Milwaukee Catholic Mamas

St. Anne was the grandmother of Jesus Christ. (Photo courtesy of St. Anne Parish, Pleasant Prairie)

There isn’t a lot we know for sure about the life of St. Anne, as the New Testament makes no explicit reference to her, and most of the details that have trickled down through tradition come from non-canonical sources and private revelation.

But one thing we know for sure is that she was a grandmother, and whether or not she lived to meet her grandson, she loved him perfectly and considered him to be perfect — just like any other grandmother would.

The only difference is, in Anne’s case, it was true.

That’s what makes St. Anne, and her husband St. Joachim (whose feasts we celebrate on July 26), such powerful figures, not just in Catholicism but across religions. It’s a fact long acknowledged by Sr. Edna Lonergan, founder of the St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care, which operates two multigenerational daycare facilities for children and adults in Milwaukee. (Spelling St. Anne with or without an ‘E’ is correct; many entities spell her name without the ‘E.’)

“Sometimes when people ask me about (the name) of St. Ann’s, they’re from another faith and don’t believe in saints, or in St. Ann,” said Sr. Edna. “But when I explain, ‘St. Ann was the grandmother of Jesus,’ it’s just so logical — there’s never any question or any pushback for that so-called Catholic name. It’s historically correct.”

Sr. Edna initially chose the name St. Ann for her adult daycare facility when it opened in 1983 because it was operated out of her order’s infirmary of the same name — but she kept it because the symbolism attached with it was so perfectly fitting with her dream of providing care for adults, the elderly and children all at once.

“I thought she was a really good intergenerational symbol,” said Sr. Edna. For her, St. Anne embodied the principles she wanted as the cornerstones of her ministry.

“We have children (at St. Ann’s) calling people ‘Grandma’ and ‘Grandpa,’ and they’re not even related,” she said. “I think we’ve lost the concept of the extended family in our society, and that was very evident in (Jesus’ time).”

Pope Francis, evidently, agrees — this year, July 26, the feast of Ss. Joachim and Anne, is the first World Day of Grandparents and the Elderly. “After such a difficult year we truly need to celebrate, grandparents and grandchildren, young and old,” said Kevin Cardinal Farrell, prefect of the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life, at a press conference last month.

The day will include a Mass celebrated in Rome by Pope Francis with the elderly and grandparents of his diocese, as well as many international festivities — but the primary theme of the day is drawn from Matthew 28:20: “I am with you always,” and encourages mainly small-scale interpersonal connections. A plenary indulgence is even being granted to those who make a virtual or actual visit to “their elderly brothers and sisters in need or in difficulty (such as the sick, the abandoned, the disabled and other similar cases).”

That same spirit of acknowledgment and reverence for the dignity of the elderly is what underpins the entire mission of St. Anne’s Salvatorian Campus, which includes a skilled nursing facility and four assisted living communities on the campus in Milwaukee. St. Anne’s Salvatorian Campus was founded in 1876 by the Little Sisters of the Poor. Sponsored by the Sisters of the Divine Savior since 1992, St. Anne’s is the oldest elderly care facility in the Milwaukee area and prides itself on operating “like a big faith community,” said CEO and president Janet Krahn, where residents can feel comfortable talking about God and their faith.

Every week, employees attend an orientation where Krahn reminds them that as caregivers “you have the ability to make people’s lives better every day.”

“God gives you talents and skills and all of you that are here are here because you’re very nurturing and God has put in your soul to care for others,” she said.

St. Anne’s has a large celebration every year to celebrate the feast day of their patroness, beginning with Mass in the afternoon and concluding with festivities in the campus’ park. Each feast day, St. Anne’s also distributes their Heart of Home Award to an exemplary staff member or volunteer.

One recipient of that award, said Krahn, shared that her husband had recently suggested a trip to the Holy Land to celebrate the couple’s retirement. “She said, ‘I don’t need to go to the Holy Land — I come to St. Anne’s.’”

Who was St. Anne?

As is the case with many figures in early Christianity, virtually no concrete historical facts survive about St. Anne and her husband — what details we have, including her name, are handed down through tradition. But we know with absolute certainty two things: she was the mother of Mary and the grandmother of Jesus Christ. From these two indisputable facts, we can derive a host of others: she was a Jewish mother, and one who was likely very devout in her worship of God and her observance of his laws. To effectively conceive, bear and raise the Mother of God, she had to have been showered with a multitude of graces that would aid in her protection and formation of Mary.

But, we can only wonder if she had the honor of being involved in Jesus’ early life — no mention of her is made in the New Testament. Did she worry frantically when Mary and Joseph had to flee to Egypt to preserve the life of their infant son? Did she rejoice when they returned to Nazareth, and delight in time spent with her grandson as he grew up? Did God grant her any intuition as to the Passion and death Jesus would face, and if so, how did her grandmotherly heart bear it? We can only speculate.

St. Anne has proven her devotion to the disciples of her grandson throughout the millennia. She has long been honored as the patroness of grandmothers and women in labor, and her intercession is everywhere invoked by Catholics endeavoring to find a good spouse (grandmothers do make the best matches, after all).

Ultimately, the figure of St. Anne is a beautiful manifestation not only of the love that exists between multiple generations of families, but multiple generations of the Body of Christ. She is a reminder to love Christ as perfectly as possible — and to love him as perfectly as possible wherever he may be found, especially in the form of the elderly, the sick or the abandoned.