Catholic Herald staff
Barbara Gagliardi started her two-year term as president of the Superior Diocesan Council of Catholic Women with a desire to unite the women across Northwest Wisconsin in prayer for priests. Gagliardi received support in September from the board of directors to launch a campaign promoting the Seven Sisters Apostolate assisted by her core team of commissioners.
Founded in 2010 in the Twin Cities by Janette Howe, the Seven Sisters Apostolate offers a simple structure of seven women united in prayer for one specific priest. The goal of the Seven Sisters Apostolate is “that our prayers may find the heart of every priest and bishop.” The apostolate is described as “a call to strengthen the Church by ensuring that a Holy Hour is prayed each day of the week for the sole intention of a specific priest or bishop — a “holy wasting” (cf. Mt. 26:10) or lavishing of prayer for his “deeper conformity to Christ.”
Gagliardi knew of the apostolate through her own commitment as a Seven Sister, praying for her pastor at St. Patrick’s in Hudson.
“Hold the man up in prayer,” Gagliardi said, with hands outstretched above her head, sharing her understanding of the apostolate with the Catholic Herald. Gagliardi described the scene from Disney’s The Lion King in which the newborn lion prince is anointed and dramatically lifted up before the kingdom he is destined to lead and protect.
When Gagliardi took office, there were six active Seven Sisters groups in the Diocese of Superior. One year later, there are 36 active groups registered with the apostolate and three more in the process of forming. Both active and retired priests are in their prayers.
In fall 2016, promotional materials for the Seven Sisters Apostolate were distributed and presented throughout the deaneries and parish councils. Early this year, Amy Geisler of Bruce, diocesan Service Commissioner, began following up with personal phone calls.
With conviction and perseverance, Geisler spent hours and hours over numerous months to personally explain the apostolate and invite women to start groups. “There was a lot of work because you call and you leave a message; and you wait a couple weeks and you call and you leave another message. And then you wait a couple weeks and you call again or you send an email. And finally you get a hold of somebody.”
She clarified, “it wasn’t that people were ignoring me, but everyone’s busy.”
She stressed the importance of personally reaching out, explaining and answering questions, encouraging when difficulties were encountered. Referencing Kathleen Beckman’s book Praying for Priests, Geisler said, “The burdens and crosses that our priests carry are so great that they have to have our prayers. We have to lift them up. It is our privilege and our obligation to hold these priests up in prayer because they are the ones that bring us the Eucharist.”
Geisler credits the tremendous success of the effort to perseverance in the personal invitation, and to intercessory prayer. She said, “Every day I pray for the apostolates and for those that need more women. I invoke the Seven Sisters’ patrons, the Madonna of the Grapes, St. John Vianney and St. Margaret Clitherow.”
Esther St. Catherine of Hayward was also heavily involved with the SDCCW’s efforts to establish as many groups as possible. She met founder Janette Howe while taking some classes in the Twin Cities before the Seven Sisters Apostolate was even founded. “During a conversation in 2013, she told me about the apostolate. My initial reaction was that it sounded like a wonderful program, but it seemed that everyone I knew was already overextended.”
St. Catherine was asked to pray about it and once she did, names she hadn’t thought of started coming to her. She started contacting them and “every single person, except one, said yes. If they couldn’t be a regular, they wanted to be a sub. It was the easiest thing I have ever done.”
Her group began praying in for Fr. Phil Juza in October 2013. And when Fr. Juza was reassigned to Medford, St. Catherine took the initiative to contact women in that parish and get the program started there. The Seven Sisters group in Hayward then began praying for their new pastor, Fr. Gerard Willger.
“It has been a great privilege to pray a weekly holy hour for these priests,” St. Catherine commented. “There is no better gift to give to our priests than our prayers.”
In principle, a Seven Sisters Apostolate is formed of women in the same parish or cluster, praying for their assigned pastor. In late 2016, St. Catherine accepted the invitation to become anchoress, or coordinator, for a Seven Sisters group for Bishop James P. Powers.
Gagliardi wanted to offer the bishop a group formed of SDCCW board members. With St. Catherine’s understanding of the apostolate, she knew when a bishop was prayed for, Seven Sisters sets a goal of three groups of seven women. While priests are being prayed for by one woman one hour a day, a bishop, with the scope and responsibility of his mission, is offered three hours by three women each day. By August of 2017, all 21 hours – three each day – were being covered by committed women from across the Diocese of Superior.
Both Geisler and St. Catherine have encountered reluctance, not to praying for priests, but to the structured commitment and what it entails. There is a stipulation that the holy hour be prayed before the Blessed Sacrament. Various restrictions present themselves for many to follow that; distance in some cases and winter driving conditions. There are also many churches, especially in rural communities, that are only open for weekend masses.
In response to these challenges, Geisler has received some information regarding online adoration where one can participate in Eucharistic adoration via a livestream. She understands that not having an internet connection is also a reality for some. And she certainly encourages all she speaks to to pray for their priests, whether or not they are able to formally commit with Seven Sisters.
However, women interested and able to participate are encouraged to contact Geisler to be placed in a group needing adorers. She has witnessed “beautiful camaraderie” in the desire to cover each active and retired priest with prayer.
One of the priests receiving the gift of these holy hours is Fr. Gerald Hagen, pastor of the Phillips-Catawba-Prentice cluster.
“They just kind of surprised me; some of the women of the parish told me that they had agreed to participate. They had heard about it, and were intrigued by it. Seven women agreed to each pray an hour for me each day. I was really struck by that,” he said.
Fr. Hagen was seriously injured in a hunting accident six years ago. With broken shoulders and his pelvis broken in two places, he spent 10 days in the hospital and then two weeks rehabilitating in a nursing home. He said, “what really helped pull me through it was the power of people praying for me. I was really very very empowered by that.
“This is another example of that. How the power of prayer helps hold me up, helps support me, helps me draw strength from the Lord to do what I’ve been called to do.” Fr. Hagen sees this apostolate as a “really a powerful witness of the power of prayer and the importance supporting each other. I can’t say enough how grateful I am to have that prayer support that helps me to carry out my daily work as a priest.”
Fr. Hagen iterated that his experience as the recipient of a Seven Sisters Apostolate has been “very powerful and very tangible.
“Actually it’s motivated me to spend more time in front of the Blessed Sacrament myself. I’ve been trying to make that a part of my practice, hoping in some small way to return the favor of their prayers.”
Amy Geisler may be contacted at 715-868-2833 or ten.l1544908417etecu1544908417rb@ke1544908417ercff1544908417ub1544908417. More information is available at sevensistersapostolate.org.