Religious Hospitallers welcome new associates into community

By Lisa Haefs | For The Compass | November 13, 2013

Lay associates build spirituality while supporting mission of Antigo sisters

ANTIGO — The Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph is ensuring that the message of Jerome LeRoyer, the order’s founder, will continue to be heard and practiced centuries after his death.

Vicky Marx, far left, and Jerome Marx, right, are Religious Hospitaller associate leaders. They welcomed new associate members JoAnna Bretl, Diane Welnetz, Rose Marciniak, Erica Gelhausen and Sandy Bonfigt into the associate program during a Nov. 6 commitment ceremony at Langlade Hospital in Antigo. (Lisa Haefs | For The Compass)
Vicky Marx, far left, and Jerome Marx, right, are Religious Hospitaller associate leaders. They welcomed new associate members JoAnna Bretl, Diane Welnetz, Rose Marciniak, Erica Gelhausen and Sandy Bonfigt into the associate program during a Nov. 6 commitment ceremony at Langlade Hospital in Antigo. (Lisa Haefs | For The Compass)

Under the theme of “To Love and Serve,” the Religious Hospitallers in Antigo welcomed five new associates in the Langlade Hospital chapter on Wednesday, Nov. 6. The Montreal-based order started the hospital in 1933 and remains committed to its operation and that of 55 others worldwide, today.

Diane Welnetz, Joanna Bretl, Sandy Bonfigt, Erica Gelhausen and Rose Marciniak joined 24 other associates, with a goal of enriching their personal spiritual life in communion with one another in the spirit and charism of Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph.

The new associates asked not to be singled out, but rather to speak as a group about the order, and their role as lay people in it.

Vicky Marx, who has been an associate since the program was started in Antigo in 1995 and now serves in a leadership capacity, said the group is like a family.

“This is a nourishment and enrichment of our spiritual life,” she said, explaining that while many associates serve as volunteers for the order and the hospital, the two are not one and the same.

“The objective is to allow the associates to have their own lay identity while totally sharing the spirituality of the founders of the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph,” she stressed.

According to Sr. Dolores Demulling of the Religious Hospitallers, the goal of the associate program is to spread the message of Jerome LeRoyer, dating to his founding of the order in 1636.

A tax collector and father of five, LeRoyer collaborated with two women — Marie de la Ferre, who chose to become a nun after renouncing her worldly successes, and laywoman Jeanne Mance — the foundress of a mission named Ville Marie, which later became Montreal — to establish the order. Its mission, unchanged to this day, was to announce the “good news of Jesus Christ by serving the sick, the poor and by education.”

The founders understood that for the order to succeed, it had to have the strong support and assistance of the laity. To that end, they established the Confraternity of the Holy Family, bringing together men and women wishing to live their Christian life intensively.

“There were associates at the very beginning,” Marx said. “There has always been a need.”

While the specifics of that formal confraternity were lost to history, the organization reemerged in 1984 when the congregation proposed the foundational elements of the associate program to Christian persons who wished to live the spirit of the order.

“This is another way to help Jerome LeRoyer’s charism go out into the world, giving honor and glory to God,” Sr. Dolores said, explaining that charism — or gift from God — is found in the statement made by LeRoyer himself, that “the spirit of this family is that of the holy liberty of the children of God.”

“We want to serve people with our value system, which includes respect for all people and a freedom to love, serve and come together,” Sr. Dolores said. “This is a way to give something to our world that is very special.”

According to Marx, the allure of the associate program dates to the work and mission of the sisters, whose influence in Antigo extends far beyond the walls of Langlade Hospital to include the LeRoyer Hospice, Pine Meadow and Rosalia Gardens assisted living facilities, and the LeRoyer Walkway.

“The sisters all have an incredible love for Jerome LeRoyer, which is very recognizable through their kind acts over the years,” Marx said. “They have had an incredible influence on Antigo.”

The associate program is open to men and women, most of whom have had their lives touched by the sisters. The process begins informally, with interested candidates first interviewed, and then participating in meetings to delve deeply into the history and mission of the order and their own spiritual lives.

If they choose and take the next step, they formally join the associates through a commitment program. They commit to deepen the spiritual heritage left by LeRoyer and Marie de la Ferre, to be inspired to live that mission in the modern world and to “announce a God who unites and frees.”

Today, the Religious Hospitallers has 19 groups consisting of 254 committed associates and 34 in formation. The association extends from the United States, Mexico and Canada to the Dominican Republic, France and Peru.

“Everyone has something to add,” said Marx’s husband, Jerome, who is also an associate in leadership. “Everyone had the same goal, to grow together and express themselves through faith-sharing.”

While the associates are quick to say how much they gain from the program, Sr. Dolores said they offer much in return.

“They give us so much more than we give them,” she said, stressing the associates’ love and devotion to God and purpose in life. “This is what we see in them and that is hopefully what they see in us.”

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