If some of you have not yet met Blessed Josaphata Hordashevska, co-foundress of the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate, it is my privilege to introduce you to a Ukrainian woman who has been likened to Mother Teresa for her service to the poor and disadvantaged, and has been called “Mother Teresa of Ukraine.” Pope John Paul II beatified Sister Josaphata on June 27, 2001, in Lviw, during his pastoral visit to Ukraine. After she was proclaimed Blessed, the Church chose November 20th , the date of her birth, as the official Blessed Josaphata Day.
Who is this woman, Blessed Josaphata Hordashevska, and why did the Church elevate her to Blessed, and on the way to sainthood?
Michaelina, later known as Sister Josaphata, was born in Lviw, Ukraine, in 1869, in the historical period when the people were poor and neglected – spiritually, culturally and morally. They mostly worked for foreign landowners and had little time for their families. Michaelina’s parents were devout Christians from whom she received a deep life of prayer. Her spiritual director, Father Jeremiah Lomnytsky, OSBM, guided her to a deep spiritual life and she wished to give her life to the Lord as a religious. From this point on, her story is very unique, and through unusual circumstances the Lord Himself chose her to be the Co-foundress of a new and very active religious congregation, Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate.
In St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we read: “Before the world was made, God chose us and claimed us as His own to fulfill His hidden plan as from the beginning, to be holy and to live through love in His presence, for His own kind purposes”.
I would now like to share with you Blessed Josaphata’s own unique story and how she fulfilled God’s hidden plan for God’s own purposes.
Father Jeremiah, a zealous young Basilian priest, gave many missions in Ukraine. After each mission, he was sorry there were no Ukrainian Sisters to stay on at the parish and help the people. As we said earlier, they were in need of much help. The missionary saw how much the Polish Sisters were doing for their people, and he prayed that God would help our people in their need.
On one of his missions, in the parish of Zhuzhel, a great and wonderful surprise awaited him. The retiring pastor Father Kyrylo Seletsky brought to him 7 young women from within the parish who wanted to enter religious life. But the only Sisters in Ukraine at that time were the Basilian Nuns who were cloistered and did not work directly among the people. They required a large dowry or higher education to enter. The Zhuzhel girls could not afford either. As Father Jeremiah and the pastor wondered what to do next, one of the girls asked: “And if a poor girl wants to serve God, there is no place for her?” For Father Jeremiah, this remark was the sign from God that the moment had come to start a new active Congregation of Sisters for our Church. Because he was her spiritual director, he felt that Michaelina Hordashevska would be a good leader for the new group of Sisters. He asked her, and after much prayer she gave her consent, much like the Blessed Mother who had said: “I am a servant of the Lord. I am ready to serve where I am needed.”
To prepare her for this new responsibility of leading and training a group of young women for religious life, Father Jeremiah sent Michaelina to the Felician Sisters so she could observe their life and receive instructions from them. When she was ready, she designed a habit for the new Sisters Servants – a blue one in honour of the Blessed Mother – and on August 24, 1892, she was clothed in it, taking the religious name of Sister Josaphata. That same day she travelled to Zhuzhel to meet the 7 young women who were waiting for her with great excitement.
On August 27th, the Feast of the Assumption, they were all consecrated to God in a touching ceremony in the Church in Zhuzhel. In our Chronicles we have a vivid description of the day!
“The village church was filled to overflowing with such a large crowd of faithful. The newly established community brought new life to the people. After solemn vespers, the priest turned to the people and asked, “Do you give these precious flowers, your daughters, to God?” Unanimously, through tears, they replied, “We do!” From that day the people called them “Children of God.” The Congregation of the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate was born!
The parishioners in procession led them to a simple and poor home where the first new Sisters were to live. It had a table and two benches, 10 soup plates and 10 tablespoons…and little else. The beds folded away for the day.
When the people had left, the Sisters thanked God for this day and in great joy began their first meal. The table was lit by a candle borrowed from the sacristy. The pastor’s sister brought them pieces of chicken and a loaf of bread. Josaphata reverently took the loaf of bread into her hands, raised it to heaven, and broke it into pieces for each one of them. They were all reminded of the scene at the Last Supper when Jesus distributed pieces of life-giving bread to his first followers. Everyone said they had never felt such peace and joy as that evening. The next morning these first Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate officially began their life of prayer and service to their people. Their commitment was simple – “to educate and ennoble the heart of the people and to serve where the need was the greatest.” This became their motto or what we call – their charism.
The new Sisters lost no time beginning their mission. Josaphata and her group of young Sisters to which over the years many other young women were called by the Lord, provided day care in their own homes for hundreds of young children whose parents were at work. Here they kept them safe, nourished, and instructed in catechism. The parents were deeply grateful, and there was order in the villages. A story was repeated how earlier some children who were unsupervised on the streets, had in their play accidently set fire to a whole village.
Josaphata was especially concerned about the young women for, as she said, “On the upbringing of our women and mothers will depend the future of the nation.” The poor and the sick were also great priorities for Josaphata. Holding an open book on herbal medicine in her hand, she and her Sisters walked the meadows and forests gathering medicinal plants to cure the ills of the impoverished people. One day Josaphata was told that a poor woman was living in a barn not far from their home. She immediately found her and carried her most of the way to the Sisters’ home. There were no extra beds so Josaphata gave up her own bed and she herself slept on the floor. The woman, whose frail body was covered with sores, was bathed and cared for by Josaphata until some time later she peacefully died.
By their 10th anniversary, in 1902, 120 young women had joined them in Ukraine. That same year Josaphata herself chose four young Sisters Servants to cross the Atlantic to serve our pioneers in Canada. They began their mission in Alberta; then when many young Canadian women joined them, and a few more Sisters arrived from Ukraine, they spread their services right across Canada, from Nova Scotia to British Columbia. We have all seen their work and dedication – in schools, hospitals and care homes, orphanages, catechetics, publications, parish work, iconography, prison ministry, chanceries, and even foreign missions like Lourdes or seminaries in Rome, and so on. Many Canadian Sisters helped in Ukraine when our Church regained freedom.
Today our Sisters are on mission in 17 countries – in Ukraine, in North and South America, in Australia, in Europe and in Asia, praying and serving our people and others in need of their care.
In 1982 the mortal remains of Josaphata were removed from the cemetery in Chervonohrad where she had been buried after her death at the age of 49 years in 1919, and transferred to the Sisters Servants Generalate in Rome where they are today venerated by many visitors, local and international. Consequently, devotion to Blessed Josaphata has spread throughout the world – as far as Egypt, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Africa, and recently to Nazareth. Prayer cards and relics are widely requested – all our bishops and many priests who have her as their patroness have been given her relics.
Letters of gratitude arrive every day at the Sisters’ homes for graces received through the intercession of Blessed Josaphata. As in her life she performed ordinary tasks in an extraordinary way – to fulfill God’s will in all – so now in heaven, she intercedes for every request from every corner of the world and in every need, as we see in the following examples. In USA a driver who invoked Josaphata’s protection before each trip escaped unhurt from a terrible car accident; in Ukraine a reconciliation within a family happened very quickly after a novena for her help; in Eastern Canada a distressed business man and his wife prayed to the very last day to Josaphata and were saved from bankruptcy within the last hour before closure; in Poland a malignant growth on a Sister’s face which for 20 years no doctor wanted to remove, after prayer to Josaphata, disappeared in one week; in Winnipeg a child born with cerebral digenesis recovered completely after holding the relic during prayer to Josaphata; a dairy farmer who prayed and his cow’s eye healed from cancer; a young married woman, unable to carry an unborn child to birth, after conceiving again and fearing yet another miscarriage, prayed to Josaphata, carried the child to term, and named her perfectly healthy little girl, Josaphata. These and many, many more. Perhaps a letter from a bishop in England best reveals the spirit of Blessed Josaphata. He wrote: “Please send me a small relic of Blessed Josaphata for my cathedral. I have read her biography, and have been strongly impressed by her genuine simplicity and her everyday practice of virtue. I think we should acquaint our faithful with such everyday saints.”
Blessed Josaphata is visiting us today. She extends her helping hands on which is a small but powerful relic, and her heart is open to all our requests. She has now travelled to all our parishes in Argentina, Brazil and USA, listening to the prayers of the people, and now awaits ours. With every plane trip, bus or train ride, car or walking visit, she leaves us her gifts of love, understanding, and visible help. Her legacy was recorded for us by her earliest biographer who wrote: “Wherever there beat a human heart that needed consolation and help, she was there.”
Blessed Josaphata, pray for us!”