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Meet the Wisconsin nuns who keep a barn full of horses

Sister-with-children-and-horse

Courtesy of Mother Mary Veronica Fitch of The Franciscan Congregation of Divine Mercy

A sister works with a child and horse in the barn.

Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 06/12/23

At Merciful Heart of Jesus Farm, the sisters provide animal therapy, along with prayer, classes, and spiritual direction, to children and adults suffering trauma.

Lots of little girls dream of having a horse of their own, and many Catholic little girls dream about becoming a religious sister some day. 

A religious community in Wisconsin is living out the dreams of little Catholic girls everywhere. 

These Franciscan sisters keep a barn full of horses and other animals! 

At Merciful Heart of Jesus Farm, the sisters provide animal therapy, along with prayer, classes, and spiritual direction, to children and adults suffering trauma.

The religious community began in 2020 in Marshfield, Wisconsin. Its founder, Mother Mary Veronica Fitch, worked as a horse trainer, riding instructor, and barn manager before becoming a sister, so she was perfectly poised to begin this community of sisters who offer animal therapy. 

I had the chance to catch up with Mother Mary Veronica of the Franciscan Congregation of Divine Mercy and ask her a few questions about their work. Here’s our conversation.

What inspired the founding of the Franciscan Congregation of Divine Mercy?

Mother Mary Veronica: Our community is inspired by the writings of St. Faustina and particularly the request made for a new congregation consisting of three aspects that would pray for, proclaim, and obtain Mercy for the world. There are other communities inspired by these same writings but this is the call that I felt I was supposed to follow through these requests.

This community is about reconciling relationships with self, others, and God. Jesus told St. Faustina, “Your purpose and that of your companions is to unite yourselves with Me as closely as possible; through love you will reconcile earth with heaven, you will soften the just anger of God, and you will plead for Mercy for the world.” 

When I read this quote over 30 years ago I knew that’s what my call was, to live this deep union with God and through love to reconcile earth with heaven. The ideal of this reconciliation burns in my heart. This whole congregation is geared towards obtaining that reconciliation.

All religious congregations are supposed to participate in the reconciliation of heaven and earth, but this one Jesus gave it as its purpose, and this is such a noble purpose, it’s an important work, a work worth giving your life for.

Why do the sisters work with animals, especially horses? 

Mother Mary Veronica: I believe God wants us to and He inspired me to do so. When I gave up everything I meant it, and I was quite willing to never do anything with animals again, but that didn’t appear to be God’s Will and it is very fruitful. 

The animals can reach a heart that often a person can’t reach, and they are sensitive to emotions. That makes them very good for therapy. I do find the dogs to be helpful during spiritual direction sometimes because they comfort the person who is in pain. Their touch can be very healing. 

Through this therapy, people learn boundaries, they learn to let somebody else or some other creature say no and to respect that. They also learn that their boundaries are listened to and respected. They learn a philosophy of mercy. Lessons learned with the animals naturally carry over to people relationships. 

Sister Lucia and I are participants in the animal therapy program. God has always taught me through animals and He’s working on my conversion and healing through the animals still. We are both learning lessons through working with the animals.

Sister-with-dog
Sister Lucia with Faith, the community’s German Shepherd

How did this animal therapy ministry begin?

Mother Mary Veronica: As a grade schooler I had considered a calling to be a nun, but in about 5th grade I decided that I didn’t want to give up everything in the world and especially animals in order to become a nun, so I put that vocation aside. After doing many things with animals and going to college for light horse management, I ended up on my parents’ farm as a riding instructor, horse trainer, and barn manager. I thought I had everything I wanted — but then when I was about 25 the call came back. This time I decided I would give up everything and become a nun. (I’m 59 now.)

When I was trying to find the community that I was supposed to be with, I found some that I was interested in but nothing seemed right until I read St. Faustina’s diary, and then in my heart I knew I had found the place I belonged. But the community did not exist. I put it aside eventually after trying for years to begin the community. 

In the year 2000, I stayed for close to 2 years with a cloistered Franciscan community, just to get religious formation. I wasn’t a member, but they graciously gave me formation in cloistered religious life. It was a tremendous eye opener and I realized how little I knew about religious life.

Eventually I took solemn vows but the call started coming back pretty strongly even though I tried to push it down. In 2016 I received permission from my superiors and from Rome to leave the cloister and try to begin the Divine Mercy community. Bishop Callahan of the Diocese of La Crosse said I would be welcome to try to start the community here, so I came to Wisconsin.

At that time I had no intention of starting animal therapy work. However one day at Mass I had the inspiration that we should do “dog obedience therapy.” Soon after that I felt inspired to include horses as well. The Mother Abbess of my monastery, whom Bishop Callahan had asked to mentor me, loved and supported the idea. I didn’t realize how important the animals and even the farm would be in our work, for the work of the active sisters. 

When I was a riding instructor, there had been a point where I was doubting my vocation to religious life because being a riding instructor had been so successful in bringing people to God. In addition to that, four marriages were regularized and a woman came back to confession after abortion and there were conversions to the Catholic faith. I hadn’t been trying necessarily to do all those things; I’d been trying just to live the Gospel as I worked with them and the horses and it was very fruitful.

I realized later this was a sign of the fruitfulness to come for our community in working with animals and people. The animals are healing, the farm is healing, the children get to experience freedom, fun, and play; and actually adults have mentioned how the farm is good for them too.

How does caring for the animals and running the animal therapy program affect your work of prayer and worship?

Mother Mary Veronica: The works of the active sisters are spiritual direction, retreats, catechesis, spiritual formation classes, talks, and animal-assisted therapy that is based on positive reinforcement training. We have classes for children and family-friendly cookouts, and we visit the dying.

Caring for the animals and running the animal therapy programs affects our work of prayer and worship in a number of ways. When we have our camp days — which we try to have several a week during the summer or whenever the children might be here over the noon hour — we pray with them and they pray the Divine Office with us and our other prayers. I also find that I have a lot to pray about as I learn the needs and trials of each person and their families.

As you can guess, it is difficult to have all of our prayer duties and our duties to the people to help them and then also have to care for the animals, especially with only two of us. But it’s always difficult to start a new community; it’s nothing that I didn’t expect. 

We do need to be fluid especially at this time because the times where people can come are not always the times that are most convenient for us; we have to strike a balance so that we can serve the people and get our prayers in and that is difficult. Having more sisters would really help.

How many sisters are in the congregation?

Mother Mary Veronica: There are two of us who are sisters, eight lay people who are in temporary promises of poverty, chastity and obedience; and we have about 160 people who are companions in the third aspect. Properly speaking the names of the different aspects and branches are:

  • Monastic contemplative (contemplative sisters; God willing I will be part of this when we get those types of sisters and we’re ready)
  • Monastic apostolic (active sisters) first branch of the second aspect
  • Fraternity (second branch of the second aspect for lay people and secular clergy)
  • Companions (third aspect)

All of these are of the Franciscan Congregation of Divine Mercy.

How many people take part in the animal therapy programs?

Mother Mary Veronica: During the summer we have about 40 people doing animal-assisted therapy. Most of them are children. At other times we have about 25.

What role has the local community played in supporting your ministry?

Mother Mary Veronica: The local community has played a tremendous role in the beginning of this congregation and in the maintenance and sustenance of it. They have done this both by prayer and by practical help. We have a good number of volunteers who help with lawn care, stall cleaning, special projects, cleaning, carpentry and more. 

We are always looking for more help, with only the two of us sisters here, we are spread very thin. If we had more sisters we could help so many more people. The demand and the need are high, but right now it is only the two of us. 

Financially it’s not easy; it is somewhat of a struggle, but if it weren’t for the people we would not exist at all since we live off of whatever they give us. We have a mortgage, land payments, insurance expenses, our regular bills and still have needs for fixing up the buildings so that they will be strong and sturdy for a long time. The people do so much for us. We live off God’s Providence. It’s a great opportunity for trust! 

What are some of your favorite stories or memories from the animal therapy program?

Mother Mary Veronica: Sister Lucia never was around animals very much, and the changes in her with the animals have been just amazing, how tender she can be, how attentive and caring she can be to their needs. St. Francis said, “If you have men who would exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.” He lived in harmony with humankind and with animals. I believe we’re all called to do the same.

When one of our participants says, “I feel safe here,” it means so much to us!

We almost didn’t keep a horse named Margaret Mary, but we couldn’t find someone to rehome her with, who I thought would be right for her. She didn’t get along very well with the other horses; she’s big and burly. But “the stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.” She’s become one of the best horses with the children and one of our stars. It’s amazing how far this horse has come.

There’s another horse, Ignatius, who was absolutely the most frightened horse and most resistant to letting himself be handled. And yet this horse has incredible ability to heal and has had a couple people fall in love with him. Some children said that they could relate with frightened horses better than with the other horses. One child said that the day she met him was life-changing!

Sister-with-children-and-horse
Sister Lucia with the horse Margaret Mary and visiting children

What is the most important thing you would want to share about the congregation and its work?

Mother Mary Veronica: The most important thing that I would want to share with you about our congregation and its work has to do with our charism and its far reaching effects. The two biggest things that characterize our congregation are the reconciliation of relationships and living Mercy.

Jesus told St. Faustina, “Mankind will not have peace until it turns with trust to My Mercy.” Why don’t people trust in the mercy of God? There are a lot of reasons, and a big one is that we Christians don’t live God’s mercy; in fact most people don’t know or really understand how merciful God is. In the diary of St. Faustina Jesus asked for a new congregation to be founded that would “proclaim the mercy of God to the world” and plead for mercy for the world.

A person can proclaim the mercy of God with words but if we don’t proclaim it with our actions then people will not get the correct message about God’s mercy. Mercy is the way to peace, peace in our heart, peace in our families, peace in the world, and peace with God. Everyone deserves Mercy. Mercy is not just about forgiveness. Mercy is about pouring out abundant blessings and abundant love to everyone. This is how God loves us.

The active sisters of our community try to live Mercy in their lives and also teach others what the call to live Mercy truly is and what the demands are, of living Mercy. They also help teach tools, both natural and supernatural, that will help them to do so.

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