Why I Became A Sister

CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

Dominican postulant Anna Harper, a native of Baton Rouge, La., plays Pokeno with patient Harriet Boyle at Rosary Hill Home in Hawthorne, N.Y., April 19. Rosary Hill is the motherhouse of the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, who staff a nursing home at the site that provides palliative care to people with incurable cancer and are in financial need.

By Emily Lahr (www.ncregister.com)

WASHINGTON (CNS) — When she professed her vows, the ceremony was like a divine wedding, said Sister Bethany Madonna, a member of the Sisters of Life in New York.

The church was filled with flowers and the voices of the nuns as they chanted the hymns, she said. “Heaven comes down to earth.”

Sister Bethany, raised in a Catholic family in Melbourne, Fla., always thought she would be a mother and have a large family. “I always thought I would be married to a wonderful man like my dad.”

After studying abroad in Italy and living with two communities of sisters, she fell in love with the beauty of religious life, she told Catholic News Service. When a friend invited her to go on a “nun run” — participants visit several convents in the course of a week — she was introduced to the Sisters of Life. She was attracted to their commitment to the unborn and their ministry to pregnant women and families.

“God created a religious community just for me,” said Sister Bethany.

On May 15, the Catholic Church will observe the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. Pope Benedict XVI, in a message about the day released earlier in the year, urged youths to consider becoming priests or religious.

The Sisters of Life is a contemplative/active religious community founded in 1991 by Cardinal John O’Connor of New York. Members take the three traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but also a fourth vow: to protect the sacredness of human life. They serve more than 100 vulnerable pregnant women a year, providing them with social, material and spiritual assistance.

The beauty of a vocation is God does not force anything on anybody, said Sister Sara Postlethwaite, a member of the Verbum Dei Missionary Fraternity in San Francisco. Verbum Dei is a contemplative/active community founded in Mallorca, Spain, in 1963. The community’s mission is to promote the word of God through retreats, prayer groups and lay ministry formation, among other ministries. Verbum Dei has four centers in the United States. Besides San Francisco, the community is in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles and in a number of other countries.

Sister Sara grew up in Southampton, England, studying physical therapy. Wanting to become more involved with the Catholic Church, she went on a retreat, invited by a Verbum Dei sister. In 2004, she planned a four-month trip to the Philippines to search for answers about her vocation; she stayed eight months.

“I was expecting a set of instructions,” Sister Sara said, but her real discernment of a vocation came when she returned to England.

In 2006 she arrived in San Francisco as a Verbum Dei novice. She took her first vows in 2008. Until she takes her final vows in a few years, she continues to study theology at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif.

“God doesn’t stop calling women,” said Sister Carmela Marie, a member of the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, N.Y.

The religious community, founded by author Nathaniel Hawthorne’s daughter Rose, ministers to people with incurable cancer. Sister Carmela said they accept terminally ill clients who have run out of options, cannot afford hospice care or have nowhere to go.

Sister Carmela, who grew up in Hinatuan, Philippines, always was attracted to religious life, but her family discouraged her from pursuing it.

“For them, it was like throwing my life away,” she said. She came to the U.S. to continue a career in nursing. Once in the United States, Sister Carmela felt a void without her family, and God was ready to fill it, she said. She entered the Dominicans of Hawthorne without informing her family in the Philippines.

At first, her parents were shocked when they learned she had chosen religious life, but now they are proud of her, she said. “My mother is proud to have a religious in the family.”

After they enter the community, a Dominican novice takes temporary vows three years later, and five years after that, she takes her final vows. Sister Carmela called the length of the discernment process wise.

In September, novice Anna Harper will receive the Hawthorne Dominican habit and a new name for religious life.

Harper, from Baton Rouge, La., said she was attracted to the community’s care of cancer patients. A nursing student in college, Harper had worked with cancer patients since she was 19.

“I really liked being able to get to know the patients,” said the novice, 26. Her day begins every morning at 5. Her schedule consists of prayer, classes, patient care and chores.

All four women religious CNS interviewed said the process of discerning one’s calling to religious life is a beautiful yet difficult journey. They advised young women considering religious life to trust Christ and to spend time with him in silent prayer.

“I would tell them to go find an adoration chapel,” said Harper.

A survey on religious life in the United States that was released in January showed that 75% of the women religious who responded said they regularly participated in retreats before they entered a convent. Two-thirds said they regularly prayed the Rosary or participated in adoration.

The four who spoke to CNS encouraged young women thinking about becoming a religious to talk to a spiritual director and not be afraid to take the next step.

Said Sister Carmela, “You can test the waters, but at some point you have to wade in.”

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