In 2015, about two years after Carrie Ellis’ son, Joah, was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, she learned that seven women, called the Seven Sisters Apostolate, were taking turns praying for him each day of the week, offering a Holy Hour on his behalf.
Intrigued by and grateful for their prayers, she was curious what the group was all about. But like most mothers of five, family life kept her busy and she tucked the thought away.
A year later, Ellis was invited to a conference in Nisswa hosted by the Mothers of Priests from the Duluth Diocese. She connected with one of her son’s classmates’ mothers, Janette Howe, from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the two arranged to drive together to the gathering.
On the nearly three-hour round trip from St. Cloud to Nisswa and back, Ellis learned about the Seven Sisters Apostolate, which Howe founded in 2010 after she “sensed a nudge to pray more frequently and intentionally” for her pastor, Father Joseph Johnson, who was then serving as rector of the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul.
Seven Sisters groups are formed by identifying seven “sisters,” or women in a parish, who are willing to each pray for one hour, one day a week for their priest. The priest is made aware of the group; however, he may not always know who is in the group. The commitment is considered a “hidden” gift.
To date, apostolates have formed in more than 250 parishes, chanceries, seminaries, hospitals and other locations around the world.
Local groups forming
Howe suggested Ellis bring the idea to St. Cloud, but Ellis didn’t think she had the time. “But God had a different plan,” she said.
After several promptings of the Holy Spirit, Ellis agreed to start an apostolate at St. Mary’s Cathedral in St. Cloud.
“Things just kept falling into place,” Ellis said. “People kept coming forward and the dates and availability of the women lined up perfectly.”
In December, the St. Mary’s group began its commitment to pray for the church’s rector, Father Scott Pogatchnik.
“It’s tremendous,” Father Pogatchnik said. “It’s a great consolation in those moments as a priest where one might be entering a difficult pastoral setting or feeling tension around a decision or a meeting, any of those moments when you are trying to call on additional spiritual grace.”
There is “a feeling of spiritual protection,” he said, “to have these women looking out for me in such a purposeful way. There is a mystery, a hiddenness, and that is a beautiful aspect of their ministry.”
Parishes may have more than one apostolate if they have more than one priest, as the cathedral does. A second group quickly followed at the cathedral and was formed to pray for the associate pastor, or parochial vicar, who is currently Father Doug Liebsch.
“One thing that is unique about this is that the prayers are for the shepherds of the parish,” Ellis explained. “Our prayers continue for the person who serves in that role. It doesn’t follow the priest if he moves to another parish assignment. That’s why we really hope we can have at least one apostolate in each parish, so that all priests are prayed for each day.”
In order for a bishop to have an apostolate, it takes 21 “sisters” to pray for his office. Ellis is hopeful that a group might be formed to pray for Bishop Donald Kettler.
“The idea for a bishop is that he has three sets of sisters who are praying morning, noon and night,” Ellis said. ”The group can be started with seven sisters and then the group has a year to fill in the other 14 slots.”
There are currently nine groups of Seven Sisters praying for priests in the Diocese of St. Cloud, including groups in Eden Valley, Elk River and Long Prairie.
Each apostolate has an “anchoress,” or person who coordinates the group’s schedule and maintains contact with the priest at a minimal level.
“The role for all of us is to do this in quiet and in humility,” Ellis said. “It isn’t to have a relationship with the priest or to call any attention to ourselves.
Occasionally, a priest may contact the anchoress to ask for a special intention, but mostly this is all done very quietly.”
Jan Hoelscher serves as the anchoress for the Seven Sisters apostolate at the parishes of St. Peter and St. Paul in St. Cloud. The group formed in February and made their commitment June 10.
Though she’s been praying Holy Hours regularly for years, the commitment to pray for her parish priest in this intentional way spoke to her heart.
“When I thought about it, I thought there are some things we know he needs and some things we might not know that he needs. I think about the commitment the priests have made and that made me more determined to have the attitude that I can do this for him,” Hoelscher said. “This is something that I can do and will do as long as I can.”
Three patron saints grace the group — Madonna of the Grapes, St. John Vianney and St. Margaret Clitherow. The women are asked to give one hour in prayer, typically in a Holy Hour spent before the Blessed Sacrament. The prayers themselves are unique to each sister.
“Two things we all pray for is for his sanctity as a priest and to deepen his devotion to the Blessed Mother,” Ellis said. “Other than that, we can choose any prayers we want to pray that we think will benefit him in his priesthood.”
Suggestions include the Novena to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, using the weekly Mass readings, the Liturgy of the Hours and the rosary. Howe suggests praying for specific graces like fidelity, perseverance and mercy.
Each sister makes a commitment for one year. They also are allowed to have substitutes if they cannot pray on their scheduled day. And the Holy Hour can take place anywhere the Blessed Sacrament is present, even if the sister is on vacation.
Ellis and Hoelscher said the groups do face some struggles.
“It’s a challenge in the St. Cloud Diocese to find places to pray with the Blessed Sacrament, especially for people who work during the day. Some parishes are locked in the evenings,” she said.
It’s also important to keep the prayer separate from personal prayer, which can sometimes be a challenge, she said.
“This is a totally different hour that is only for the priest. It is a separate time from the time you pray for your family and other intentions,” she said. “I thought it would be hard but it wasn’t. I actually find it freeing. I’ve learned that we can only do what we are called to do and then God takes that and does amazing things with it.”
“We knew there would be challenges along the way,” Hoelscher added. “But this apostolate is so beautiful that the Spirit will be there every step of the way.”
For more information about starting a Seven Sisters group in your parish, visit www.sevensistersapostolate.org or contact Ellis at 320-253-1692.