How does somebody who spent 16 years in the military, helping produce nuclear weapons and loading bombs, end up a woman religious?
"By the grace of God, that’s the only thing I can tell you," Sister Jennifer Kane remarked, adding that her vocational path "is long and it is crazy. I’m pretty much a conversion story of bombs to Bibles."
The Corning native is nearing the end of her fourth year with the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, also known as the Salesian Sisters of St. John Bosco. She is due to make her first profession of vows with the order’s Eastern Province this coming Aug. 5, the day after her 42nd birthday, and confident that she’s heading in the direction God wants her to go.
"There’s always been the hand of God in all of this," she said. "God knows every move you make. He’s got this all planned, if you’re willing to accept his will and plan for you. Ultimately God gets you to the final destination."
Sister Kane, the daughter of Tom and Carol Kane of Corning, is a native of St. Vincent de Paul Parish and a 1989 graduate of Corning West High School. She attended Clarkson University on an ROTC scholarship, graduating in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.
From there she served four years of active duty with the United States Air Force — all at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana — as a missile systems engineer for intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) nuclear weapons. She also grew in her Catholic faith during that time thanks to her involvement with a Cursillo group; she made her Cursillo in 1996.
"It did change my life, it really did. It’s just a great community of believers there in Montana," she said.
Sister Kane completed her active Air Force duty with the rank of captain. She joined the Montana Air National Guard in March 1998, and considered becoming a chaplain’s assistant but instead transferred to the New York Air National Guard in January 1999. Operating out of Hancock Field in Syracuse, she worked full time as a weapons loader — with duties consisting of loading bombs, weapons and ammunition — while also fulfilling her military commitment with the National Guard.
In September 2003 she entered graduate school at SUNY Oswego, earning a master’s degree in education in December 2005. However, military deployments beginning in September 2006 — three to Iraq and one to Saudi Arabia — made it difficult for her to commit to a full-time teaching position. During her third trip to Iraq, she reached a crucial juncture in her religious calling.
"There’s something about being in the desert," she remarked. "I read my Bible all the time, there was a good two months of doing that. And when I came back, I knew I had to do something."
Sister Kane noted that she’d had thoughts of a religious life in earlier years without seeing them through. "The call from God was definitely there. I guess I was in denial a long time," she said. "(I would say to God), ‘I worked on nuclear weapons, I was a bomb loader, you can’t be talking to me!’"
Following the suggestion of a friend, she did some Internet research to find a religious order that fit her special interests of education and youth ministry. When the Salesians came up, she recalled, "I looked at their website for quite a while."
After meeting with sisters in the order, she realized she was in the right spot. Sister Kane formally ended her 12-year affiliation with the National Guard in 2009, entering the Salesians that August.
"When you walk into any Salesian house, a few things hit you. One is a sense of joy, the other is family spirit. When I entered, my soul felt at home," she said. "These are joyful people and their work with kids is to be commended. And the more I’ve progressed in my formation, it just confirmed my vocation as a Salesian."
The Salesians, an international congregation with more than 15,000 religious, are devoted to the education of young people with a special priority on children in need. Sister Kane served one year as an aspirant and another as a postulant, and will end her two-year novice period at Sacred Heart Novitiate in Newton, N.J., by professing her temporary vows this August.
Salesians typically take six years of temporary vows before making their final professions. In fact, another Corning native — Sister Mary Jackson — just made her final profession in the summer of 2012. She and Sister Kane have gotten to know each other well; Sister Kane lauded Sister Jackson for her joyful personality and said she greatly appreciates that "there’s so many more just like her" in the Salesian order.
Sister Kane said her days are filled with "a whole lot of prayer and study," along with ministry to children, as she looks forward to serving the Salesians in one or more of their specialty areas of staffing schools, retreat centers and campus ministries.
Despite her self-described conversion from bombs to Bibles, Sister Kane said she’s "not at all" regretful of her military service. She acknowledged that Catholics have widely varying opinions on war — especially when it involves nuclear weapons — but emphasized that she’d never relish the thought of putting such weaponry into action.
"You’re not going to find one person in the military that doesn’t want peace. They want it more than anything," she stated.
Sister Kane feels that she’s basically the same person she always was, except that she’s following a different path by being more open to God’s call.
"Once you’ve truly experienced the grace of God and have committed yourself to what that means in your life," she said, "I don’t think you’re ever the same."