“Long time, huh?” Jeanine Rozycke said to her mother, 94-year-old Catherine Rozycke.
Yes, indeed — 70 years to be exact.
In late July, Catherine attended her 70th novena to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, hosted annually by the Discalced Carmelite sisters at the Carmel of Saint Joseph Monastery in Ladue. With the 70th anniversary of the novena this year, Catherine has been present for every one, missing only a few of the novena’s 630 days over that span — almost two full years of novena dates.
Catherine described novenas as, simply, “the best.”
The novena to Our Lady of Mount Carmel began in 1948 as a candlelit “living Rosary,” with the Rosary prayed as a group, along with a homily or talk, to honor Our Lady of Mount Carmel and ask her intercession. Over the years, it expanded to include Mass outdoors, benediction and a prelude of Marian hymns. The Carmelites order between 700 and 800 chairs for the Mass, and Sister Mary Joseph, OCD, who entered the order in 1960, recalled a time when a shuttle run from downtown to the monastery for the novena. The sisters, who are cloistered, don’t attend the event, which is conducted by lay people, seminarians and priests. The novena focused on a different Marian theme each year, which this year was different titles of the Blessed Mother.
Whereas Catherine began attending the annual novena with her mother and siblings, she now attends with Jeanine, her youngest daughter, every year. Jeanine has been coming for about 35 years, which would be half as long as her mother.
“That’s my baby,” Catherine laughed and pointed to Jeanine.
Catherine grew up in a Polish neighborhood of East St. Louis, where her mother was instrumental in her faith formation. She attended Sacred Heart School and now lives in Belleville, attending Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish. Jeanine estimates that in 70 years, her mother has only missed a few days of the sisters’ novena. While in town from Belleville every year for the nine-day prayer, they stay with close family friend Debby Ronzio on the Hill.
“I don’t sleep here” at the monastery, Catherine clarified, laughing again. Her persistence in attending the novena is rooted in a deep devotion to Mary.
“Blessed Mary,” she said, “that is my favorite saint.”
“You just love her,” Jeanine said to her mother.
“I ask her to pray for everybody, because she can help them,” Catherine said. “I love her.”
Part of Catherine’s devotion to Mary is rooted in an episode from her childhood. As a schoolgirl, she was awaiting her bus one day when “a strange man came up to talk to her.”
“She prayed for help, and a huge St. Bernard dog came and sat beside her until the bus came,” Ronzio said.
Catherine has a sweet tooth, so much so that Ronzio joked “she probably prays for desert.” In years past, she has brought sweets to the sisters, including Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Her sweet tooth has lasted into her 90s, with coffee and pie topping her favorites. Back when she kept a flower garden, Catherine would bring a bouquet for the sisters and set it at their outdoor shrine.
A lot has changed in 70 years, for both Catherine and Carmel. She most misses Sister Paula Marie, OCD, who gave her glow-in-the-dark rosaries that she still uses today.
Jeanine explained that in her mother’s childhood, her family made “pilgrimages” across the Mississippi for religious events.
“That was the thing back then,” she said, then joked, “That, or the racetrack.”
But crossing the Mississippi isn’t the only pilgrimage Catherine has made: she’s been to Europe several times with family, Jeanine recounted. Catherine, her late husband and Jeanine made annual trips after Jeanine retired, and the three took turns picking destinations. Jeanine said that Rome was among her mother’s favorite, with three trips to the Eternal City. Catherine has also visited the Convent of San José in Avila, Spain, founded by St. Teresa of Avila for her Discalced Carmelites, for which the monastery in Clayton is named.
In addition to her love for Mary, Catherine also nurses an affection for the monastery in Ladue.
“I like it because I know I’m in church,” she said of the Carmelite chapel’s ornate architecture. “It’s pretty.”
She also remarked on the novena’s music, which swelled as she spoke: “It’s got a good sound to it, ain’t it?”
And for what does a woman ask Mary after 70 years of attending the same prayers?
“Happiness,” Catherine said. “Especially health,” she added, again bursting into laughter.