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For 125 years, Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart in Towson, have followed the call

Heart touching heart, one person at a time, the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart, headquartered since the 1920s in West Towson, have been bringing the Word of God to people for 125 years.

The first sisters reached out to black children in post-Civil War America. Since then they have continued to reach out to those in need: the hearing-impaired, women seeking asylum, the homeless, anyone thirsting for the gospel.

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Sister Julianne Hau continues in the congregation's tradition as a pastoral associate at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Cockeysville, where she has coordinated the parish's outreach efforts for more than two years.

Locally, the parish has offered English language sessions to the growing Hispanic population and a Bereavement Support Group supports those in mourning. During Lent, weekly soup suppers bring parishioners together.

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"It was a way of bonding and a way of doing something meaningful during Lent," Hau said.

Most of Hau's work, however, hearkens back to the origins of the Mission Helpers, ministering to those in need.

As pastoral associate, Hau coordinates the food pantry and the Good Samaritan Committee, which provides grants to individuals and organizations. She organizes volunteers who make lunch once a month at My Sister's Place or Sarah's Hope shelters or provide casseroles for Our Daily Bread, all in Baltimore, or who work around the area with Habitat for Humanity.

"I think it helps them get closer to God and it helps me get closer to God," she said.

The parish helps out needy parishioners at Transfiguration Catholic Community in southwest Baltimore, at Christmastime with its Adopt-a-Family program. "We've been able to reach out to over 300 people in the last two years," said Hau, a Mission Helper for 28 years.

Now the Mission Helpers are in the midst of a year-long celebration of 125 years of ministry.

They kicked off the quasquicentennial celebration with Mass last October. More recently, their annual crab feast held at Towson's American Legion Hall in late June sold out.

Two major events will be held this fall.

Archbishop William Lori and Bishop William Newman, will celebrate Mass for the sisters and the community at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, on Oct. 10 at 5 p.m. A reception is planned to take place afterward at the Parish Center.

A week prior, on Oct. 3, the Mission Helpers host their annual flea market at the Mission Helpers Center at 1001 West. Joppa Road, from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Then an anniversary concert featuring the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's OrchKids and Catonsville High School's Steel Band, is set for Saturday, Nov. 7, at 2 p.m. at Notre Dame Preparatory School. Proceeds will be split between the two musical groups. (For tickets, go to www.missionhelpers.org.)

"That's our way of giving back to the people," said Sister Loretta Cornell, president of the congregation whose sisters minister from Baltimore to Arizona, as well as in Puerto Rico and Venezuela.

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Begun on the church steps

The Mission Helpers began in Baltimore in 1890 when Mary Frances Cunningham was dismayed that the black children in her southwest Baltimore neighborhood could not participate in religious education classes at St. Martin's Church.

Cunningham was persistent in her desire for religious life. Rebuffed by her pastor, she went to Cardinal James Gibbons, who supported her efforts. She organized classes for the children, first on the church steps and then in the basement. Gibbons backed her work and supported her desire to form a religious congregation of women, according to the congregation's history.

"She could feel her heart being pulled to help others," said Cornell.

The Mission Helpers opened their convent on Biddle Street and from there ministered to the poor, neglected and disabled. Among the programs they opened were a day care center, a school for the deaf, an industrial school and a laundry.

In 1922, they purchased the Boyce mansion from the Deford family on the land where they are now on Joppa Road. They sold part of their land in around 1981 to the Blakehurst senior community and built a new motherhouse next door.

The order, once known as the Tan Sisters for their tan habits, is different from other religious congregations. They've never been cloistered, living separate from the rest of society in prayer and work. They're not tied to specific parishes, schools or colleges.

Instead, each sister finds her own calling, whether among the poor, in schools or hospitals or parishes, or with groups on the edges of society, such as abused women or special-needs children.

"That's what I like about the Mission Helpers," Hau said. "We can have a variety of jobs."

Hau has served parishes in North Carolina and Texas. She spent 13 years at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in East Baltimore. She's been a campus minister and worked at a New York nursing home serving AIDS patients.

Like her fellow Mission Helpers, Hau goes where she can help the most. "We're always adapting," she said.

"Even though we're small, the Mission Helpers have made a big contribution to the church," Hau said.

In their early days, the Mission Helpers founded an industrial school for black women and children, and another in West Baltimore for deaf children.

The sisters go wherever they feel they are called. They are spiritual advisers, college teachers, missionaries in Puerto Rico, parish administrators.

The Adaptive Way

Perhaps, the Mission Helpers have touched most people by their work in religious education. Using their own "Adaptive Way," the sisters have taught children, their parents and adult teachers.

The goal is to teach religion in a way that's appropriate to a child's age, according to Sister Joanne Frey, a Mission Helper since 1946. Instead of rote memorization, children are introduced to the Bible through stories, songs and activities that they can understand, she said.

The methodology was the brainchild of Sister Rosalia Walsh, a Mission Helper studying child psychology. "She tried to make religion applicable to the ones she was teaching," Frey said.

Frey, who lives at The Villa on Bellona Avenue, recalled her most famous student, Caroline Kennedy, daughter of President John F. Kennedy, whom she taught in 1963. Frey was working for the Archdiocese of Washington when First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy requested a teacher for religion classes for a small group of first-graders, including her daughter. She recalled Mrs. Kennedy staying for that first class and asking to take home the picture of creation Caroline had drawn. After the Kennedys moved to New York following the president's assassination, Frey was invited to Caroline's first communion.

The Adaptive Way has been taught all over the countryand around the world, she said.

"We were not only teaching the children but also the adults," Frey said. Classes were offered for parents to help their children — and training programs helped religion teachers learn the program. Frey remembers teaching in a Dallas program for 75 religion teachers.

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"Bishops caught on that the Mission Helpers' way of teaching religion was going to be popular around the country," she said.

Those teachers then traveled to other places, taking the methodology with them. "They started schools of religion all over the world, actually," Frey said.

"Part of our [charisma] is to empower the people," said Cornell. "They took over and they've done a great job."

Sister Mariel Ann Rafferty spent many years working in rural areas and recalled long days of traveling between remote parishes. The congregation secretary for the leadership team at the Mission Helpers Center, she worked in West Virginia for 20 years. "Much of my work was in the formation of catechists, teaching them how to teach religion," she said.

She would drive up to 50 miles between parishes. "It was challenging. You'd come home from one overnight mission and then pack up your bags for the next mission," Rafferty said.

Yet it was fulfilling, too, Rafferty said. She taught laymen and women how to teach religion, helped poor residents get aid, provided for needy children at Christmas, visit the sick, counseled couples whose marriages were in trouble and bring communion. "That was all part of our ministry," she said.

She often went door-to-door, looking for Catholics, inviting them to church. "Many times people indicated they were waiting for someone to invite them back to the church," she said.

Because of the sisters' ministry at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Philadelphia, parishioners still visit the sisters every September for prayer, lunch and lots of conversation as they have since 1977.

"We never forget them and they never forget us," said Sandy Dawes, a parishioner who organizes the annual busload of fall visitors.

"Those sisters were so good," she said. They taught in the school and religious education program — and helped children and families in need. "Parishioners are just very fond of the sisters," she said. "They're true role models."

Faith base

The Mission Helpers no longer call their headquarters a motherhouse, but it continues to bring together people of faith, according to Cornell.

The center is home to the Asylee Women's Enterprise, a support group for women waiting to apply for asylum, and the P. Francis Murphy Initiative for Peace and Justice. The Order of Malta, a lay religious order, also meets there and other groups come for retreats or conferences.

Seven Mission Helpers live there, along with four Franciscan sisters, four Asylee women and a layperson.

Mass is offered every day in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, with Saturday evening Masses in the main chapel drawing members of the surrounding area.

Yet the day is coming, when the center may close, Cornell said. Already on the market for four years, the sisters are contemplating where they will gather as a congregation once a sale is finalized. "We know we have to sell our building," Cornell said. "Wherever we go we'll be doing God's work."

"They know us just by our [charisma]," said Frey. "It's a thread that goes through us, giving off sparks. They are divine sparks that we catch for each other."

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