Father Frank Lioi is not surprised when he sees people praying in church. After all, that’s what most people come to church to do.
Last year he was surprised, however, when he encountered women in the church who had come there for the sole purpose of praying for him.
These women are part of the Seven Sisters Apostolate, a group of Catholic women who have pledged to spend one hour each week in prayer for their pastors or other members of the clergy. The apostolate was founded with seven women in St. Paul, Minn., in 2011 and has since grown to include groups of women throughout the nation.
“This is a great thing that we can do. We’re going to support (our priests) in the best way possible, and that’s through prayer,” remarked Mary Ann Turek, who belongs to St. Mary Parish in Auburn and in October of 2018 started the group committed to praying for Father Lioi.
Each new group that’s formed needs to have at least seven members, Turek explained.
“You get one woman a day that takes that particular day and spends an hour in prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament for her pastor or her parochial vicar, whoever she’s praying for,” she said.
In Auburn, seven women pray for Father Lioi in his role as pastor of St. Mary Parish as well as Ss. Martha and Mary Parish. Another seven women pray for Father Justin Miller in his role as parochial vicar at the two parishes.
“Father Lioi and Father Justin are officially registered. If the pastor changes, you pray for the pastor you’re getting,” Turek added.
This policy is intended to ensures the group’s prayers are directed toward the office of the parish’s shepherds — rather than the individual priests filling those roles — in order to prevent group members from developing “undue attachments” to specific priests, according to the Seven Sisters Apostolate’s website.
Janette Howe founded the apostolate in 2011 as a way of showing her gratitude to her pastor for the spiritual care he provided to her family and fellow parishioners. Turek learned about the apostolate in 2018 and was drawn to it because she believes today’s priests are facing many challenges.
“I think our priests are going through a really difficult time. Some people don’t look too kindly on them,” Turek said. “They’re working so hard for us, and we love our priests. They need our prayers.”
The women in the apostolate pray for the spiritual, emotional and physical well-being of the priests serving their parishes, and the women’s prayers take a variety of forms, Turek said.
“I’ve got a chaplet of reparations specifically for priests that I pray. There’s a Stations of the Cross for priests. I do a lot of litanies — Lord, have mercy on him, Jesus have mercy on him,” she said.
Shortly after Turek learned about the Seven Sisters Apostolate, she approached Father Lioi and asked him if it would be alright for her to start such a group in Auburn. Father Lioi agreed that he and other priests would benefit from parishioners’ prayers and gave her the go-ahead. He didn’t fully appreciate what the apostolate’s members were doing, however, until he encountered some of them as they prayed.
On at least two separate occasions Father Lioi walked into church and greeted the woman he found praying inside, only to have that woman tell him she was in the process of praying for him at that moment.
“After each of these incidents I was greatly humbled, realizing that each day of the week, someone from the parish was praying a whole hour specifically for me,” he recalled, noting that this realization has influenced the way he lives out his vocation. “Knowing that individuals are praying for me has encouraged me to do my priestly ministry even more diligently and devoutly.”
Both Father Lioi and Father Miller said they are grateful for the prayers of the members of the Seven Sisters Apostolate. These prayers almost serve as a continuation of the prayers of a community of Discalced Carmelite sisters in Rochester, which supported him as he discerned his vocation to the diocesan priesthood.
“Having parishioners pray before the Blessed Sacrament for me in my current parish carries on the ministry of intercession and penance, providing a spiritual lift for me as a priest,” Father Miller said. “Without the prayers and sacrifices of devoted persons, few of the blessings we may perhaps take for granted as Catholics would be possible.”