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The portrait of Blessed Clelia Merloni at her Mass of Beatification on Nov. 3 at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome.
The portrait of Blessed Clelia Merloni at her Mass of Beatification on Nov. 3 at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome.

Apostles of the Sacred Heart celebrate beatification of foundress

Mainstays in The Hill neighborhood of St. Louis for the better part of the 20th century, the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus ventured to Rome in early November and celebrated the beatification of their foundress.

Mother Clelia Merloni, who founded the congregation in 1894, officially became Blessed Clelia Merloni in the Mass of Beatification on Nov. 3 at the Basilica of St. John Lateran.

A congregation of about 4,000 filled the church, including three sisters missioned to St. Louis and a St. Louis native who provided commentary for EWTN.

“It was really powerful for me to be asked to do that,” Sister Elizabeth Doyle, ASCJ, said from Rome. The St. Louisan teaches theology and is a campus minister at Sacred Heart Academy in Hamden, Conn. Her ability to speak Italian made her a natural to be “the primary way for people in the United States to understand what was happening at the beatification Mass,” which was in Italian.

Similar to viewers watching at home in the U.S., Sister Elizabeth was watching remotely — and commentating — at the EWTN studios at the Vatican. Though not in attendance at St. John Lateran, she described it as “really beautiful to watch the Mass.”

The most beautiful part? Sharing it with her sister Apostles.

“Following the live stream, I could see the faces of so many of our sisters,” Sister Elizabeth said. “I had a little taste of their personal experiences by being able to watch this.”

In turn, the Apostles shared the joy of their foundress’ beatification with lay people from around the world joining them at the beatification Mass.

“The basilica was just jammed; there were so many lay people who have been touched by our congregation, from Brazil, Albania, Switzerland the United States … from all over,” said Sister Rosemary Buttice, ASCJ, pastoral associate at St. Joseph Parish in Imperial. “It was very moving that so many lay people know Mother Clelia and love her.”

With more than 1,000 sisters in 15 countries, the congregation began serving Italian immigrants in the United States in 1902, coming to St. Louis in 1913. Initially, they served at Our Lady Help of Christians Parish in downtown and moved on to The Hill in the early 1940s, building Sacred Heart Villa and teaching at St. Ambrose School. They also founded Cor Jesu Academy in the Sacred Heart building in 1956, then built and moved into a new facility in Affton for the all-girls high school in 1965.

In addition to The Hill and Cor Jesu, the sisters also minister at Queen of Apostles Center and in St. Joseph Parish and School in Imperial, St. Ann Parish and School in Normandy, and Mercy South Hospital in south St. Louis County.

Sister Rosemary also was moved when Pope Francis’ proclamation about Mother Clelia’s beatification was read, then when a wall-size portrait of her was unveiled next to the altar. Sister Bridget Smith, ACSJ, was struck by the “thunderous applause” that accompanied the unveiling.

“It got louder and louder as the veil came down,” marveled Sister Bridget, who teaches kindergartners at Sacred Heart Villa. “You could just feel the vibration off the walls and ceilings; it permeated each of us … It brought me to tears.”

In addition to the portrait, Blessed Clelia’s earthly remains, which were found to be incorrupt, were displayed in a glass enclosure with a wax mask depicting her face. Although Blessed Clelia died in 1930, the Apostles don’t have a picture of her, so the mask was created using precise measurements of her facial bone structure and unique features.

The Apostles and the Vatican also exchanged first-class relics of Blessed Clelia. Each of the Apostles’ seven houses around the world received a first-class relic.

Though her earthly remains and relics may demonstrate for some the finality of physical life, Blessed Clelia lives on in the heavenly realm, with the miracle required for beatification already credited to her intercession.

“Our foundress belongs to the Church now,” said Sister Maureen Martin, ASCJ. “The whole Church can ask for her intercession; that is very, very touching.”

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