In 1939, Mrs. Robert Brunner, who had been ill for many years with congestive heart failure, accompanied her husband to the United States. This move was necessitated by World War II which soon thereafter raged throughout their native Belgium. Although Mrs. Brunner loved her new country, she missed the ill and handicapped friends she had come to know as a member of Union Catholique des Malades (The Catholic Union of the Sick). She looked forward to the day when she could once again rejoin her Belgian friends in her letter writing apostolate. Mrs. Brunner kept in contact with some of the members of the apostolate who encouraged her to begin a branch of UCM in America. But how? Where?
Following the end of the war, a young man went to Lourdes to ask Our Lady for a cure. He was severely afflicted with cerebral palsy. Instead of being cured, Our Lady used Jerry Filan to fulfill Mrs. Brunner’s dream of establishing CUSA in America. At Lourdes, he had met some members of the Belgian UCM who told him about Mrs. Brunner’s dream.
About the same time, Mrs. Brunner began to wonder whether God really wanted UCM in the United States. She had approached many priests with the idea, but they all advised her that CUSA was too “European” for the fast-moving American. Finally, through Saint Catherine Laboure – the Saint of the Miraculous Medal, to whom Mrs. Brunner had great devotion – she told Our Lady that she would make one last attempt to interest a priest in the idea of CUSA. . . If this failed, it would be taken as a sign that Our Lady did not wish CUSA to blossom. This last contact was with Father Thomas Finn of Massachusetts. Father Finn encouraged Mrs. Brunner to proceed and accepted the invitation to become CUSA’s first Spiritual Advisor. And so, Group I of CUSA finally began on December 8, 1947 – the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
At Lourdes, Our Lady appeared to Bernadette and said, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” A century earlier, Our Lady gave Saint Catherine Laboure the miraculous medal, which reads “Mary, conceived without sin. . .”
So, at the feet of the Immaculate Virgin, CUSA was born. When Jerry Filan died in 1950, twelve CUSA Groups (eight members each) existed. At the time of Mrs. Brunner’s death in 1965, there were more than 120 CUSA Groups. From this humble beginning, Our Lady continues to watch over CUSA.
CUSA’s name was legally changed in 1986 from “The Catholic Union of Sick Associates” to “The Catholic Union of the Sick in America.”
With the advent of cheaper telephone rates and then the advent of e-mail, letter writing became a less prominent aspect of American culture. As CUSA prepared to celebrate its Golden Jubilee in 1997, the leadership met in Belleville, Illinois, at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, to discuss how they might reinvigorate interest in CUSA. E-mail groups were formed. At the same time, the membership looked at the name of CUSA, realizing that people with disabilities did not see themselves as “sick.” Keeping the acronym CUSA because of its familiarity with the membership, the leadership decided to change the name officially once again to CUSA - An Apostolate of Persons with Chronic Illness and Disability.
In 2007, as CUSA reached the 60 year milestone, the Board of Directors asked Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., to serve as the fifth administrator of CUSA. At the same time, Sacred Heart Province of the Franciscan Friars adopted CUSA as an official ministry of the province. Still under the protection of the Blessed Mother, we pray daily for the spiritual and temporal welfare of our organization as we try to live out the words of St. Paul, who wrote in his Letter to the Colossians: Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church. . . (Colossians 1:24)
How It Works
Each CUSAN belongs to one or more groups of no more than eight people who participate in a “round robin” letter (either traditional “postal mail” or “e-mail”). As the letter moves from member to member, each CUSAN adds to it. Each group is led by an experienced CUSAN. A priest or deacon serves as Spiritual Advisor to each group and participates in each “round” of the letter. The leader and an assistant keep the letter fresh by removing old letters.
Each CUSAN is encouraged to share the events of her/his life as well as the faith that guides and supports her/him in illness or disability. Sometimes the Spiritual Advisor or leader will lead a specific discussion. Members are encouraged to include a personal message to each of the other members each time they write.
In addition to the correspondence, each CUSAN prays a common Morning Offering, and prays for the members of his/her CUSA Family.