Catholic Herald Staff
“Jesus, I trust in you.”
Those are the words beneath the Divine Mercy image of Jesus he instructed St. Faustina to have painted.
They are also the words most associated with the Divine Mercy devotion, and the chaplet’s underlying theme imploring God’s mercy, “for the sake of his sorrowful passion.”
They are not necessarily words that bring to mind therapy horses and dogs, cognitive exercises and psycho-social healing.
Yet all of those realities are encompassed in the vision one Franciscan nun has for founding a congregation dedicated to the work of Divine Mercy, as revealed in the “Diary of Sr. Maria Faustina Kowalska.”
That Franciscan is Sr. Mary Veronica Fitch. A petite nun dressed in full white habit with waist-length red veil, her curiosity about the human person and love for animals – and learning about God through them – did not disappear when she entered a cloistered monastery.
She entered the Illinois cloister not having found the congregation she felt called to, the one she had read about in St. Faustina’s diary. Through much discernment and fidelity, honesty with herself and her superiors, that same love and curiosity led her to attempt to make that religious community a reality.
“Our focus is not on the devotion to Divine Mercy – it’s really about living mercy in our daily lives,” she declared.
“A lot of people spread the devotion,” which she applauds, but her desire is to “help people get tools so that they can live mercy,” and through love bring about the reconciliation between heaven and earth the Lord promised to St. Faustina.
Those tools include compassion and unconditional forgiveness, mercy as a way towards holiness.
“One soul reaching sanctity has huge effects for the world,” she emphasized. “If we really work at living the Gospel, wow, we can bring a lot of people with us.”
The “us” she speaks of includes women religious, lay Catholics and those inspired by a personal sense that they can play a unique role in salvation history, “each of us in our own calling.”
One of Sr. Mary Veronica’s callings is working with people – “reconciling people’s relationships with themselves, with others and with God” – much of it through working with animals.
“Animals are very healing,” Fitch said.
“God gave us animals as helpmates,” she added, “They are so effective at reaching hearts, and reaching people in ways often when people are too frightened or feel threatened by other people. Working with the animals can be the avenue to heal human relationships as well.”
Fitch is inspired by a sense of integrating the application of Divine Mercy, a relatively new devotion in the church, with centuries-old Franciscan spirituality, teachings of other great saints and contemporary psychology trends and therapy models.
Her ideas come from personal and family experience as much as from the traditions she lived in the cloister.
Prior to religious life, Fitch’s work experience included jobs at a dude ranch and a veterinary clinic, teaching pet care classes and working with neighborhood dogs as well as breeding, training and showing horses with her parents on the family’s Minnesota farm.
“We tried to live the Gospel through all this,” she said speaking of horse partnering classes and free monthly teaching offered at her parents’ farm.
They found the work with horses was both therapeutic and evangelistic. It was an effective and excellent medium for healing and bringing people closer to God.
“Four marriages were fixed, other people got closer to God and there were conversions and reversions to the Catholic faith,” Fitch said.
The “horse crazy” young woman even majored in equine studies in college, but was willing to give up the horses and dogs to follow the call she felt toward religious life.
She struggled to find the community where she belonged, one envisioned from her reading and reflecting on the diary of St. Faustina. Eventually joining a cloistered convent, she was with that community until 2016, when she received permission to “ex-claustrate” for a period to attempt the foundation.
Sr. Mary Veronica said while many have tried to found the order Jesus asked for, none have done so with the three-aspect request found in the diary.
“Otherwise, Rome wouldn’t have given me permission to leave the cloister,” she affirmed, “they would’ve told me to join that (order).”
Welcomed by Bishop William Callahan to come to the Diocese of La Crosse, Sr. Mary Veronica is currently based in the Marshfield area. The connection was made with the help of Fitch’s spiritual director, who knew the bishop, accompanied by a request from the nun’s abbess.
The Franciscan Association of Divine Mercy, Inc. is the nonprofit Fitch established to develop and found this Catholic women’s congregation of cloistered contemplative nuns. The congregation would include two additional “aspects,” or forms of association.
The second comprised of both lay men and women as well as apostolic women religious who are dedicated to prayer, acts of mercy, living God’s merciful love and defending the souls of children from evil; and third, any person wanting to devote themselves to prayer and simple daily deeds of mercy.
The active women religious would also be responsible for the lay members’ formation and spirituality resource support.
The laity play an important role in the mission as, in Fitch’s words, “if lay people work on those things and reconcile with others they’ve had difficulties with, you’re going to affect a lot of people.”
While Sr. Mary Veronica has yet to receive formal recognition for the three-part community – which is needed first at the diocesan level before it moves on to Rome – she has support to progress with the foundation.
The group is recognized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as a nonprofit and will be listed in the next directory. They have not yet received official approval as a religious congregation or private association, Fitch clarified during a daytime teaching session in mid-March, but “we have Bishop Callahan’s welcome to try to begin this Divine Mercy community.”
As she waits, she just keeps moving forward.
One literal, physical move came about last spring through the very generous freewill donation of a benefactor whose family had benefitted from the Franciscan nun’s ministry.
A property just east of Marshfield was donated that included almost everything Sr. Mary Veronica had in mind – a barn, outdoor buildings, space well-suited for animal therapy and acreage where people can have contact with nature; a house easily adapted as the monastery, with room for a dedicated chapel and areas for teaching, therapy, spiritual direction and meetings; and in the house, separate living quarters for herself and the community’s two aspirants.
She saw God’s handiwork in the timing of the move, which took place on the eve of Corpus Christi. The first Mass was celebrated at the farm June 29, feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.
A large statue of Mary highlights the Marian connection At Merciful Heart of Jesus Farm.
The aspiring foundress offers formation to more than 160 laypeople who are connected to her work in and around Marshfield and Milwaukee.
Spirituality teaching sessions follow a five-year formation cycle, open to anyone, available both in person at the farm and via the community’s Facebook page.
The formation she offers integrates aspects of spirituality, psychology and neuroscience – a blend of virtues and practices from some of the church’s most renowned saints and social scientists.
During a mid-March formation session, Sr. Mary Veronica instructed from a podium and made notes on a white board. She affirmed, “Even if we are on the path to heaven, we are profoundly in need of conversion.”
She encouraged discussion of how to apply mercy daily, for continued personal growth and as instruments of mercy and healing for others.
The nun sees two particular obstacles to personal growth and relational health – cognitive and emotional deficits.
Cognitive deficits – some of which would not be considered learning disabilities, Sr. Mary Veronica commented – can compound and cause small ruptures in relationships, which can “snowball into increasingly impactful behaviors and choices.”
Citing statistics that 40 to 80 percent of prison inmates display some or multiple of these cognitive defects, the sister acknowledged how the “terrifically sad tragedy” of some correctable tendencies “can really make or break someone’s life.”
Sr. Mary Veronica has experience with methods developed by Canadian author Barbara Arrowsmith Young, whose brain strengthening exercises can improve cognitive function and help overcome deficits and learning difficulties.
Although criticized by some for lack of peer-reviewed evidence, the author and speaker, who has a master’s in applied psychology, continues to develop programs for those with learning difficulties for Catholic, private and public schools and has been recognized in Canada for her innovation in education.
Emotional deficits, particularly known as “Emotional Deprivation Disorder,” were the subject of research and treatment undertaken by Danish Catholic psychiatrist Dr. Conrad Baars. Baars studied the human emotional life and developed an approach that integrated psychology with spirituality and a model of practicing psychiatry based on St. Thomas Aquinas’ theology.
Sr. Mary Veronica holds firm to an integrative and holistic approach, where spirituality and psychology work in harmony.
“If you want to find reasons to be merciful to someone, learn about the human being,” she said, noting this includes an understanding of neuroscience, emotions and psychology, trauma and cognitive elements.
“God doesn’t want us to only reconcile with each other,” she added. “He wants to bring all things into one in him. All things.”
That includes nature and the animals – united in love and respect for God’s creation.
“Yes, God is our goal, but in him everything continues in being and he loves everything that exists,” she affirmed. “And if I don’t, I am compartmentalizing.”
Compartmentalizing applies internally to a person, as well. Sr. Mary Veronica shared the best piece of advice in her work. It came from the horse trainer she is working with to train the wild mustangs at the farm.
“All learning is emotional – you have to fix the emotions first.”
The sister explained that positive reinforcement is the basis for the animal therapy program. When working with horses, she teaches without force.
“The horses have a choice … they are totally free,” she said and spoke of the key element as the trainer to observe and respond to what the animal expresses.
She explained there are boundaries and thresholds, but that trust is learned when the horse experiences the trainer listening and responding as it communicates.
The same, she said “goes into working with children … and applies to people and their thresholds and boundaries.”
Noting the prevalent punishment-based methods, Fitch praised the “groundbreaking” approach to discipline and training, which works through positive reinforcement and rewards.
“We need to learn not to force people,” she said. “It’s a one-step-at-a-time process.”
Sr. Mary Veronica expounded, “If the horse is afraid of me, I cannot teach it,” which she says can be applied to human relationships.
“Love should be the basis,” she added.
She said the more she learns, the better she can work with people – with affirmation, honesty, cooperation and engagement. This applies as well to one’s personal conversion and spiritual work – if the trainer (or spiritual guide, parent, etc.) isn’t themselves aligned, they are not going to be as effective leading another.
The nun’s dream “would be to offer it all for free,” so that therapies – effective, but also expensive – are not out of reach for those who might benefit from them.
For now, Sr. Mary Veronica can only take one step at a time. She recently developed a Facebook page where she live-streams teaching sessions, prayer and meditations.
She waits, and she is patient.
“If I didn’t have such good assurances that everyone thinks it is God’s will, I’d be more worried, but right now it’s a matter of waiting – so I wait.”
More information about the Franciscan Association of Divine Mercy can be found at www.faofdivinemercy.org and on Facebook under Merciful Heart of Jesus Farm in Marshfield.