Fr. Ed Dougherty, M.M.
Several causes for sainthood were recently advanced by the Vatican, including the elevation from venerable to blessed for Maria Berenice Duque Hencker, a Columbian nun who founded multiple religious congregations, including the Little Sisters of the Annunciation. The miracle Pope Francis approved for her cause to advance was the 2004 healing of a 13-year-old boy named Sebastian Vasquez, who had a rare degenerative disease that had caused multiple comas and near-death experiences, leaving him consigned to a wheelchair and fed through tubes from the age of seven. In a Columbian newscast reporting on his healing, Sebastian said, “A little sister found out about the case and went to take a prayer to the clinic and a photo of Mother Maria Berenice and told me to make friends with her.”
Mother Maria Berenice was born in 1898 and died in 1993, only a couple of years after Sebastian was born. His healing took place a decade after her passing. Earlier this year, Sebastian passed away, after enjoying many years free from the illness that plagued his childhood. A statement issued by the General Directorate of the Congregation of the Little Sisters of the Annunciation read, “There are God’s designs that we do not understand, but we are certain that [Sebastian] is enjoying the presence of God and Mother Berenice.”
A little over a month after Sebastian’s passing, thousands gathered at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Medellin, Columbia, for the Beatification of Mother Maria Berenice. In the homily, Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, prefect of the Dicastery for the Cause of Saints, praised the way she emulated our Blessed Mother through her love for the poor, saying that the poor “were at the center of her existence” and noting that “she had, in particular, a love for the poorest children, whom she considered the favorites of the Lord.”
Blessed Maria Berenice started the Congregation of the Little Sisters of the Annunciation in 1943 to serve children and families. In 1957, she founded the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Jesus and Mary for Afro-Columbian women called to religious life, an initiative begun in opposition to racial discrimination of the time. In 1964, she founded the Missionary Brothers of the Annunciation as the men’s branch of her congregation to work with the poor, the imprisoned, and the marginalized.
In an interview with ACI Prensa given shortly before his death last year, Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, former archbishop of Caracas, Venezuela, said of Mother Maria Berenice, “She was a woman of living and firm Christian faith, of intense Marian piety and great mettle, an enthusiastic entrepreneur, with many initiatives to announce the name and love of God to those most in need.” Talking about a long illness she suffered later in life, he said, “The Lord gave her a special strength to join the passion of Christ in the pain of illness and the weakness that it brings.”
In looking at the life of Blessed Mother Maria Berenice, we see an amazing example of what it looks like to follow in the footsteps of Christ and our Blessed Mother. In her strength, she lifted up the most destitute people in society and was a tireless advocate for those on the margins and those facing racial and economic discrimination. And in her weakness, she turned everything over to God, uniting herself to Christ on the Cross. May she continue to watch over the marginalized and lead all who call upon her intercession to healing in Christ.
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