VATICAN CITY — In St. Peter’s Square Oct. 14, 70,000 people celebrated the seven new key holders to the kingdom of heaven.
Many devotees came to honor Pope St. Paul VI, but for the Morlino family of Connecticut, a trip to the Eternal City was more than just a vacation.
“Katharina Kasper was my grandmother’s great-great aunt,” Fran Morlino told the Register. “Just being able to imbibe all of this tradition that has been handed down and that we’ve read about and to be finally here is just thrilling.”
It’s not every day you meet a family with a saint in their ancestry, and being distant relatives, many of the clan didn’t know the details of St. Maria Katharina Kasper’s story.
The first time Fran became aware of her saintly family history was in 1978, when her mother brought her grandmother to the beatification Mass of Blessed Katharina, presided over by Pope Paul VI.
On that occasion, her mother met Paul VI, receiving a rosary from his hands while he said to her, “I’ll pray for you; you pray for me.”
Now, 40 years later, both Pope Paul VI and Katharina were canonized together.
“There’s no other goal for a Catholic but heaven, so it’s our shared goal,” said Jim Morlino, Fran’s husband.
Since the Vatican announced the canonization in early May 2018, Fran and her family have been focused on learning about their holy relative.
“We didn’t really think we would get here [to Rome] this soon, but when we heard about the canonization we said, ‘Well, we’ll do what it takes to get there,’” Fran explained.
This was many of the family’s first time to Rome, and an unforgettable one at that.
“It’s more than just somebody out there; it’s someone that we can trace some of her influence,” said Tom Bick, Fran’s cousin from London. “Through her influence I think it helped, really, the whole family come to faith.”
“She’s our relative, and she’s a part of our family,” said Stephen Bick, Tom’s son, “but now she’s praying for us in heaven.”
St. Katharina was born in Dernbach, Germany, in 1820 into a poor family of seven brothers and sisters. After school, she worked in the fields, and her mother taught her how to spin and weave fabric. This became critical later on when she was forced to leave her home after her father and brother died, and she worked to support her mother and herself.
The other children were drawn to Katharina’s strong moral and extroverted character. She invited them to a Marian shrine with her to sing and tell stories about Jesus and Mary. From there, her religious vocation manifested. However, she wasn’t able to live her dream of giving her life to God due to her family’s economic status.
When her mother died, Katharina’s fidelity and courageous Yes to the Holy Spirit impelled her to start the congregation of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ (PHJC) in a small wooden house with four other women to minister to the sick, poor and children through a foundation of prayer and community.
“Katharina was first and foremost about listening in her heart to the will of God,” Sister Judith Diltz, the provincial of the PHJC American Province, told the Register. “In fact, she thought everyone heard God speaking in their hearts — it was so a part of her.”
She underwent many obstacles during a persecutory time in the Church while forming the order: whether it would be accepted, whether they could wear habits or whether they could continue teaching.
Nevertheless, she trusted in Jesus and sent her sisters to other countries so that the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ could continue their apostolate.
“Her story reminds me a lot of Mother Angelica,” Fran reflected, referring to the foundress of EWTN, the Register’s parent company, “where she just knew that she needed to add on to her house because she needed more space for more nuns, and somehow God just provided someone who came along with the money, and it just kept going like that.”
Maria Katharina Kasper died in 1889 and was recognized by her love and simplicity in which she served, encouraging others to go forward in hope and resist the fears of the future. A reliquary containing a piece of her spinal bone was present during the canonization Mass.
Today, the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ have built “little houses” in nine countries, including in the United States in Donaldson, Indiana.
Seventeen sisters and 86 lay members made a pilgrimage to Rome to celebrate their foundress’ sainthood, as well as 150 years of the American congregation, with their international congregation.
“It’s the affirmation it gives us of how Katharina lived in a very simple way,” said Sister Judith. “She always wanted to listen to the will of God, and for her to be canonized, that was nowhere on her bucket list ever, but that humility, putting herself aside and always trying to do what God wanted her to do, that’s what she models to us and to our whole Church.”
The American PHJC sisters tell Katharina’s story through their many ministries, with the help of their lay co-workers. These include serving the poor, homeless women and first-generation college students; providing health-care education; caring for the earth; and assisting with parish and social work. They are also able to financially support some of the needs of their sisters around the world.
“Our community symbol for the United States is a cross and a rippling pool of water,” Sister Judith explained, “and we very firmly believe that any small action, any kindness goes out with the grace of God.”
The PHJC sisters have also been very influential in India and with the canonization cause of St. Katharina.
Brother Leo Prabhakar, of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, received a miracle through the intercession of St. Katharina that made her canonization possible.
Brother Leo developed a strong devotion to Katharina and love for her charism after collaborating with the PHJC sisters during his missionary work in a school in northern India.
“I prayed to her and prayed for her to become a saint,” Brother Leo said, knowing she needed a miracle to complete her canonization cause.
Then, on Nov. 25, 2011, he was attacked on a motorcycle, fell and went into a coma. He split his skull, dislocated his spinal cord, and broke his collarbone in three pieces, and his intestines were blocked. After three days, the doctors declared him clinically dead.
When PHJC sisters were visiting and praying for him, they noticed his hands were still warm, and he was slowly coming back to consciousness.
Following many tests and scans, the doctors were astounded. In 26 years in medicine, they had never seen a person completely healed without a single medication or operation.
“God has given me a second life in order to do his will more and more,” Brother Leo said. “From that moment onwards, I have asked God to help me be a beloved person to God and a blessing to others.”
Rachel Lanz is a Register staff writer based in Rome.