When John Bruderman helped Mr. and Mrs. Brunner establish The Catholic Union of the Sick in America (CUSA), and subsequently was instrumental to the creation of FADICA, he would never know the relationship between the two organizations over 45 years later would be instrumental to the longevity of CUSA’s vitally important ministry.
Effective philanthropy relies on a certain level of foresight and anticipation of unknown needs that must be met—sometimes far into the future. The story of Mr. and Mrs. Brunner is an excellent example of what it means to establish a community whose impact still reaches people to this day.
The Roots of CUSA
In 1939, as the specter of war began to surface throughout Europe, Robert and Laure Brunner moved to the United States from their native home of Belgium. Prior to their move to America, Mrs. Brunner had been ill for many years with congestive heart failure. Although she suffered, she found great comfort and companionship in the ill and disabled individuals she met while in and out of hospital. Although mere acquaintances at first, these fellow patients quickly grew to become Mrs. Brunner’s dear friends. With some of her fellow patients, Mrs. Brunner joined a support group known as the Union Catholique des Malades (Catholic Union of the Sick) or UCM for short. This group shared updates on their lives and confided in one another about their treatment or struggles they were facing. And when apart, they would do the same via letter writing, a hobby that Mrs. Brunner grew to enjoy.
The move to a new country brought with it a great distance from the friends with which that she had built heartfelt relationships, but Mrs. Brunner stayed connected with a few of the members, many of whom encouraged her to begin her own branch of UCM in America. Although she was captivated by the idea, she had no idea where and how to start; but being a woman of deep faith, Mrs. Brunner knew that she should entrust this decision to God. So, she started the way she started all important endeavors: with prayer.
CUSA’s first group officially began on December 8, 1947 – the Feast of the Immaculate Conception – and over the years, CUSA membership and participation grew significantly.
Ministry of Spiritual Pen Pals
Today, the spirit of Mrs. Brunner’s vision lives on in each CUSAN, an individual member of CUSA. CUSANs belong to groups of no more than eight participants who take part in a “round robin” style pen pal letter writing campaign. Though Mrs. Brunner created CUSA with traditional “snail mail” in mind, digital forms of communication like email has made it even easier for CUSANs to stay connected with one another.
Members are grouped in part by the type of mail communications they prefer to use when writing letters to one another – with some preferring the speed and easy access of email, while others preferring the more personal touch of a handwritten letter. As a letter moves from member to member, each CUSAN reads and adds to it. The groups are led by experienced CUSANs, priests, or other religious leaders who serve as spiritual advisors to each group.
This ministry of letter (or email) writing is directly tied to Mrs. Brunner’s original 1939 vision of accompaniment and companionship, regardless of distance. In their letter, members are encouraged to share life events as well as how their faith guides and supports them through their illness or disability.
In addition to the correspondence, CUSANs pray a common morning prayer and each offer prayers for their fellow CUSA members, their families, or anyone else in their lives that might need prayer.
FADICA, a Catalyst 45 Years in the Making!
Like many longstanding organizations, there are moments of challenge alongside moments of success. In the summer of 2020, the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to unprecedented uncertainty and anxiety across the country. Joan Donnelly, Vice President of the Robert Brunner Foundation and a longtime champion of CUSA who has been involved in the organization for over 45 years, had a meeting with Alicia Simon, Vice President of FADICA. During the conversation, Joan shared updates about CUSA including the difficulties and uncertainty it faced in the months ahead. It was a time where group participation was low, hovering around 200 active CUSANs, and a time where there would also potentially be a gap in executive leadership of the organization.
Knowing the collaborative spirit of the FADICA community, and its partners and friends, Alicia suggested that she might be able to find someone or another organization which would be committed to helping CUSA continue its vitally important ministry of accompaniment.
Alicia began talks with several potential organizations that might share a common interest with CUSA, and one of them expressed enthusiastic interest: Renew International. Quickly identifying the potential connection between RENEW and CUSA, Alicia reached out to Joan and offered to arrange an introductory conversation.
In January 2021, Joan met with Sister Terry Rickard, O.P., previous Executive Director of RENEW International, and after several fruitful meetings, a two-year partnership plan developed as the two discovered the missions of both organizations closely aligned. Both CUSA and RENEW encouraged small groups of Catholic men and women to gather, share, and live out their faith alongside one another.
As of January 1, 2022, CUSA and RENEW have formed a unique partnership. Under this new arrangement, RENEW will provide administrative support to CUSA and help the writing ministry continue to thrive. Additionally, CUSA will provide a stipend to support RENEW’s staff dedicated to continuing the work of CUSA. As Joan describes it, “RENEW is in the parishes already doing incredible work on the ground, and we cannot wait to see how their initiative helps CUSA’s mission continue and grow.”
To help CUSA reach its full potential, RENEW has formed a special RENEW-CUSA team which will be responsible for accompanying CUSANs as they journey together through their writing ministry. As Joan shares, “RENEW has been so supportive and resourceful as we charter this new venture together. They have actively engaged with CUSA every step of the way–to learn all they can about the organization.”
In the end, Joan captures the partnerships and world of intentional giving beautifully, “My appreciation for philanthropy is rooted in the fact that John Bruderman and his peers setup FADICA, and I am sure at the time he would never realize CUSA would be using them [FADICA] the way we did to continue Mrs. Brunner’s vision!”
The RENEW-CUSA example is a wonderful model for relationship building and an example of how the Catholic philanthropic community rooted in Catholic inspiration can help ministries in transformative ways.
Historical information about CUSA sourced from cusa.org.