VERMEERSCH, ELIZABETH [SISTER MARY BENITIA]
VERMEERSCH, ELIZABETH (1880–1975). Elizabeth (Sister Mary Benitia) Vermeersch, foundress of the Missionary Catechists of Divine Providence, one of four children of Joseph and Maria Louisa (Jongbloet) Vermeersch, was born in the village of Ichtegem in West Flanders, Belgium, on November 1, 1880. During the great nineteenth-century international migration the Vermeersch family settled in Richmond, Texas. In 1893 Joseph died while working his land. When his wife was notified, she suffered a heart attack and died the following day. About two weeks after the deaths Elizabeth, Charles, and August were placed in the orphanage conducted by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio. When Elizabeth was older she accompanied the sisters to their schools in Mexico, learned Spanish, and acquired a love for the Mexican people. In 1898 she was received into the congregation of the Sisters of Divine Providence of San Antonio and took the name Mary Benitia. She taught in Louisiana and Texas and in 1915 was made principal of Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Houston. When she found low enrollment in the school and many children playing in the street and not attending school, she set out to visit their families to attempt to make them aware of the value of an education. While on her visits, she found many privations: poor housing, scant clothing, insufficient medical care, poor nutrition, and religious neglect. She set out to alleviate as many problems as possible by soliciting from the business and private citizens in Houston.
In 1928 Sister Benitia founded an organization, dedicated to St. Teresa of Ávila, whose members were to go out and teach poor children who could not attend Catholic schools. The group broke down, however, when five members entered the order of the Sisters of Divine Providence. Sister Benitia remained resolute, and by May 1930 she was able to organize a new group of young women whom she called Catechists of Divine Providence. With the support of her superiors she implemented more concrete, definite instruction for the members and transmitted her missionary spirit to them. In May 1932 the first of the young women made a six-month commitment to work with the group, and by 1934 specific rules for the catechists had been presented to Bishop Christopher E. Byrne and had been approved. When Sister Benitia's assignment in Houston came to an end in late 1938 she was sent to San Antonio, where she continued her catechetical work. In 1946, through her efforts and those of Archbishop Robert E. Lucey, the Catechists of Divine Providence received approval from the Sacred Congregation of Religious in Rome to become a branch of the Sisters of Divine Providence. In 1960 Sister Benitia retired from her missionary work. She died on December 2, 1975, at the age of ninety-five. A concelebrated Mass was offered for her the next day at Sacred Heart Chapel, with Archbishop Patrick Flores as the main celebrant. She was buried at Providence Cemetery at Our Lady of the Lake Convent, San Antonio.
Sister Mary Paul Valdez, M.C.D.P, History of the Missionary Catechists of Divine Providence (Archdiocese of San Antonio, 1978).
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Sister Mary Paul Valdez, M.C.D.P., "VERMEERSCH, ELIZABETH [SISTER MARY BENITIA]," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fve12), accessed March 11, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.