In putting together a few pages on our Community history there are many different stories that could be told. This account focuses on Fr. John Mary, our founder, but it is only a brief overview. For a more complete recounting of how he was led to found the Mission of Divine Mercy, you will have to read his book---which is in the process of being written.
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An Interior Visit
In 1960 Robert Foster (now Fr. John Mary) grew up a normal kid in a large Catholic family in Morgantown, West Virginia. After highschool he attended Notre Dame University. It was there that he had a profound Marian experience that would change his life.
It happened over the course of several weeks or months rather than all at once. A presence was gradually revealing itself. It was as if someone had come to visit me. But an interior visit, an experience I’d never had. I didn’t have any kind of vision or hear any words. But I knew who it was. It was Mary.
The book, “Our Lady speaks to Her beloved priests”, played a large part in this Marian experience. It impacted me in a way nothing else I’ve read has... it was not just because of the words, but because the powerful action I was experiencing within me corresponded to what was in the book. I would go into the chapel, or rather I was drawn into it, each morning and each evening and read one entry, slowly, meditating on it...
...The book also spoke of the situation of the world and of the Church. The description was realistic and clear in speaking about the corruption of faith and morals...Yet this was not in the harsh or cynical or discouraging tones of much of the conservative cultural commentary I read. It was with mercy, not animosity.
The book also spoke of the dangers of our times and the tribulation that was approaching. Warnings of much suffering. Yet without gory details to feed the imagination. And the messages radiated HOPE. We need hope so much! Beyond the tribulation, they announced a great renewal, the triumph of God and His children.
The book was a guide for me. A guide both for my spiritual life, formed by Marian consecration, and a guide for understanding what was going on in the world and in the Church: the seriousness of the threat, and the consolation of hope.
L'Arche and Pére Thomas
Impelled by these graces and sensing a vocation, he left school after completing his freshman year and went to France to work at L'Arche, a community for handicapped adults. His decision to go to L’Arche was largely due to the presence there of a very holy priest, Fr. (Pere) Thomas Phillipe. (In recent years, Pere Thomas' life has been subject to controversy over abuse allegations. See my statement addressing this controversy here.)
..I believe Pere Thomas is a saint. St. John Paul speaking of Pere Thomas said, "Today we pay a fervent tribute of gratitude to him who now lives in the “Arche of Heaven.” 1Each saint is like a manifestation of some aspect of God. Pere Thomas embodied the words of Jesus: “I am gentle and humble of heart.” He was a man of the heart. In fact he had a profound, developed reflexion on the“heart” born of what the Lord had led him to experience. Beyond our reason and artistic, imaginative sense, beyond the different roles we play, beyond our passing emotions, the heart was the core of the person, where the person was truly a person, able to share love. Where the love of God has been poured out into us and where we cry out “Abba, Father”
Meeting him was like meeting the heart of Jesus. He was a mystic who lived so united to the persons of Jesus and Mary–not as ideas or ideals, but as living persons. And he was so much a priest of the poor and the suffering. And of mercy. He was all for Jesus [and Mary and the Holy Spirit] and the poor. The great French mystic Marthe Robin said that Pere Thomas was nothing but a heart...
...Coming from a conservative background, getting to know him gave me a new perspective. He was beyond the very human liberal/conservative divide between those who want compassion and hope and those who want truth and fidelity. He was both of these, deeply so. For instance he loved the Eucharist, neither excessively attached to the outward forms, nor rejecting those forms in a search for relevance or creativity. He had a mystical love for Jesus in the Eucharist - you could see it in his face as he took the Blessed Sacrament from the Tabernacle - and brought it to the poor in a way that had nothing of formalism, but areverence of love.
1 (L'Osservatore Romano, from address on June 14, 1997)
With the Community of St. John in France
In 1981, after a year and half at L'Arche, he entered the Community of St. John (CSJ) in France. The CSJ had been founded four years earlier by Pére Thomas blood brother Pére Marie Dominique Philipe O.P. and was growing rapidly.
There was much that drew me to the CSJ: their orthodox Catholic faith, their love for the Eucharist, their devotion to our Blessed Mother, their life of contemplative prayer and recollection, their fervor in living a consecrated life and their intellectual work.
As part of his formation he would spend time at the ancient, island monastery of Lerins and later he was given permission to go to Montmorin, where the eremitical, contemplative branch was living in hermitages in the pre alps of southwestern France.
Mexico and Pére Thomas
In 1986 then Br. John Mary was asked by the superior general of Brothers of St. John to leave Montmorin and go Laredo, Texas to help found the first apostolic house of the Brothers in the Americas. In 1987, on the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, he would be ordained to Priesthood by Bishop Rene Gracida of Corpus Christi, Texas. In 1990 he would be sent to found a house in Nueva Laredo, Mexico.
I felt an unexpected resonance with the Mexican people and their culture. This resonance was so strong and deep that I sensed it was not just human. It seemed from the Holy Spirit...
...In Mexico I sensed a people of the heart, in the sense of Pere Thomas. In contrast to France which was much more of the head, which could become cold and proud. The Mexican people had suffered immensely. Economically poor. But very sensitive to people. Warm. Simple. You could sense the maternal presence of our Lady of Guadalupe in them. Not just in the devotion they have to her. But in a motherly warmth in much of their culture.
In 1991 he would be sent back to France. Unbeknownst to Fr. John Mary, Pére Thomas had just had a stroke which left him greatly diminished and affected. Pére Thomas would be sent to the novitiate where Fr. John Mary was stationed, and Fr. John Mary would be his primary care taker almost until his death.
It is hard to express this trial of obscurity and pain, interior pain more than physical pain [of this time]...But when I look back, I see that time with Pere Thomas was a divine preparation for what would happen in Monterrey.
Monterrey, Rancho Maria, and the Conception of MDM
I feel a particular connection to Monterrey. I think it has a providential role to play for our times. It certainly has been providential in my life.
In 1994 Invited by the Archbishop, Fr. John Mary and another priest of St. John were sent to Monterrey Mexico to start a priory there. There in Monterrey, at 33 years old, Fr. John Mary would have an encounter that, in his words, "all my life had been preparing me for and which would orient all the rest." [This experience will be explained fully in Fr. John Mary's book.]
In 1997, worn out physically and spiritually by his ministry and experiences in Monterrey, Fr. John Mary went for a sabbatical year to Rancho Maria, a rustic ranch in the south Texas desert used by the CSJ for silent retreats. It was there that the original members of what would become the Mission of Divine Mercy would coalesce, including Sr. Magdalene Foster, a Dominican nun who is also Fr. John Mary's blood sister.
It was during his time at Rancho Maria that Fr. John Mary began to feel that he was being called to start a new religious community.
If I wanted to follow this call, I was going to have to set off on my own, start something new myself.
I dreaded doing that. I’ve often read of founders of religious communities who had great enthusiasm and a passion for something. I, at that point, was feeling tired physically and exhausted interiorly, with all this different struggles going on. I certainly didn’t have the energy or drive to launch this.
Also, I didn't feel the grace to be starting something. I'm more of a disciple than a leader, more careful than bold. I was very reluctant and I was resisting this step. Finally I felt that if I kept resisting it, I was resisting the Lord. As I would say to Him when the road of MDM was difficult: “Remember, Lord, this was Your idea. I didn’t want to do this…”.
I decided I had to try.
It was January of 2001.
The Birth of MDM
and the "hidden life"
In November 2001 the Mission of Divine Mercy was officially born when it was received by Monsignor O'Callaghan at the Parish of Sts. Peter and Paul in New Braunfels, Texas and soon after by Archbishop Flores of San Antonio. By the grace of God and with the help of Msgr. O'Callaghan and many lay friends, the Mission of Divine Mercy was able to take root in this area.
In 2004, with the blessing of Msgr. O’Callaghan, the Community made a downpayment on 126 acres of land on the outskirts of New Braunfels. This property, Mission la Divina Misericordia, is little by little is serving as monastery, sanctuary, and retreat center.
...we sense that MDM is being called to live, in its own way, the "hidden life" of Jesus. We struggle and limp along, but we feel that the Lord is calling MDM to be a little instrument of His Mercy in the Paschal Times that our world is living. We believe that He has plans for MDM that will be fulfilled in His Time.
We often think of the true story of a priest who sensed the Blessed Mother was entrusting a special mission to him. He asked Her, "Why did you choose me? Certainly there is someone better." And She replied, "My son, I have chosen you because you are the least apt instrument; thus no one will say that this is your work... [It] must be my work alone. Through your weakness I will manifest my strength; through your nothingness I will manifest my power."