming to our diocese of seven Norbertine priests from St. Michael’s Abbey of Southern California and the opening of their new Corpus Christi Priory located at the site of the former Chiara Center in Springfield. The members of this community are known officially as the The Canons Regular of Prémontré, but are also called the Premonstratensians or simply the Norbertines, after their founder, St. Norbert, who was ordained a priest at the Cathedral of Cologne and began his ministry as an itinerant preacher traveling throughout the countryside of Germany, Belgium, and France.

At the request of Pope Calixtus II and with his bishop’s encouragement, Norbert settled in the valley of Prémontré, northern France, in the spring of 1120. On Christmas Day 1121, Norbert and his followers professed their first vows, adopting the Rule of St. Augustine. Thus, the Norbertine order was born. Named Archbishop of Magdeburg in 1126. Norbert worked tirelessly for the reform of the Church until his death on June 6, 1134.

The Norbertines’ primary ministry here will be the Evermode Institute. Named after St. Evermode, one of St. Norbert’s closest companions and a bishop renowned for his fearless and tireless defense of the Gospel, the Evermode Institute will teach the Catholic faith to those who are most responsible for sharing the Gospel: to Catholic school teachers and administrators, to catechists in parishes, and to parents in families.

The Corpus Christi Priory and the Evermode Institute did not come about either by sheer accident or by some clever human design. I believe Divine Providence guided these events, so I would like to share with you some “behind the scenes” background information about how the Norbertines and the Evermode Institute came to our diocese at the site of the motherhouse of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis.

In 1875, the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis established and grew a health system that now operates a network of 15 hospitals and other healthcare facilities in Illinois and Wisconsin. After starting St. John’s Hospital in 1875 in downtown Springfield, where the Hospital Sisters also lived, in 1917 the sisters purchased 500 acres of land situated six miles northeast of Springfield for the building of St. John's Tuberculosis Sanitarium and later the construction of St. Francis of Assisi Church and St. Francis Convent. This sacred place is a visible and powerful element of the sisters’ enduring legacy.

Apart from the church, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary of dedication by Bishop James Griffin next year on April 27, most of the buildings on this campus are new, having replaced older, larger buildings that served, originally, as a tuberculosis sanitarium and a large convent that once housed several hundred sisters. About 15 years ago, the sisters replaced those buildings with the current facilities, trusting that in some form they would be of use to the Church for years to come.

As efforts to secure that future became more concrete, however, the only serious consideration the sisters’ received was from an outside entity that would have forced them to leave their home in less than a year and would not have been a Catholic entity using the space. This was a non-starter for the sisters, so Sister Maureen O’Connor, the provincial superior of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis, called a community meeting, at which one of the older sisters — in fact, 102 years old — said, “Why don’t you call the bishop?” That started our conversation, leading to the placing of this property in a trust to be used for religious purposes.

Providentially, during that same time period, Bishop Kevin Vann, the bishop of Orange County, a native of Springfield, a long-time priest of our diocese, and a lifelong friend and one-time employee of the Hospital Sisters, had introduced me and Msgr. David Hoefler, my vicar general, to the Norbertine Fathers of St. Michael’s Abbey. Through that connection, some of the Norbertine Fathers spent time in our diocese, offering retreats and conferences for our priests and lay faithful. Some of our priests visited and made retreats at St. Michael’s Abbey in California.

It was four years ago, on July 17, 2019, that I concelebrated the Mass for the Dedication of Christ Cathedral in the Diocese of Orange. At the luncheon after Mass, I met Abbot Eugene Hayes of St. Michael’s Abbey. Having heard of their growing community, I casually remarked that it would be wonderful for the Norbertines of St. Michael’s Abbey to establish a house in our diocese, something I am sure Abbot Eugene hears quite often from bishops around the country. Rather than politely declining the invitation, as I was half expecting, Abbot Eugene did not laugh and did not say no. Instead, he handed me his business card and said, “Let’s talk.” That began a conversation with Abbot Eugene and his leadership council about the possibility of them establishing some kind of more permanent presence in our diocese. As providence would have it, the Norbertine Fathers had experienced decades of growth and fruitfulness, and were discerning the establishment of a new foundation.

In turn, when Sister Maureen approached me and Msgr. Hoefler to discuss the future of the property, it quickly became clear to all of us that the hand of God was at work in this — that so much had been preordained and set in motion, that all the foundation of all these connections had been established far in advance. The Hospital Sisters of St. Francis will continue to live on the property and the Norbertine Fathers will provide for their pastoral care.

So that is some of the backstory of how this beautiful new chapter in the life of our diocese came about and I pray that this divinely inspired endeavor will flourish for many years to come.

May God give us this grace. Amen.