Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

  • Members of the Seven Sisters Apostolate pray for their parochial vicar, Father Javier Muñoz, in the sanctuary at St. Pius X Church in Conyers. From left to right are María De La Luz Silva, Fermina Consla, Hilda Pelayo, and Olga Jennings. Photo by Johnathon Kelso
  • Fermina Consla, center, and Olga Jennings, right, of the Seven Sisters Apostolate pray for their parochial vicar in the sanctuary at St. Pius X Church. The parish's other group, the first to form there, prays solely for the pastor. Photo by Johnathon Kelso
  • The altar cross in the sanctuary at St. Pius X Church in Conyers, where the Seven Sisters Apostolate began in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Photo by Johnathon Kelso
  • Members of the Seven Sisters Apostolate pray for their Pastor, Father Juan Areiza, in the sanctuary at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Conyers. From left to right, Salome Lambert, Beth Gowasack, Brenda Stoll, and Verena D'mellow. Photo by Johnathon Kelso
  • Salome Lambert of the Seven Sisters Apostolate prays for her pastor, Father Juan Areiza, in the sanctuary at St. Pius X Church in Conyers. Photo by Johnathon Kelso
  • Beth Gowasack of the Seven Sisters Apostolate prays for her pastor, Father Juan Areiza, in the sanctuary at St. Pius X Catholic Church. Photo by Johnathon Kelso

Members of the Seven Sisters Apostolate pray for their parochial vicar, Father Javier Muñoz, in the sanctuary at St. Pius X Church in Conyers. From left to right are María De La Luz Silva, Fermina Consla, Hilda Pelayo and Olga Jennings. Photo by Johnathon Kelso


Seven Sisters emphasizes power of prayer for priests 

By GRETCHEN KEISER, Special to the Bulletin  | Published November 10, 2022

CONYERS—If you wish to help build up the kingdom of God, but with the simplest, most hidden path, consider this. 

Give one hour of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, one day a week, every week, for your pastor.  

“There is nothing more comforting for a pastor or a priest ministering in a parish than to know the parishioners are praying for him,” said Father Juan Areiza, pastor of St. Pius X Church, Conyers, who receives this support. 

“That fills us with strength, that fills us with hope, that fills us also with love for our ministry in the parish,” he said. 

People may not realize how powerful prayers for their priest can be, he said, or how necessary.  

“We priests need lots of prayer, especially from the people we shepherd. Not just from our parents, not just from our friends who know us well … but from the people we are living with, the people we are giving our lives for.” 

In 2010 Janette Howe thought of offering a weekly holy hour for her pastor in St. Paul, Minnesota, as she witnessed his pastoral care in a busy parish and also knew he was offering guidance and support to her son who was in the seminary. Without fanfare, she began spending an hour before the Blessed Sacrament each Thursday solely for the intention of her pastor, Father Joseph R. Johnson, who at the time was rector of the Cathedral of St. Paul.  

During one such holy hour, in March 2011, the words “seven sisters” came to her mind. She thought about this and gradually discerned with excitement that she was being inspired to expand her once-a-week holy hour to a daily holy hour for Father Johnson, if six other women would join her, each praying on a different day of the week.  

At that point she told her pastor of how she’d been praying for him and sought his advice. He directed her to start the apostolate by seeking seven women at each of seven parishes in the St. Paul area, 49 women in all, who would embrace this call to pray one holy hour one day a week for their seven respective pastors. This was the foundation of the Seven Sisters Apostolate.  

Brenda Stoll is a member of the Seven Sisters Apostolate at her parish in Conyers. Photo by Johnathon Kelso

Its mission is described as “one holy hour/one priest/each week/one heart of prayer.”  

Since June 2011, the apostolate has grown to about 1,350 parishes and Catholic centers across the United States and in Canada, Spain, Italy and other countries. Each Seven Sisters chapter consists of seven women praying for one specific priest only. Groups have been started for some bishops and for Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Father Johnson continues to serve as spiritual advisor to the apostolate, Howe said, and Archbishop Bernard Hebda of the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese also encourages the ministry.  

A hidden ministry 

Through Catholic media and word of mouth, awareness of the apostolate has spread quietly, particularly in Midwest parishes. In the Archdiocese of Atlanta there are about eight to 10 groups, including St. Pius X Church, St. Brigid Church in Johns Creek and St. Michael Church in Gainesville, with new ones starting. Women who have responded say it is because this call resonates in their own prayer lives, in their desire to support a priest’s vocation, in their love for the church, and in their attraction to a hidden ministry.   

Howe said the response of so many women to the apostolate leads her to the insight that “God has long been preparing hearts to respond to this prayer effort, mine included.” 

“Many women express that they have been waiting for something like this to come to their awareness. … Their response is swift, generous and sure,” she said by email. 

“This reinforces that this is not a new work—but one in the recesses of the heart of God—one that God invited us to join in 2011.” 

Howe still prays every Thursday for her current pastor at St. Paul Cathedral, and is part of two other Seven Sisters groups with different priest recipients. She often travels and speaks about the ministry.  

The apostolate provides a simple structure and a wealth of spiritual support and prayer resources, including intercessory prayer for the women who pray. Howe writes a monthly communiqué for those who take part in the apostolate. A prayer booklet suggests possible aids for the holy hour, but the woman herself is free to pray as she feels led. Materials are available in English and Spanish.  

Olga Jennings of the Seven Sisters Apostolate prays for parochial vicar, Father Javier Muñoz, in the sanctuary at St. Pius X Church. She is one of several women who offer a Holy Hour once a week for specific priests in Atlanta. Photo by Johnathon Kelso

The patron saints of the apostolate are Mary, under the title of Madonna of the Grapes, St. John Vianney, the patron of parish priests, and St. Margaret Clitherow, who was martyred in the 1500s in England for hiding priests and helping them continue to celebrate Mass during persecution of Catholics. 

“The Seven Sisters Apostolate is a call to strengthen the Church by ensuring that a Holy Hour is prayed each day of the week for the sole intention of a specific priest or bishop—a ‘holy wasting’ (cf. Mt. 26:10) or lavishing of prayer for his deeper conformity to Christ,” the apostolate website explains. 

In the Archdiocese of Atlanta, the apostolate began in 2017 at St. Pius X Church in Conyers. Beth Gowasack, a parishioner for over 20 years, saw a church bulletin notice about the apostolate while visiting her daughter’s family in St. Paul. She felt a strong attraction to the ministry immediately.  

“I don’t know when I have felt so much belief in a ministry, and I think it stems from my own personal experience with intercessory prayer—lifting up someone and seeing God at work in someone’s life in response to that prayer,” she said. 

Beth and her husband, Brian, raised their four children in the parish and she has been part of other essential ministries over the years, including as a catechist and office volunteer. 

“There are lots of ways to support my pastor,” she said. “All are good and needed.” 

But this unseen way of supporting the pastor dovetailed with her gift of intercessory prayer and her awareness of the difficulties in the life of a parish priest. 

“The idea of the humanness of the priest was communicated to me at a very early age,” she said. When scandal came to the parish where she grew up in Indiana, “my parents never wavered, and it was somehow communicated to me that these men are not perfect and this was a very difficult life.” 

“I do think their lives are very hard. If my vocation as a wife and mother is hard, if I have moments of loneliness and doubt, why can’t he be having the same thing? It is no different. He is living a vocation,” she said. 

One-year commitment 

The simplicity of the ministry is appealing to her, and its guiding wisdom. All that is needed is seven women who commit to an hour of prayer on their day of the week for one year. The woman who forms the group is called the anchoress. The first group in a parish is formed for the pastor. Once a group is established for the pastor, a second group can be established for the parochial vicar or other priests in residence, but each group has its own anchoress and seven sisters. 

Those who are praying can make their holy hour in any church where the Blessed Sacrament is present, so they can do so while traveling and at the time that suits their schedule. If a woman cannot make her holy hour there is a list of substitutes who can fill the role that week. Men can be substitutes as well as women.  

Women make a one-year commitment to the apostolate, usually in June on the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and can step away or stay when the year is over. Since 2017, many different women have been in the St. Pius X Church Seven Sisters chapter praying for the pastor. Some have stayed for several years, while others have stepped away after one year. Beth Gowasack has been the anchoress throughout. 

For five years the group has continuously prayed for the priest serving as pastor of St. Pius X. Father Areiza, who became pastor in 2018 of the parish of over 2,000 families, is the third to be in that role since the ministry began.  

Members of the Seven Sisters Apostolate pray for their parochial vicar in the sanctuary at St. Pius X Catholic Church. From left to right are Fermina Consla, Olga Jennings, María De La Luz Silva and Hilda Pelayo. Photo by Johnathon Kelso

The apostolate doesn’t create any personal relationship between the priest and those praying for him, Gowasack emphasized. The expectation is that it’s a gift to the priest. When a group forms, the anchoress writes the priest a letter to let him know.  

“This isn’t a buddy-buddy system. It is a ministry of prayer and intercession.  … You are praying for him because he is your shepherd,” Gowasack said. 

“You go before the Blessed Sacrament. He is your only intention. I think that is part of the power, part of the giving. You drop anything you are holding in your hands. The hour is only for him. I think that is all part of the beauty of it.” 

“I can’t think of anything simpler. You’re in this parish with hundreds of people. With the help of the Holy Spirit, you’re going to be able to find seven women to do this.” 

‘We are their family’ 

St. Pius X now has a second chapter that prays for the parochial vicar, Father Javier Muñoz. A member of the pastor group, Fermina Consla, started it when she completed her year. That group is made up of seven Spanish-speaking women.  

Olga Jennings, anchoress for this group, is a middle-school Spanish language teacher in Rockdale County, the mother of two sons, and a past Hispanic ministry leader in the parish. 

A native of Spain, she brings to the ministry spiritual and human insights from her own life and culture. She and her family have long been close to the Missionaries of Charity formed by St. Teresa of Kolkata. Like that religious order, the Seven Sisters Apostolate is founded on prayer before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. The apostolate also says that each hour should include prayer for the priest to grow closer to Mary, the Mother of God, an emphasis that is close to the hearts of people in Hispanic cultures, Jennings said. 

“We know how important the priests are in our lives,” she said. “They are the ones who help us to reach Jesus, who forgive our sins. They give us the sacraments, they give the sacraments to our children.” 

María De La Luz Silva offers a Holy Hour for a specific priest weekly. Photo by Johnathon Kelso

“They pray for us, but how many of us truly pray for them?” said Jennings. “When I was single, I was working here as Hispanic minister. I remember going home to an empty house. Everybody was going to a house full of people, but I was going to an empty house. That is what a priest experiences,” she said.  

“We are their family. When they come to a parish, we become their family.” 

Father Muñoz, who celebrated his 25th anniversary of priesthood in 2021, said hearing of this ministry on his behalf “was a beautiful gift.” 

“I wasn’t expecting this. … I was in shock. That was amazing.” 

Compared with when he was ordained decades ago, he said, “Being a priest at this time is a little bit difficult. … It is more challenging.” 

“To have this group praying for me is a beautiful experience,” Father Muñoz said. 

The apostolate reminds him of the accounts in the Gospels of a group of women who supported Jesus in his public ministry. 

“This looks like that to me,” he said. “Women supported Jesus in his ministry. When they pray for me … I have some support. I have sisters praying for me.” 

“It would be wonderful if every priest had a group to pray for him,” Father Muñoz said. 

Seven Sisters at St. Brigid 

Tricia Borah began a Seven Sisters group at St. Brigid Church in Johns Creek last August for the pastor, Father Neil Herlihy. The attraction to this apostolate arose out of her family’s friendships with different seminarians assigned to St. Brigid during the summer months each year. The Borah family has been part of the parish since it began in 1999. 

“Over the last five or 10 years, as we’ve had seminarians come to St. Brigid for their summer assignment, our family just kind of embraced getting to know them, having them over for dinner. We made a commitment as a family to pray for seminarians. When some were ordained priests, we continued to pray for them,” she said. “It’s been on the heart of our family to pray for priests.” 

She also was introduced to a Carmelite saint, St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, and her zeal for praying for priests through a Catholic podcast “Abiding Together.” St. Elizabeth was a contemporary of St. Therese of Lisieux. “They both prayed so fervently for the church by specifically praying for priests,” Borah said.  

“It helped me understand the call I was feeling to pray for seminarians and for priests in particular,” she said. 

The Seven Sisters Apostolate was mentioned on the podcast and led her to visit the website and read about its mission and vision. “It all kind of came together to nudge me to start a group at St. Brigid.” 

“Having priests as personal friends of our family has really helped me to understand both the joys and the struggles of priestly vocations and just how much they need our prayers,” she said. 

Father Herlihy said he had never heard of the Seven Sisters Apostolate when Borah told him a group was being formed to pray for him. As pastor of the 4,300-family parish, he said he appreciates the support. 

“As a pastor, knowing that these seven women are praying for me on a daily basis is very consoling and is truly appreciated,” Father Herlihy said. 

He said the apostolate emphasizes the power of prayer and the necessary collaborative ministry of priests and deacons and lay people in the parish. 

“These seven women of St. Brigid who participate in the apostolate are models of holiness and are representative of the spiritual vitality of the St. Brigid faith community,” Father Herlihy said. 

Borah is on the staff of the parish, serving as special needs youth minister. She and her husband also volunteer with the high school ministry, which their daughter leads.  

“I think it would be really beautiful to have a particular group for every pastor in the archdiocese. I think the way we strengthen the church is to have good, holy and happy priests. One way we can do that is by praying for them in seminary and especially in their early priesthood. All priests need our prayers,” she said. 

“I want other people to know about the apostolate and that hopefully it will spread to other parishes.” 

The apostolate’s founder said that now that Seven Sisters has continued for over 10 years what is most vital is “the fidelity of the Seven Sisters intercessors to pray as they have committed—and for more to come alongside with the same zeal and fervency … that our prayers may find the heart of every bishop and priest.” 

“We believe that this mission is do-able,” Howe said. “Without any doubt, every priest has seven sisters-in-Christ in his life that would be called to this. We follow the lead of Jesus and echo His asking, ‘Can you not watch with me for an hour?’ … At the very core, the invitation is His. We are simply and joyfully His co-workers.”