Sister Cora Marie Mitrano’s first-grade teacher at St. Anthony of Padua School in Rochester changed the course of the young girl’s life. Mitrano thought her teacher, a Sister of St. Joseph, was “absolutely marvelous” and aspired to be just like her.
“I used to stay after school and wash the boards and clap the erasers. I couldn’t do enough for her,” she recalled.
When Sister Mitrano was in third grade, her former teacher got sick and left the convent.
“My heart was broken. I made up my mind then that I was going to take her place,” said Sister Mitrano, who made good on that promise and this year is celebrating 75 years as a Sister of St. Joseph.
At the time she had no idea what the vocation would entail, Sister Mitrano recalled. All she knew was that she wanted to be just like her friendly young teacher. She kept that goal in mind, and after becoming a Sister of St. Joseph, she taught for 67 years, first at Holy Apostles School and later for Nazareth Academy and Nazareth Elementary.
Like Sister Mitrano, many women religious are able to trace the roots of their vocations to personal interactions with other sisters, noted Sister Michele Schroek, vocations minister for the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas.
“Often someone knows a sister from the community, and they’ve had a positive experience with that sister, and they admire them and want to be like them,” Sister Schroek said.
Such was the case for Sister Jeanne Marie Collins, who this year is celebrating 60 years as a Sister of Mercy. While a student at St. Louis School in her hometown of Pittsford, Sister Collins was inspired to join the Sisters of Mercy by her third- and seventh-grade teachers, both of whom belonged to the Rochester congregation.
“I wanted to be one of them one day,” Sister Collins recalled in a reflection she penned for her jubilee.
For many other women, the first stirrings of a vocation are felt during or after an experience of service with women religious, Sister Schroeck noted. Serving alongside sisters and building positive relationships and a positive experience of God sometimes leads women to want to emulate the service, mission and ministry of the women religious they’ve encountered, she explained. Others feel drawn to religious life after shared prayer with women religious or through a deep relationship with God, she added.
“It could be a retreat experience, where they felt very connected with God and wanted God, their experience with Jesus, to be the center of their life,” Sister Schroeck said.
A combination of those three elements of prayer, service and personal interactions gradually led Sister Anita Kurowski to discern her vocation as a Sister of St. Joseph. She grew up in a Catholic family with a strong faith, but didn’t encounter women religious until she moved to Rochester in 2000 to attend Nazareth College. She quickly became involved with Catholic campus ministry, where she met several Sisters of St. Joseph. The congregation offered several volunteer opportunities for students.
“I was really excited to try some of those. At first, I was just interested in giving back, volunteering, and I just got to know the sisters through that,” Sister Kurowski said.
Over Christmas break she participated in Urban Plunge, through which college students spent a week living in community with some of the Sisters of St. Joseph, volunteering at the congregation’s ministries and learning about Catholic social teaching and the congregation’s history.
“Even though I went for a volunteer opportunity, I was really attracted to their way of being with each other in community,” Sister Kurowski recalled. “They were passionate for a mission that pulled them together. ‚Ä¶ They really tried to live each day with that perspective, how am I living the call? That was very exciting to me. I wanted to live a life that had that kind of meaning, but also just the spirit they had with each other.”
Hearing God’s call
Sister Kurowski knew she wanted to spend more time with the sisters, even though she did not immediately feel called to religious life. She gradually became aware of the call over the next seven years as she spent time with the sisters and learned how to listen to God working in her life.
“Discernment is about not just the times that you have to make a big decision, but cultivating that listening attitude to God in your daily life, in moments big and small, in every facet of your life,” said Sister Kurowski, who made her final profession of vows in 2014 and now teaches music at Nazareth Elementary.
Learning to hear God’s voice was a key part of Mercy Sister Laurie Orman’s discernment process as well. Like Sister Kurowski, Sister Orman did not know any women religious growing up. She got involved in parish ministry as a young adult, first as a catechist and then as a youth minister, and through her ministry she met and worked alongside several women religious. Over time she began to wonder if she might be called to religious life, but it wasn’t until she began working with a spiritual director that she was able to develop her relationship with God enough to hear him calling her.
“It’s so important that we have an understanding of who Jesus is, that personal relationship with God,” said Sister Orman, who teaches religion and social studies at St. Mary School in Canandaigua. “How do women know where God’s calling them if they don’t have the relationship with God?”
The path to a religious vocation does not always follow a straight line. As a child, Sister Barbara Quinlan Giehl struck up a friendship with a Sister of Mercy who frequently visited her grandmother’s neighbor, and by the time she was a student at Mercy High School, she had fallen in love with the congregation. The sisters had a sense of happiness and care for each other and others, and a willingness to respond to the needs they saw around them, she explained. Although she first began hearing God’s call to become a Sister of Mercy when she was 16, she stopped working toward that goal when she was 20 because she felt too young to make such a decision, she recalled.
She eventually got married instead, although she remained connected with the Sisters of Mercy as a lay associate. She and her husband had four children before cancer claimed his life in 2009 after 31 years of marriage. As she eventually came out of the fog of grief, she began feeling “a little nudge here and there” that made her wonder if she may still be called to religious life.
“I kind of pushed it away and thought what a crazy idea that was, but it didn’t go away and got stronger and stronger. I thought, (the congregation is) going to say no ‚Ä¶ and quite surprisingly, they said yes,” said Sister Giehl, who was received into the novitiate for the Sisters of Mercy in 2018.