COVINGTON, Ky. - A funny thing happened when Mother Seraphina and her small group of nuns were setting up a mission at Route 17 and Madison Avenue in Covington.
They never expected to feed up to 1,100 families a day, as they do now, or provide diapers to some 1,600 babies.
But the Lord works in mysterious ways, and Mother Seraphina believes God inspired these Franciscan Daughters of Mary to change their business model.
“When we first opened the Rose Garden Home Mission, we intended to have just a pregnancy center – you know, helping moms and babies in all sorts of ways,” Mother Seraphina told 9 On Your Side reporter Tony Mirones. “But even before the mission opened, while we were still putting paint on the walls, people started dropping food off.
“I guess they figured because we’re Franciscan we must be feeding the poor. We just took that to understand that God was saying, ‘Feed the people.’ “
Not that the nuns were ready to abandon their plans right away.
“But the food kept coming,” Mother Seraphina said. “We only solicited twice for food at the urging of some of our benefactors. You know, you have to call these people, and both times it came to nothing. We just thought God was saying, ‘I will provide.’ And he has.”
A day after a champion of the poor, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, was elected pope, 9 On Your Side visited Rose Garden Home Mission and learned about the work of these sisters, who have taken a vow of poverty.
With the help of volunteers, the sisters collect donations of money, food and clothing and give everything to the poor. That’s everything - even the clothes off their backs, Mother Seraphina said.
“In our community, everything we have belongs to the poor. We just use what we need, but if (the poor) need it more than we do, we give it to them. So we've regularly given away our lunches, our clothing, our shoes, our furniture, our appliances, even our beds, and we just rely on God to provide it again,” she said.
Living with a vow of poverty is not as hard for them as you might think, Mother Seraphina said.
“We take vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and in our community which is unique, the Franciscan Daughters of Mary, we take a vow to uphold the dignity of every human person from the moment of conception until natural death.
"The vow of poverty is probably the most radical of all the vows if you are on the outside looking in,” said Mother Seraphina. “On the inside looking out, it’s a very freeing vow because I just have to rely on God to provide everything.”
The hardest part, she said, is not knowing what they’re going to eat.
“Whatever is donated - that’s what we eat. We try to maintain a balance, so if the Lord has given us the means we’ll buy nutritional things if we need it. But we just rely on the things God has given us so we can be free to give everything to the poor. It’s difficult to know from one day to the next what there’s going to be. But we just rely on God,” she said.
“It helps us to trust him more. And he’s never undone his generosity. The more generous we are with our trust, the more he seems to pour upon us all his blessings and graces.”
Perhaps to prove her point, Mother Seraphina told a story about a man who regularly comes into the mission for help.
“He said, ‘Sister, I want to see God work in MY life.' He came in with a lady and he said, ‘But help her first.’
“Well, she needed some diapers and she needed a number 6 diaper, which is a rarity around here because babies get big really fast and they stay in big diapers for a very long time, so we run out of diapers a lot … There was one pack of size 6 diapers left and this lady got them, and he says, ‘I need two packages of number 6 diapers!’ And so Sister, not to disappoint him, says, ‘Well, let me look.’ She knew there was nothing on the shelf, but when she went back there, there were two packages sitting right in the middle of the shelf.
“Sister says, ‘God’s working in your life.” And he says, ‘Yeah.” And that was because of his prayer, not because of anything we did.”
Mother Seraphina said she prayed that the cardinals would elect a pope who served the poor and well as God – and she feels her prayers were answered this week when Bergoglio became Pope Francis.
She said she was working at the mission and heard the news when one of the volunteers got a text.
“One of our volunteers had a Pope Alarm. He said, ‘We got white smoke!’ “
She said everyone stopped and watched the drama unfold on a computer screen.
“I think we just cried. I was just so moved with gratitude to the Holy Spirit that he gave us a man with a heart like Jesus,” she said.
“We prayed every day since we heard Pope Benedict was going to be retiring. We just prayed for a holy cardinal … someone who's humble and has a heart like Jesus. So anybody who fit that bill would have been great. But it’s special for a Franciscan to know that he took the name of Francis. You know all that goes into that.
"St. Francis, when got his commission from God, he was praying