Sunday Special: Select few still heeding call of a life of sisterhood

Sunday Special: Select few still heeding call of a life of sisterhood

Sister Mariela Stodden grew up in a Catholic family in Kansas City, Mo., and attended Catholic schools.

But it wasn't until she attended a Steubenville Conference at age 18 — reluctantly, at the urging of friends — that her faith became deep and personal.

"When I first went, I thought these people were crazy," Stodden, now 28, recalled with a laugh. "They were very excited about a Jesus and going to Mass."

Then that night, a priest spoke to the audience gathered at the national Catholic youth conference.

"When you give your life to God, you lose nothing. You only gain, and you gain everything," Stodden said, her eyes lighting up as she recalled his words.

"I thought that can't be true. I thought if you give your life to God, you have to give up having fun, and you have all of these rules," said Stodden, a vivacious, outgoing young woman who enjoyed playing sports — particularly soccer — and having fun with her friends.

She looked around, perhaps expecting to see looks of confusion or disbelief on the faces around her. Instead, she saw genuine peace and joy and a fulfillment she didn't have.

"For the first time, I said, 'OK, God. If I have everything to gain by giving my life to you or just having a relationship with you, prove it. Show me that you're real. Show me that you exist,'" she recalled saying.

In a reflective moment, Stodden felt God alive within her, and she heard him say, "You are my most intimate spouse."

While she left the conference feeling "in love with God and the church" and committed to living her faith, she also felt confused by those words and tried to ignore them. And when a friend and religious mentor asked her whether she had ever considered vowed religious life, the answer was a resounding "no."

At the time, Stodden didn't know any religious sisters, and her only knowledge of religious life — a form of consecrated life within the church where members profess vows of chastity, poverty and obedience and live in community — came from "The Sound of Music."

"I thought that doesn't happen anymore," she said, referring to the lifestyle. "And I thought, if it did, you had to be really quiet. I'm really loud. I love to talk. I like to be active. I thought I would be really bored."

Stodden got her first glimpse of religious life on a visit to the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville. She went there thinking the life wouldn't appeal to her, but the experience would help her grow in her faith.

The first person she met was a young, soccer-playing sister who did an impressive flip throw in full habit, and she was equally impressed with the peace and joy that everyone in the community conveyed. She left thinking, "Lord, hopefully you won't ask me to be a sister. But if you do, I could think about it."

The next two years, Stodden studied mass communications and theater and played soccer at Briar Cliff University, a small Catholic liberal arts school in Sioux City, Iowa. She dated a fellow student whom she could see herself marrying, and she pictured herself living in the mountains of Colorado, having lots of kids and horses and working in graphic design.

"I thought, 'I can have my own plan and still have a relationship with Jesus and be fine,'" she recalled.

At the same time, Stodden continued to feel a burning desire to deepen her relationship with God and give more of herself to Him. One night while praying in chapel, she threw out a challenge.

"Lord, I'm not leaving ... until you tell me what to do," she prayed.

"It took a while," she continued, "but He told me, 'No matter how perfect the guy, no guy will ever be enough for you. I made your heart to be my spouse.'

"It was difficult and sad," Stodden said of letting go of her own desires for her life. "Yet, I felt at peace, and I felt so much joy that He was calling me. At that point, I really surrendered to Him telling me what to do and where to go. I said, 'If you want me to join a religious community, I would do it."

In 2007, at age 20, Stodden joined the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George. She transferred to Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., to study catechetics and theology and earn a teaching degree. For the last year, she has been part of St. Matthew parish in Champaign serving as a theology teacher at the High School of St. Thomas More.

"Our charism, the spirit of why our community exists, is to receive Christ's mercy and then make it visible in all we do," Stodden said of her order. "I have a missionary heart. What I've fallen in love with, I want to share ... and proclaim.

"My gifts lie ... in sharing the gospel and teaching the kids my faith," continued Stodden, who teaches freshmen and a class for seniors. It's not unusual for her to pull out her guitar in class or kick around a soccer ball at the girls' soccer team's practice.

"I love seeing my students' desire to pray. I love seeing them get excited about the truths of the Catholic faith. I love when they ask questions. But I will go wherever the Lord leads me. If I'm called to be a missionary in Japan or Indonesia or Brazil, I'll go."

Stodden is one of a small number of religious sisters that live and serve in Champaign and Vermilion counties.

She, along with two sisters, work and/or teach at the Catholic high school, and two teach at St. Matthew Grade School.

Four sisters serve St. John's Catholic Newman Center on the University of Illinois' campus. Three serve St. Malachy's parish in Rantoul. (One is officially retired but still does a lot for the community.)

And five sisters, who are members of the Servants of the Holy Heart of Mary, serve at Presence Covenant Medical Center in Urbana and Presence United Samaritans Medical Center in Danville.

Women religious have always played a vital role in our American history, said Brother Paul Bednarczyk, executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference in Chicago.

"Years ago, if you wanted to serve the church, you became a sister," Bednarczyk said, adding they taught and worked with the sick and poor, among other things.

"They were the pioneers of women in leadership roles in the U.S.," he continued, adding they served as presidents, directors and held other leadership positions in Catholic-run schools, colleges and universities, hospitals and social-service agencies at a time when women weren't allowed to own property, run businesses and testify in a court of law.

In 1955, "the vast majority" of hospital administrators and college presidents in the U.S. were men, said Sister Patricia Wittberg, a retired professor of sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indiana and member of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinatti. However, "the ones that were female were nuns."

"Becoming a Catholic sister was a way to use your God-given talents at a time when very few women had those opportunities. Catholicism had these neat outlets," continued Wittberg, co-author of "New Generation of Catholic Sisters: The Challenge of Diversity." Published in May 2014, the book examines women who entered religious life in the U.S. after the Second Vatican Council — or Vatican II, a major time of renewal in the Catholic church — and explores how two generations (1965-1980 and 1993-2008) became attracted to religious life and how the new generation differs from the previous one.

That said, both Bednarczyk and Wittberg pointed out the number of people entering religious orders has always been a small percentage of the Catholic population. Also, growth has always been cyclical, marked with an explosion at the beginning and a decline at the end.

"These cycles are over very long periods of time, and the cycle we're in right now began in the early to mid-19th century," Wittberg said.

At that time, the Industrial Revolution brought many rural people and immigrants from Catholic countries such as Ireland, Poland and Italy to the cities.

"There was overcrowding and other urban problems, health problems, terrible poverty and a need for schools, hospitals, social agencies," she said. "A lot of people who were migrating from foreign countries had a strong attachment to the culture of their native land, their language, their religion, and they wanted separate a separate school system, hospital system, agencies to work with the poor, and they needed people to run them ... Tens of thousands of women were entering Catholic religious orders.

"That explosive growth continued into the 1950s," Wittberg said, adding that by 1965 or 1966, there were more than 180,000 women in religious orders in the United States.

Today, that number is less than 50,000, she said, pointing to several reasons.

After 1965, many of those factors that drew women to religious life no longer pertained.

"Catholics, by and large, Americanized," Wittberg said. "It's no longer important to most of them to retain an ethnic version of Catholicism."

Also, changes within the culture and Catholic church opened up more opportunities for the laity.

"If you want to do ministry ... or be a college professor or president, it's no longer necessary to become a nun to do so," Bednarczyk said.

And since the 1950s and 1960s, he added, society's values, in general, have become more out-of-sync with Catholic values.

"In a culture that promotes sex, money and power, for a woman to take vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, that's a very radical statement. So few people will be called to that particular lifestyle," he said. "Our society has also gotten very complex. We get on this treadmill of constantly moving. People are plugged into technology and a 24/7 media cycle, but do we take the time to really reflect on our relationship with God? Do we have the opportunity to hear God's call in our life?

Wittberg pointed to a recent report showing that over 30 percent of Millennials said they are not affiliated with any religion.

"A lot of them say they are 'spiritual' but not religious," she said. "This is true of all Americans not just Catholics, but it's true of Catholics as well. If they don't see themselves as religious, they're not going to consider entering a religious order."

Still, the number of people entering today has held steady for the last six years, according to the National Religious Vocation Conference.

"What we're seeing here is that God still calls people to this lifestyle, and people are still responding, and that's the mystery of the vocation," Bednarczyk said, adding they're more relevant than ever. "They're coming to live in community with other women who share their Catholic faith and values, and they want to deepen their relationship with God and the church."

Wittberg said about half of the women enter more traditional orders. Many, though not all, tend to enter in their 20s. About the same percentage are entering more nontraditional or progressive orders.

"They tend to be older," she said, adding half are 40 or over when they enter. "Many have had a career ... and eventually found they wanted more than this career. They wanted a deeper spiritual life."

"Some felt called by God that this is what they're meant to do. Others felt a profound sense of peace or being at home with a particular group of women," Bednarczyk added. "Everyone's story is different, and they're often fascinating."

Sister Maryann Schaefer, who was raised Catholic in the San Francisco Bay area, decided to become a sister in the fifth grade after one slapped her across the face. Her father had just moved his daughter, who had been labeled a trouble-maker, from a public school to the Catholic school, where he worked, to learn discipline from the sisters.

"What drew me to religious life was I knew Jesus never treated anyone harshly," said Schaefer, a sister at St. John's Catholic Newman Center. "He had stern words at the time, but they were never meant to demean the person. They were always meant to bring the person up and make them a better person. These sisters were dressed in their garb. They were supposed to represent Jesus, and yet that's not what I saw.

"So I wanted to become a sister who would care for young people who would be more like Jesus and show them the kindness of God," continued Shaefer, who discovered the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, Salesian Sisters of St. Don Bosco, and responded to their philosophy of educating people through reason, religion, love and kindness. "You sit down and talk to the young person who's troubled, and you try to be for them a living image of God."

Still, Schaefer's path didn't lead directly to a convent.

Schaefer spent her first two years of high school with the Salesian sisters, but had to transfer to another school her junior year. During her senior year, she met a boy at church whom she dated and later got engaged to.

"I still wanted to be a sister," she said. "But I decided I'm going to have the regular life of a female. I'm going to date. I'm going to do what I like to do. When the time comes to make my decision, I can weigh both lives and decide where was my peace. Where was my joy? Where do I feel completely fulfilled and can look forward to a lifetime commitment? It was testing my heart. Every young woman does that."

After high school, Schaefer worked for 10 years as a secretary. She bought a motorcycle, motor home and a small truck.

Schaefer, an avid outdoors person who loved to hunt and fish with her dad and different boyfriends, also acquired several rifles.

After several years on a break, she and her first boyfriend got back together. He proposed, and she said yes.

"And the turmoil began," recalled Schaefer, who knew deep down that a life with this man would not fulfill her and that breaking off the engagement would break her fiance and father's hearts.

Schaefer said she learned a group of Salesian sisters lived a half hour away. She got in touch with them, then in November 1977 started paperwork to become a candidate.

"I said, 'OK, God. I've been praying about this. Two things could happen here. Either the sisters will say yes or no. I leave everything in your hands, God."

She entered the following summer at age 28 and began a long process of being a postulate, novitiate, taking first vows and taking final vows and determining how she could serve her community. Schaefer, who did not like school, studied theology and philosophy and earned a bachelor's degree in education and a master's degree in technology and education.

She has served in New Jersey, Florida and Louisiana, and this is her fourth year at St. John's Catholic Newman Center, where she first worked with college-age students. She, among other things, oversees students involved in the Service and Justice Outreach ministry, mission trips and the Newman Shares food pantry, which served close to 700 students last year.

In addition to being a spiritual mother to students, she enjoys living in community with Sisters Mary Arciga, Theresa Samson and Loretta Dedomenicis. While they all have different duties, they come together several times each day — for prayer and meditation at chapel in the morning, Mass around midday and prayer in the early evening.

They also cook and eat meals together, take walks and — if they're lucky and can score tickets — attend Illini sporting events.

"This year, I'm trying to follow girls' volleyball and the softball team," said Schaefer, a self-described sports addict who coached high school softball for five years and played in an adult softball league, dressed in full habit.

"You could put me in front of a TV, and I'd watch sports 24/7," said Schaefer, who follows college sports, the San Francisco Giants and 49ers and the Tampa Bay Rays and other professional teams. "It's a point of reference for the young people, and I love it myself. If I meet a young person, I can say, 'Did you see last night's game? They won!' It just opens a door.

"We always ask ourselves, 'How can we approach young people about God, if you're not involved in something that's of interest to them. You do that by showing interest and getting a conversation going and showing them we are real people.

Like Schaefer, Sister Ann Elizabeth Little became interested in religious life at an early age — the eighth grade. But she grew up in an Episcopal Church in Nashville, Tenn. and wanted to become an Episcopal sister.

"I thought that was silly, so I tried to get rid of the thought," said Little, who attended a Catholic high school and converted to Catholicism at 19.

Then, she earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics at the University of Dallas, and taught high school math for a year in Ennis, Texas.

But Little could no longer ignore her calling, and she entered the Dominican Sisters of Springfield in 1981 at age 23. She took her final vows in 1989 at age 31. She worked throughout Illinois, and in Peru for 10 years, before coming to St. Malachy's Parish in Rantoul, where she visits the sick and homebound, and accompanies members of the Hispanic/Latino community and is involved in the Spanish choir and Mass.

"The biggest drawing card for me was community life," said Little. "We live in community. We pray together. We work together. We relax together. I don't think I'm unusual in that."

"Being a sister isn't just a vocation; it's my lifestyle," she continued. "It's equivalent to people who have the lifestyle of being married and having a family. I'm always a sister just like someone is always a husband or a wife or a parent."

While the numbers have declined since the 1960s, Little said young women are still being called to serve the Lord through religious life.

"We definitely give people an opportunity to find out who we are and know more about our lifestyle. And if we know of someone who's interested, we will encourage it and nurture them," she said.

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