VATICAN CITY, JULY 24, 2001 ( John Paul II wrote a message to Sister Maria Isilda de Freitas, superior general of the Franciscan Hospitaller Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the pontifical approval of their congregation.

This congregation, which was born in Portugal, was approved by Pius IX on March 27, 1876.

In his message, written in Portuguese, John Paul II thanked the sisters for the "wonderful" evangelical road traveled by Sister Maria Clara of the Child Jesus´ religious family, "with its multiple service of charity ... [which] has not disappointed the confidence expressed by my predecessor."

The Pope referred to the turbulent second half of the 19th century, which moved God to find lifesavers, such as Sister Maria Clara, among the shipwrecked.

The founder was born in 1843. Her mother died from an epidemic when she was 7 and her father when she was 13. She was taken in by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent of Paul, who ran a hospice, but the religious persecution that broke out in Portugal forced the religious sisters to leave the country.

Maria Clara was taken in by a friendly family. While living with them, she felt a call to the religious life. At 25, after overcoming considerable opposition, she decided to dedicate her life to God in "St. Patrick´s boarding school," founded by Father Raimundo dos Anjos Beir, to educate and fund the Capuchin nuns in the nearby convent of Our Lady of the Conception.

These nuns were established in 1710 as Franciscan Tertiaries, vowed to defend the teaching of the Immaculate Conception. Maria Clara was welcomed into the community.

As the religious persecution continued in Portugal, Maria Clara and two other religious sisters went to France to complete their novitiate in Calais. When she returned to Portugal, Maria Clara wanted to found a convent in her native country similar to the one in Calais. The Pope approved her request and conferred on the Portuguese Hospitaller Sisters the same privileges enjoyed by the French congregation.

At the time, Portuguese authorities regarded the congregation as just another "charity association."

John Paul II praised the work of the Portuguese nun, and mentioned her congregation´s missionary work in Goa, India, at a time when smallpox sowed terror among the city´s population. The sick were left at the Wise Kings Isolation Hospital, where only the Hospitaller Sisters had the courage to work.

"In face of the numerous problems and urgencies, which at times seem to commit and even overwhelm consecrated life, the daughters of Sister Maria Clara sought to accept profoundly the designs of Providence," the Holy Father stated. "He calls [those in] consecrated life to elaborate new responses to the new problems of today´s world."

The Pope promised prayers for abundant blessings, so that the participants in the congregation´s 24th general chapter meeting will carry out "a fraternal, courageous and fruitful work pleasing to God."