Trust the Miracle Worker

by Anna Dourgarian on June 14, 2020

Be careful in turbulent times. Anxiety is an opportunity for the evil one to distract and, little by little, ensnare you.

In the Gospel today, “the Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” (John 6:52). Likewise, we argue: how will we stay safe from the pandemic? How will we feed all the hungry? How will we uncover unconscious bias and overthrow unjust systems?

How indeed? Remember that the Lord our God “brought forth water for you from the flinty rock and fed you in the desert with manna, a food unknown to your fathers” (Deuteronomy 8:16). God provides.

You know what you need to know: that the Lord our God loves and cares for you. Pray as He taught you, serve as He showed you, love as He loved you, and He will give you the answers you seek.

Sister Mary Virginia Schmidt would tell you to follow the example of Don Quixote. (Don Quixote is her favorite book; if you mention it to her, you will see her face light up.) She loves Don Quixote because, though he tilts at windmills, he is devoted to virtue and clings blindly to chivalry. He pursues love at the expense of all else. He might be laughably addled, but he knows his priorities.

For every thought and every action that you make with trust firmly rooted in the Lord, you let yourself be a tool by which He will change our world. Maybe you represented at a protest. Maybe you prayed passionately for peace. Maybe you fought hard to understand someone else’s point of view. Give your work to the Lord, and take quiet confidence that you are making a difference.

Do not worry that what you are doing is not enough. Do not worry that society is lost to sin. Despair is a victory for evil. Bring your grief to the altar as your sacrifice. Be gentle with yourself. Take each step as you are prepared to take it.

Walk by faith. Christ, the living bread, is a miracle worker beyond our comprehension.


As Lent Melts into Easter

by Anna Dourgarian on April 11, 2020

Here the Beaver’s voice sank into silence and it gave one or two very mysterious nods. Then signaling to the children to stand as close around it as they possibly could, so that their faces were actually tickled by its whiskers, it added in a low whisper —

“They say Aslan is on the move—perhaps has already landed.”

— C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Today is a sad Easter Eve. With the pandemic, Lent has been especially somber. While we should hope and pray for an extra Easter miracle, we cannot depend on it. God may ask us to continue our Lenten fasting and sacrifice throughout the Easter season.

This year, the Sisters planned to climb mountains with our Lenten Sunday readings, from Jesus’ temptation on a mountain to His crucifixion on the Mount of Golgotha. They planned to climb with intentional prayers, minimal decorations, and gifts to their neighbors of meat foregone from their own table.

But God had something else planned. He shut down the state. He doubled the size of the mountain. When COVID-19 hit, Lent became a time of strict discipline and constraint. The Sisters canceled visits with friends and mourned the world’s suffering from sickness, lost finances, and isolation.

In the confusion and the sorrow, I am reminded of Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, where it was “always winter and never Christmas” (20). It seems like it is always Lent and never Easter.

But Lent had another, hidden side. Beyond the mountains, Sunday readings also foretold the Lord’s promises, in the cure of the blind man and the raising of Lazarus. For the Sisters, they found inspiration and aid from the glory of the Saints. They also got to companion the children and adults scheduled to receive Rites of Initiation tonight at Easter Vigil Mass, and they continue to pray even as the Rites are postponed.

While they miss the people coming in and out of their home, the Sisters find beauty in the quiet. Time for paying attention to the birds in the garden and the green grass is a balm to their sadness. Out of the tragedy, they see goodness and God’s guiding hand. As Sister Mary Paula pointed out, “This is my ninetieth Lent, and originally it was hard to see something new in it. But this year has been different.”

Friends, despite the hard times, stay alert, and stay joyful. Jesus is on the move.

A Foreward to “Beyond Belief”

by Dave Nimmer, reprinted on March 26, 2020

Ray H. Richardson, sportswriter and host for KMOJ-FM in Minneapolis-St. Paul, has spent the past three years researching and writing the story of Mary Johnson-Roy and Oshea Israel. We are thrilled to have his book Beyond Belief in our hands now. The story is heart-wrenching yet uplifting.

With his permission, we have reprinted Dave Nimmer’s foreward to his book.

We invite you to read and pray over Mary and Oshea’s story. You can purchase the book here.



Top: Sister Mary Margaret with Mary Johnson-Roy.
Bottom: Sister Mary Margaret with Oshea Israel.

Beyond Belief is the result of a spiritual partnership between a white nun who sought to explore the privilege from the color of her skin and a black mother who wanted relief from the resentment toward the man who killed her son.

At Sister Mary Margaret McKenzie’s request, her Visitation community of North Minneapolis commissioned this book about Mary Johnson-Roy and her journey toward forgiving Oshea Israel, who murdered her 20-year-old son, Laramiun Byrd, Feb. 12, 1993.

When the two first met, Johnson-Roy was grieving the loss of her son and working to form a group of mothers who also lost children to violence. The two “Marys” became fast friends. They share a belief in a loving God, who forgives the sins of His children and asks that they “forgive those who trespass against” them.

Over the past decade, the two women have prayed together, traveled together, and worked together to promote and define the grace of forgiveness. Mary Johnson-Roy has a message for those who read Beyond Belief:

“I want them to know what forgiveness is. I want them to know what freedom is. I need to be forgiven and I need to forgive. The grace of forgiveness leads to a more gentle and hopeful world. We can get unstuck and move on — and do what we should do for the rest of our lives.”

Mary Johnson-Roy and Mary Margaret McKenzie provide a gracious example for all of us. Shed resentments. Accept responsibility. Seek reconciliation. And in this way, be who you are and be that well.


Dave Nimmer is a retired reporter who worked at WCCO-TV and the Minneapolis-Star Tribune.

He is also a journalist for the Minnesota Good Age magazine and a frequent contributor to the Visitation blog, especially in his series of profiles of Visitation Companions and North Side neighbors.

Read Dave’s article on Beyond Belief for Minnesota Good Age here.


Picking Up a New Thread: On Handling Change

by Jody Reis Johnson on February 28, 2020

A knitting project. Do you see transitions from color to color in your life?

I was studying the pattern for my latest knitting project when my eye was drawn to a section entitled “Joining New Yarn.” Instructions were given about how to incorporate a new ball of wool when one runs out or how to introduce a new color. The section began thus: “When joining new yarn, it is usually best to simply drop the old thread and pick up the new. Resume knitting and leave enough of an end on both yarns to weave in later.”

I was astonished! Could it really be that simple? A veteran knitter, I knew several other methods for joining yarn into a project, including knitting with both threads for awhile and even splicing the threads by sewing one into the other — a tedious job. Never in all my years of experience had I come across this easiest and perhaps most obvious way.

This image has been weaving itself into my prayers, perhaps because it has something to tell me about dealing with change. As with knitting, I tend to over-complicate change, making it harder than it needs to be. I sputter, hesitate, and dig in my heels. When I reflect on what the real obstacles to change are, I usually find two things: regrets about the past and fears about the future.

Contrast that with Jesus’s first disciples who, when they heard His call to follow, “immediately left their nets and followed Him” (see Mt 4:20). No hesitation. No looking back. It seems they just dropped the old yarn and picked up the new. How was this possible? I can only surmise that, in the presence of the Holy One, the call was so compelling and their trust so complete that they could surrender everything at once. Perhaps the first thing to do, when faced with change, is to place ourselves in God’s presence through prayer.

As I write this, Bryce and I are wintering in the desert. This seems to be our new pattern in these transition years of retirement, somewhere between middle and old age. The desert itself is a powerful image of transition in the Judeo-Christian faith. Since the time of the ancient Hebrews, it has been a mysterious no-place whose emptiness and silence invite us into what lies between past and future, between here and there: the present moment, where God meets us and transforms us. Contemplative or desert wisdom teaches, moreover, that both past and future are touched by this present-moment encounter with God’s healing power; that is part of the mystery of God. We can trust that everything — past misgivings, future missteps or calamities — is held in the hand of our loving Father.

Yet the present moment does not occur in some mysterious, far-off place, but in the particular circumstances of our own lives. Francis de Sales, a down-to-earth contemplative, teaches that we move toward holiness by embracing the joys and challenges right where we are — “the sauce we are in,” as Francis would say. Change is certainly a slippery sauce. He would be reluctant to wave away our human regrets and worries with a sweeping counsel to simply trust and let go. Rather, I imagine St. Francis might say something like this: “If you have amends to make; make them; if grief lingers, grieve; if there are plans to be made, start planning. Then, just drop the old thread and pick up the new, letting God help you weave in the ends later.”

Jody and Bryce in the desert


Sister Mary Paula’s First Year in Minneapolis

by Anna Dourgarian on February 7, 2020

Thirty years ago, Sister Mary Paula was cleaning the Fremont house as the founding members of the Visitation Monastery of Minneapolis moved in. She supported and loved them from the very beginning. Now, in an unexpected turn of events, she has joined them.

Sister Mary Paula painting the ceiling of the chapel on Fremont Ave N in 1989

The transition has been challenging. Through it all, she has never lost her joy or her energy.

There have been some fun times in her first year! She loves the expression of community at Ascension Church—“a microcosm of the universal Church played out in reality,” as she poetically puts it. The parishioners deeply care for each other. She can’t go to Communion without a few hugs along the way.

She also had a blast celebrating her ninetieth birthday, where she connected her giant biological family with her giant “coterie” of neighbors.

Sadly, there have been some low times. The Divine Office, which is so precious to her, is in a slightly different translation than she is used to, so she trips over the words.

Also, she must adjust to the different lifestyle. She was surprised by the hustle and bustle from the door ministry. She can’t sit still for an hour without the doorbell ringing 2-3 times!

But good luck slowing down Sister Mary Paula. Regarding the Divine Office, she says with her characteristic determination, “Give me a year or two, and I will get it.” As for the lifestyle adjustment, she relies with confidence and gratitude on the compassion and understanding of the other Sisters. Sometimes she retreats upstairs for quiet.

One year ago, Sister Mary Paula arrived at the Minneapolis monastery with two bottles of wine for a festive evening in her new community. But the bottles were not opened: that afternoon, Sister Mary Virginia fell, cutting short the celebrations with a trip to the hospital.

Such is the way with transitions. You never know what to expect. They keep you on your toes.

She is more convinced than ever that the Vis way of life, “inspired common sense,” is her calling and has validity in every community. It works! She advises, “Keep remembering that you trust in God. It is His plan and His journey—the journey to Him—that you’re on.”

Family and neighbors at Sister Mary Paula’s 90th birthday


From the Sisters’ Kitchen: King Cake for the Epiphany

by Anna Dourgarian on January 2, 2020

Every year, the Visitation Sisters of Minneapolis celebrate the Epiphany with a Gateau des Rois (a King Cake, or Twelfth Night Cake). It is an old French tradition, true to their roots of the first Visitation monastery in Annecy, France. A small token like a porcelain figurine or bean is hidden in the cake, and the finder is dubbed “king” — or, in the Sisters’ case, the “Bean Queen”!

Sister Suzanne kindly shared her recipe with me, and I tried making my own King Cake. It has led me on a culinary adventure. I challenge you to make your own King Cake! Share a photo with the Sisters on Facebook.

Note: there are a wide variety of King Cake recipes available online due to its vast history (it is possibly 700 years old). Sister Suzanne’s recipe, a puff pastry with an almond paste middle layer, is actually a Galette des Rois from northern France or Koningentaart from Flemish / Dutch traditions, as opposed to the Gateau des Rois, a brioche with candied fruit, from southern France that is commonly used in New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras.

A King Cake ready for baking, with marzipan, almonds, and cherries between layers of puff pastry. Which lucky person will get the piece with the kidney bean?!

Here is Sister Suzanne’s recipe:

8 oz puff pastry
4 oz marzipan (or almond paste)
1/2 cup slivered almonds/pecans and dried cherries
1/2 cup confectioners (powdered) sugar
Juice of one lemon


1. Divide the pastry in two and roll out both pieces into rounds.
2. Roll out the marzipan into a round of the same size. Put the marzipan on top of one of the pastry rounds.
3. Sprinkle the marzipan with nuts and cherries. Place the other pastry round on top and seal the edges.
4. Allow to rest for 30 minutes.
5. Bake at 450°F for 25 minutes until well-risen and golden brown.
6. Allow the cake to cool. Make icing by mixing the sugar and enough lemon juice to achieve spreading consistency. Ice the cake.
7. Decorate with three crowns, a king, or a star! For example, you can make a stencil from wax paper and dust it with sugar.

Notes from my attempt:

1. The cake is easy to assemble, but it depends on a lot of specialty ingredients. I bought slivered almonds and dried cherries in bulk from Cub Foods as well as pre-made puff pastry sheets from the frozen aisle. I bought marzipan from Lunds and Byerlys (baking aisle). I used a kidney bean for my token because of its size. The total was about $15.
2. To seal the edges of the bottom and top layers of dough, I made the marzipan layer a little smaller, leaving an outer margin for the dough layers to touch. They can be stuck together with water.
3. I put my cake outside in the cold as it rested before baking to harden the butter.
4. My puff pastry ballooned and burned in the oven! The cake was still delicious, but it was not beautiful.

1) I should have cut holes into (“scored”) the top pastry layer to release steam.
2) Also, I should have pulled the cake out of the oven as soon as it began puffing and turning golden. 25 minutes was too long at 450°F; next time, I will try 20 minutes at 400°F and keep my eye on it.

5. In my absent-mindedness, I ate my bean! I am considering investing in a traditional porcelain token to avoid this problem in the future.

Good luck with your cake! Please share your results on Facebook! I’m excited to hear how it goes for you.

Happy Epiphany!

Jubilee Year for Visitation Monasteries: Honoring St Margaret Mary’s 100th Anniversary of Canonization

by Sister Brenda Lisenby on October 28, 2019

The Monastery at Paray-le-Monial

This past summer while on pilgrimage to France, I had the opportunity to visit the Visitation Monastery in Paray-le-Monial, France, home to St Margaret Mary. The Mother Superior welcomed us, recounting the visions of Margaret Mary. After she had shown us around, she invited me as a new Sister to enter the cloister part of the Monastery and go to the room where Margaret Mary had died. It is kept as a small oratorium today and as I entered I was deeply moved. I asked Mother Marie Simon if I could sit for a moment. I barely have words to describe what I felt, but I knew I had become deeply aware of suffering. I thought I was sensing the suffering Margaret Mary experienced in her life, but as I look back on it now, I cannot say that it was Margaret Mary’s suffering I was encountering. Perhaps she was carrying her mission to make the suffering Heart of Jesus known to me?! As I sat with that deep suffering, I felt another movement, one of compassion. In the midst of great suffering, there was also great compassion. Maybe, just maybe, I was experiencing a small echo of Margaret Mary’s exchange of hearts as she continues her mission to make the Heart of Jesus known to all.
We recently celebrated the Feast of St Margaret Mary on October 16. For the rest of the Catholic Church, this day is noted as an “optional memorial” but for Visitation Sisters around the world, this is a feast day. This year we also celebrated the beginning of a Year of Jubilee for Visitation Monasteries in honor of the 100th anniversary of the canonization of St Margaret Mary.

Margaret Mary Alacoque was born in 1647 and entered the Visitation Monastery in Paray-le-Monial, France, in 1671. Her early childhood is recounted as happy. Her father died when she was 8 years old and after that time she suffered much, with family dysfunction, physical illness, and mental illness interweaving themselves throughout her young life. Yet from an early age, Margaret Mary had a special devotion to Jesus. After she entered the monastery, she had a series of visions where she was in conversation with Jesus. Basically, Jesus said:

1. I love you.

2. I am not loved enough.

3. Please love me.

Margaret Mary’s response was to give her heart to Jesus, and Jesus in turn placed his heart in her. We often refer to this as the “exchange of hearts.” She accepted her mission to make Jesus’ heart more known and loved, for all of us to experience this “exchange of hearts” with Jesus. There had long been a devotion to the Heart of Jesus (also known as the Sacred Heart) but Margaret Mary promoted the Heart of Jesus especially and a number of devotional practices have grown up around it. This year we remember her and her mission to make the Heart of Jesus known, so that we too might experience the “exchange of hearts” and render love for love.

Sharing the Peace

by Sister Karen Mohan on September 21, 2019

Sr. Karen and PreetiOn September 21, while the rest of my community was in retreat, I had the opportunity to participate in the WALK FOR PLANET PEACE, a march sponsored by the Twin Cities Nonviolent Committee as part of the 2nd Annual “10 Days Free From Violence.” The walk began at the steps of the St. Paul Cathedral and ended at the steps of the Capitol where speakers and representatives from various faith traditions shared prayers and readings on peace.

I carried a large PEACE sign of the kind that sits in front of each of our two houses. A woman of Indian descent inquired where she might get such a sign, and since we have as many as we need, I gave mine to her. That simple gesture reinforced a bond of peace with Preeti, and it seemed to me to be in keeping with a major goal of this march: to honor Gandhi’s vision of peace on his 150th birthday (which will be October 2).

I was not aware of Gandhi’s birth date until this year, so I was especially moved by the realization that October 2, the day of our missioning to north Minneapolis, coincides with the birth of this great prophet of peace! It is also the Feast of the Guardian Angels. So, on this doubly special day we were missioned “to show gentleness and offer peacefulness to the community, if only for a moment.”

30 years later, as we celebrate God’s providential care of us in this neighborhood that is “home” to us, I pray that Gandhi’s spirit under the protection of the Guardian Angels will move us to keep sharing the peace that Jesus lived.



How to Be Who You Are: Insight from Visitation Seniors in North Minneapolis

by Anna Dourgarian on June 6, 2019

We have all heard the oft-quoted “Be who you are and be that well” by Saint Francis de Sales. We love it for its simple affirmation. However, if you have ever tried to explore his words beyond that warm-fuzzy feeling, you might have hit a wall: How do you know who you are so that you can be it well?

Six seniors from Visitation High School spent the past two weeks living in North Minneapolis and volunteering with the Sisters for their senior project, and they discovered the key to Saint Francis’s wisdom. They found it by hanging out with the Sisters and watching them interact with their neighbors. They noticed and enjoyed the Sisters acting simply like themselves, naturally and joyfully, and they witnessed with awe the reverberating effect it had on their environment.

The first thing they noticed was that the Sisters are not a group of holier-than-thou saints working miracles. It is easy to put nuns on a pedestal, but in reality they are regular people who do amazing things. “They love a joke, and we are teaching them our slang,” said Ana Seitz. She was especially impressed when Sister Suzanne told her about protesting in the 1970’s and getting dragged out of the Pentagon by police officers—not particularly saintly! Ana realized that the Sisters are normal, everyday friends, and she felt at ease to be herself around them.

The students noticed further that the Sisters treated everyone with that same attention and sincerity. Louise Koenig saw it while they were gardening: “The Sisters are welcoming and open to people. People would just come up and talk to them.” Isa Baca noticed it even during inconvenient times like prayer, when the doorbell would ring and a Sister would tend quietly and lovingly to their visitor while the other Sisters continued singing. The Sisters built individual connections all the time, valuing and welcoming each person.

By sharing stories, friends of the Sisters became friends of the seniors

The students realized that this simple dynamic of putting people at ease has the powerful effect of building community. Bella Mascia was struck by how the Sisters’ nonjudgmental reception of everyone they met had built a positive environment where diverse people could come together. Callie O’Neill, great-niece to Sister Katherine, had grown up visiting the Sisters periodically, but it was when she saw them fulfilling their motto “Live + Jesus” every single day of the senior project that she truly appreciated the importance of stepping out of her personal bubble and seeking to understand other people. By talking together comfortably, friends of the Sisters became friends of the students. The students were inspired by people they would never have met without the Sisters. As Keenan Conley put it, “I learned the power of human stories as a catalyst for change. Genuine human interaction can change the world.”

How do you know who you are? From the Visitation seniors’ experience, we can begin to form an idea. You nurture a welcoming community where you tell your story and you give others space to tell theirs. All that matters is that you are willing to share where you have been, to connect human-to-human with others who have been places too. This is what the Sisters teach us. Be natural. Be gracious. Be who you are and be that well.

A Greener Monastery

by Anna Dourgarian on April 30, 2019

God created us to be stewards, not rulers, over the environment. What does it mean to be a steward?

-Sister Brenda Lisenby


Napkins, coffee grounds, and orange peels are composted instead of wasted

“Let’s go all organic,” said Sister Mary Frances to the Sisters. The Visitation Sisters were hosting an appreciation brunch for the Ascension Church choir at the monastery. Going all organic was a bold goal, and the Sisters pulled it off: compostable tableware, damp cheese cloths to replace Saran wrap, and eco-friendly cleaning products. Like every party that the Sisters host, the brunch was a blast, without sacrificing the natural environment.

The road to building a communal mindset and the habits necessary for going “all organic” has not been easy, and the Sisters still have a long way they want to go. For the year 2019, they have adopted care for the environment as a guiding theme for their community. At New Year’s, they each received a small paper bag to keep in their rooms to collect compostable waste that would otherwise be thrown away, like used tissues and hair from their hairbrushes. They are determined to be deliberate about how they can make a difference.

Sister Brenda is an inspirational help, a voice of wisdom and practicality as they strive for a greener household. She has always tried to make environmentally-conscious decisions, such as refusing disposable straws and bringing reusable bags to the grocery store. Now, she helps the Sisters stay up-to-date on city regulations, like:

  1. Juice boxes are recyclable.
  2. Keep caps on milk jugs so they don’t get stuck in the recycling center’s sorting machine.
  3. Do not put paper bags full of recycling into the recycling bin. The bags get in the way of sorting.

Sister Brenda helped organize recycling and composting at National Night Out

When Sister Brenda first joined the Visitation community, she found them “wish-cycling”. Wish-cycling is throwing non-recyclables into the recycling bin because you wish that the materials were recyclable. The Sisters are now wiser about what they recycle, what they compost, and what products they buy in the first place.

Sister Brenda also pursues eco-friendliness in personal habits. She uses a bamboo toothbrush and makes her own toothpaste. Instead of plastic disposable razors, she uses a safety razor for shaving. These are small changes, but they are small things done with great love, and that makes all the difference.

The Sisters’ future goals include more eco-friendly food storage practices and consistently using eco-friendly cleaning products. In addition, they want to spread the word in their neighborhood about caring for the environment; they have found that their annual block party in August is a great opportunity to teach their neighbors about recycling and compostable goods. Sister Brenda would also like to go for a tour of the city’s recycling center.

Can they achieve zero waste? Not necessarily. On one hand, they must make tradeoffs for living in community and convenience. On the other hand, they can be more aware and make wiser daily decisions. They aim for zero waste, even if it might never happen. One small step at a time, they are committed to caring for all God’s creation, our common natural home.

For more information on our local solid waste and recycling, Sister Brenda invites you to visit