My vocation story was shared in this way with a small group of Seniors at the Rosary, our Sacred Heart school in New Orleans, LA and my Alma Mater. These are my reflections as shared with them this morning.
I grew up in a large Catholic family of 10 children. We lived in New Orleans, not far from Audubon Park and in the middle of the university section. My parents were not necessarily pious in a devotional sense, but they were definitely fervent. Our family went to Mass every weekday morning at 7:30 AM before school at Holy Name of Jesus Parish, a Jesuit Church. We prayed the Rosary on Monday evenings after family dinner. We prayed in the car before we went on car trips, and while on car trips, we prayed the Rosary. My Father made the sign of the cross on our foreheads before bed and Grace before Meals was a certainty. My Mother prayed the litanies to the Saints, especially St. Lucy and St. Jude. In all things, we were a Catholic family, even to regularly entertaining a steady stream of Catholic priests, bishops and nuns at home. Being Catholic was culture to me, a way of breathing and of living in New Orleans.
As a student at the Academy of the Sacred Heart for 14 years (Pre-K through 12th grade), I had the opportunity to get to know the community of the Religious of the Sacred Heart (RSCJ) in a wide variety of settings—as teachers, administrators, and as friends of my family. Over the tumultuous years of my youth, the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the habits and various lifestyle expressions of the religious sisters changed in concert with the changes in the larger Catholic Church community—the sisters moving, for example, out of the cloistered community in the school convent and into local neighborhood houses.
Along with these outward changes, individual members of the community came to Sacred Heart and others left the school as a result of reassignment, according to the vows of obedience they had accepted. I grew in my understanding of the lifestyle as I experienced the presence of these sisters, engaged with them through life as a student, and observed their practice of daily spirituality in clear evidence to all. Throughout all of these years, the witness of the sisters to me was to a life of simplicity in lifestyle, dedication to the mission of education, of grounded joy, and of love for God.
In high school, a priest asked me to teach a CCD class at a local parish on the outskirts of a low income housing area in downtown New Orleans. Each Saturday, I went down to the parish church to teach this class of 1st graders. With students scurrying under the pews and definitely not paying attention, I quickly learned that I did not know how to teach religion! I asked one of the RSCJ at school for some immediate help. Each week, she mentored me in how to teach for the coming session. That experience of teaching at a young and formative age anchored in me the joy of teaching, and of accompanying young children on the path of religious growth and educational development. It also spoke to me about the presence, accessibility and availability of that sister to her students in so many different ways.
I was in my senior year in high school when I began to think more seriously about religious life. From the sisters, I saw it as a viable and positive way of life. It seemed like a good way of life to me—a peaceful, prayerful and happy life in simple service to God, a public witness. During my years at school, and, perhaps related to fine RSCJ teachers and a regular routine of daily Mass, I had started to pray and had felt a personal relationship with God from a young age. In some precognitive way, I knew that I wanted to continue to grow in this way. Nonetheless, I pushed the thought of religious life out of my mind in favor of more pressing desires of going to college in New York, pursuing a career, travelling with friends and dating my boyfriend.
Throughout college, I stayed in touch with several Religious of the Sacred Heart, although not frequently. These friendships become an important vehicle for my coming to a more adult appreciation of these women and their commitment. I grew to see them as deeply passionate and committed people—committed to community, to radical vows, to a counter-cultural lifestyle and to a personal relationship with God.
After completing a Master’s degree in Educational Administration and Supervision at Loyola University in New Orleans and beginning a Doctoral Program in Curriculum and Instruction, my heart told me to stop and to listen to what God was inviting me to in my life. I had arrived at a critical turning point—a threshold of decision, the edge of uncertainty. Even though I had been offered a marvelous position as a Dean of Students at a local university, I knew that there was something more in life that I was being called to and searching for than a successful career. Somewhere in my heart, I knew that I needed to follow this call in spite of not being completely clear about what it meant for me or where it would lead.
Throughout my adolescence and early adulthood, I had marvelous boyfriends and, at this point in my life, I was involved with a special person. My life was in every way pointed towards a successful career, a likely marriage and fabulous life in New Orleans with many friends. Deep down, though, I knew that these things would never going to truly fill my heart and deeply satisfy. I just had that deep sense of truth and certainty that that path was not going to be my life; and I was certain of this intuition in spite of not knowing the exact path to which I was called. This was a moment of faith, of letting go into an abyss with trust and in a posture of surrender.
There were some indications of my call in my early years: I told my parents that I did not wish to make my debut even though it was something that others in my class and my other sisters chose to do when it was offered to them. I didn’t have a judgment about it for others. I just did not feel that it was something for me. On the other hand, I felt strongly drawn in a mysterious way in volunteer service people with special needs, the elderly, homeless, and others who struggle. I felt incredibly (and consistently) happy teaching religion to small children on Saturdays and at summer camp.
Not long after this insight about stopping my doctoral program came to me, I was teaching Religion at a parochial school—7 sections of 7th and 8th grade religion. On my way to a conference, I ran into a RSCJ head of school who asked me “Why aren’t you teaching at a Sacred Heat school?” That somewhat stopped me, and was faced with an important realization–perhaps for the first time seeing the utter congruence between my affectivity and my choices in both career and personal life choices. It was at that time, I really began to let down my defenses about religious life and began to open myself to God and to the invitation of the lifestyle.
At about this time, an unusual event prompted an even closer connection between me and the RSCJ community. A friend of mine became pregnant though she was not married. The RSCJ community opened their house community to her during the last months caring for her and providing her with assistance. Over the course of that period through my visits, I became aware of the close community lived by the sisters and the compassionate response given to my friend. Their living jarred my sensibilities to a new place, and broke open any residual stereotypes about the lifestyle that were still holding me back from a commitment.
After about a year of initial exploration and spending more formal time with the community, I discerned to enter the community of the Religious of the Sacred Heart and to explore the lifestyle more deeply as a novice. God is faithful and abundant in blessing: I have been in the community for over 30 years now—never turning back!