By JOHNATHON KELSO | Published October 29, 2021
SHARON—It is said of the great saint, Rita of Cascia, that as she lay prostrate in deepest sorrow, she asked that she could but taste the least of the bitter chalice of the sufferings of our Lord. As she prayed, she visioned one of the thorns of the crown of the crucifix detach itself and strike her on the forehead in piercing pains. This mark of redemption, which afflicted St.Rita, stayed with her the rest of her life. However, she never ceased to thank him and bless him for the sorrow it caused her.
Betsy Orr, president of the Purification Heritage Center in Sharon, is no stranger to sorrow. Her husband, Larry, chose St. Rita as his confirmation saint before he died in 2011. He was diagnosed with brain cancer just six months after Orr was received into the church. She was told Larry’s condition would worsen quickly. Although Orr knew the love of Jesus before her conversion from the Protestant faith, it was within the church and through the Most Blessed Sacrament, to which she fell completely in love. It was the rosary of Our Lady which became a comfort to her as she walked the path of suffering, and in particular, the sorrowful mysteries that kept her close to Jesus’ side when things became too difficult.
Orr developed a deep devotion to Mary and an understanding of the gift of being close to her amid crisis and doubt. During Larry’s decline, Msgr. Frank McNamee of the Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta, made several visits to their home to sit with Larry and pray. A week before his death, the mercy of Jesus found Larry, and made a home with him. Through the ministry of the church, Larry received four sacraments in the span of one week: reconciliation, confirmation, holy Communion and anointing of the sick.
Three years after the death of her husband, an act of providence led Orr to the discovery of a small Catholic church in disrepair and in need of saving. Listed as one of the Places in Peril by the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, the Church of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary connected with her immediately. Located in Taliaferro County, an hour and a half east of Atlanta, the church and its surrounding geographical area is celebrated as Georgia’s cradle of Catholicism.
The first Catholic settlers made their way to Georgia in 1790 and formed a congregation. By the mid-1800’s, the thriving community had become the center of Catholic life in much of Georgia. Initially, it was not the specifics of the place or its past which spoke to Orr but instead, a sincere love of the church. In an act of gratitude, she made a donation to help redeem one of the oldest pieces of Catholic history in the state.
Over the next seven years, Orr’s life would become a cascade of connectivity leading from that moment into a crescendo of God’s mercy—from sorrow into joy. What began as a campaign to maintain the structural integrity of the church, had now evolved into a ministry, serving not only the faithful, but developing a special place of refuge for those called to consecrated life.
In September, Orr and her team celebrated the opening of the Seven Sorrows Walk and phase two of Heritage Preserve, part of an ongoing effort to restore and maintain the land that the first Catholic settlers cultivated some 200 years ago. Centered around prayer gardens artfully designed with individual themes, Orr’s intentionality in retelling the story of the Gospel is a thing of beauty.
During the Sept. 11 dedication, the center’s spiritual advisor, Father Michael Silloway, said that, “Art, and most especially sacred art, crafted specifically and intentionally for the glory of God and the salvation of souls, proclaims the Gospel better than most anything else.”
The Seven Sorrows Walk with its ornate iron work commissioned by craftsman Mike Route, and beautifully depicted paintings of Mary’s sorrows by German artist Adele Helena Reut, would make it difficult to find anyone not affected deeply by meditating on Simeon’s words to Mary at the the temple or in the meeting of Jesus and Mary on the way to Calvary. Mary’s sorrows are an invitation to the suffering heart who comes seeking a companion in the midst of calamity.
Archbishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv., blessed and dedicated the walk saying, “…This is a perfect place just to sit, and to reflect, and to gain some strength from reflecting on Mary’s life and sharing with her our own. Because she understands. And we may come into this garden feeling very lonely, but we will leave here, I think, very comforted.”
Although, we may not suffer the great physical sufferings like those of St. Rita, St. Francis of Assisi, or St. Pio of Pietrelcina, we must know that sorrow shows no partiality and is bound to afflict us all. If we writhe from its grasp, hoping for a quick end, we may miss an invitation to something deeper. We may miss our confrontation with the cross, and the very son of God, in all his languid beauty, poured out for us in mournful mystery, beckoning us forward into the abyss of his love. We may miss the Blessed Virgin Mary at his side, who was not spared the deepest furrows of his passion, but endured the piercing blows to her soul with faith as she offered herself to his persecutors, and to her children. Mary’s sorrows, in particular, will always help us to remember the sorrows of her son and the comfort of his presence during our own tribulations.
For Orr, the culmination of suffering was never hollow or void of fruit worth bearing, because whether in the past or present, the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
“There’s new life after the pain,” Orr says, “… a freedom to keep growing as a disciple, knowing that the Lord still has plans for us. My hope is that people leave this garden much lighter in spirit and demeanor, as they turn the corner towards the ultimate victory of Christ’s resurrection.”