Janice Ann Marie Cooke recently realized her lifelong dream of becoming a woman religious. With that goal accomplished she’s now looking forward to helping a good friend achieve her own dream and by doing so, the pair hope to bring joy to countless others.
Sister Cooke, 69, became a Eudist Servant of the Eleventh Hour on March 17 when she took her vows at the congregation’s home base in Tijuana, Mexico. A former resident of Ontario, Sister Cooke soon will return to her former stomping grounds to help her good friend Marie Kessler achieve her dream of opening Sugar’s Acres of Love, a place of respite, peace and joy for families and children with disabilities and medical problems.
When Sister Cooke took her vows in March, she fulfilled a calling she’d felt for decades.
"I’ve been wanting to be a (religious) sister ever since I was 13," she told the Catholic Courier.
At her mother’s insistence, however, she entered business school rather than the convent after graduating from high school. She soon met the man she’d call her husband for 10 years, and together they had two children. Her marriage eventually was annulled, but at that point Sister Cooke assumed she had misinterpreted what she’d previously considered as a call to religious vocation. Instead, she raised her children and eventually joined her brother in caring for their aging parents. But when her parents passed away a few years ago, she began to seek a new purpose for her life.
"My children are married and they don’t need me. My parents are gone. I needed to do something with my life besides just sitting home," Sister Cooke said.
Wondering if the door to a religious vocation was no longer open to her, she did some Internet research and stumbled across information about the Eudist Servants of the Eleventh Hour, which accepts women in their 40s, 50s and 60s and ministers to the poor and the needy. Founded in 2003 by Mother Antonia Brenner, the community constituted as a private association of the faithful under church law, and was approved by Archbishop Rafael Romo Munoz of the Archdiocese of Tijuana. Some of its members minister to the thousands of inmates at Tijuana’s La Mesa State Penitentiary, where Mother Brenner has been a presence since 1977.
After visiting Tijuana to learn more about the Eudist Servants, Sister Cooke knew she was being called to join them.
"When I visited I knew right then and there I was going to come back. I felt very at home here. The sisters are wonderful, and what they do is wonderful," she said.
Sister Cooke has spent the last 10 months in formation in Tijuana, where she ministered to La Mesa inmates three times a week. She also served at Casa Campos de San Miguel, which provides temporary shelter and assistance to women with incarcerated family members and women who are undergoing cancer treatment.
"I’ve never worked as hard in my entire life as I have here, but I’ve never been this happy," she said. "People back home don’t know how lucky they are, because these people have nothing."
Sister Cooke took her vows in March, but the vows are not perpetual so she and the other sisters will renew them each year for as long as they wish to remain members of the association. While some sisters remain in Tijuana, the rest return to their hometowns and live out their vocations by serving with local charities and missions, said Sister Cooke, who will return to Ontario in early May.
She’s looking forward to working at Sugar’s Acres of Love with Kessler, whom she befriended after the two met during a retreat at Notre Dame Retreat House in Canandaigua. As their friendship grew stronger, the two women came to believe their separate dreams could be complementary. Sister Cooke will bring a deeper spiritual element to Sugar’s Acres of Love, which Kessler is founding in memory of her three deceased children. Two of Kessler’s children died in infancy, so she has long nurtured a desire to help sick and disabled children and their families, Kessler said.
Sugar’s Acres of Love sits on more than eight acres of secluded woodland in Ontario and includes two ponds, open areas for athletic activities and an indoor facility that can accommodate 50 people, Kessler said. The serene, tranquil environment has a calming effect on adults, while the woods and open spaces encourage children to run, explore and be joyful, she added.
Kessler said she hopes to have an open house for Sugar’s Acres of Love in May and to begin operating in June. She noted that she believes her venture and Sister Cooke’s vocation are both the result of divine providence.
"I definitely believe that God plans everything for us," she said. "I just feel God put us together and this was meant to be."