Sisters’ authentic witness of faith inspires vocations in others - Catholic Courier
Sister of Mercy Laurie Orman teaches a class at Canandaigua’s St. Mary School Oct. 26, 2020. (Courier file photo)

Sister of Mercy Laurie Orman teaches a class at Canandaigua’s St. Mary School Oct. 26, 2020. (Courier file photo)

Sisters’ authentic witness of faith inspires vocations in others

Sister Jamesine Riley was just 12 when her older brother died at the age of 24. He had been her hero, and his unexpected death made her realize life could be short.

“I always identify that moment as a time when my vocation was born, because I remember thinking to myself, ‘I want to do something with my life that is important, that is helping people,’” recalled Sister Riley, who entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester after graduation and this year is celebrating her 70th jubilee.

Religious life was an obvious place for the young girl to turn in her search for a way to make a difference. She was impressed by the Sisters of St. Joseph who taught her in grammar school.

“It was their lifestyle,” Sister Riley explained. “I just was attracted to who they were and what they were doing with their life.”

Sister Patricia Carroll was similarly impressed with the women religious who taught her at Nazareth Academy.

“I became respectfully interested in what they do,” Sister Carroll explained.

That respectful interest soon blossomed into a call to a lifelong vocation, and this year Sister Carroll is celebrating 60 years as a Sister of St. Joseph.

Interactions with women religious inspire future vocations

The types of personal interaction that decades ago helped young women recognize callings to religious life still play a crucial role in the discernment process today, agreed Sister Michele Schroeck, vocation minister for the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. Mercy Sisters are encouraged to be aware of the young adults around them and try to serve as role models for them.

“We know that young adults are looking for mentors, so be a mentor, whether it’s to a family member or (a colleague). Even if you’re retired or in the nursing home, you still have an opportunity to interact with people who are younger or have children. How you relate with others is important,” Sister Schroeck said.

Decades ago, such interactions often took place in school settings. Many of the Catholic elementary and high schools in the Diocese of Rochester were once staffed primarily by Sisters of Mercy and Sisters of St. Joseph, and many students were inspired by their examples, according to Mercy Sisters Edwardine Weaver and Diane Erskine. This year, Sister Weaver and Sister Erskine are celebrating 70 years as Sisters of Mercy.

As teens, the two women were good friends who lived around the corner from each other. Every morning, they met at Rochester’s Holy Rosary Church and caught a bus to Our Lady of Mercy High School in Brighton, where they were “highly influenced” by the Sisters of Mercy who taught them, Sister Erskine said.

“I loved the calmness that seemed to be about the sisters, and I loved their prayerfulness. There was an atmosphere that drew me,” Sister Erskine recalled. “I wanted to do what the sisters did. I didn’t know specifically if that was going to be teaching, but I wanted to live the way they lived.”

Sister Erskine was not alone in that sentiment. She, Sister Weaver and 14 of their high-school classmates entered the Sisters of Mercy shortly after graduating. Her teachers’ sense of happiness, service to others and commitment to their education ministry had been attractive to Sister Weaver, as was their focus on helping young girls develop leadership qualities that would help them become successful adults, she said.

“It caught me and motivated me to become something bigger than myself,” Sister Weaver said.

Many interactions with women religious now occur outside of school settings

Sisters of Mercy and Sisters of St. Joseph do still teach in local Catholic schools, although they are now outnumbered by lay teachers. But there also are new ways for women religious to encounter young women, serve as role models and perhaps inspire vocations, according to Sister Donna Del Santo, vocations director for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester. Women religious now serve in such diverse environments as hospitals, jails, parishes, homeless shelters, and clinics for uninsured and underinsured people.

The diverse ministries of women religious share the common goal of meeting the equally diverse needs of the community, she said. Young people who see the women religious “walking the talk” and authentically living their faith sometimes are inspired to talk with those women and learn more about their vocations, she said.

The key questions, Sister Del Santo said, are, “How are we giving such a witness that someone says, ‘Gee, I’d like to talk to you about your faith?’ How do you create environments that are welcoming and available that are authentically you and not placing expectations on others?”

Thus, it’s important to create “safe spaces” — typically outside of churches — where young people feel comfortable asking questions, she added. They typically will not seek out the sisters, so it’s important for women religious to be present where young people are, she said.

Several households in Sister Del Santo’s congregation offer housing to college-age young adults “as a way to support them and also nurture them in their spiritual journey,” she added. The two young people who live in community with Sister Del Santo and several other sisters have learned more about prayer from the sisters. Meanwhile, the young people’s presence reminds the sisters to be intentional about their own prayer and to invite others to join them, Sister Del Santo said.

Presence builds a foundation, opens door for questions

Mercy Sister Laurie Orman knows she may be the only religious sister with whom those around her interact daily, and she tries to conduct herself accordingly. The teacher of middle-school religion and social studies at St. Mary School in Canandaigua is an active member of St. Pius Tenth Parish in Chili, and considers her presence in both places to be a form of vocation work.

“Maybe kids aren’t going to say right now, ‘I’m going to be a priest or a nun,’ but if they get into college, and they’ve got some of these nudgings going on, they know who to contact,” she said. “I’ve had young adults come up to me and say, ‘Hey, can we go to lunch? I want to talk to you about this.’ That’s where I think it’s so important to have an ongoing presence and to build that foundation.”

Sister Orman said her presence as a woman religious also can have an effect on the young teachers she works with at the school as well as the bridal parties she meets while serving as wedding coordinator at St. Pius. Women frequently ask her what the prayer life of a Sister of Mercy is like and what the sisters do, and Sister Orman said she welcomes these questions.

Women religious have faith God will take care of their congregations

Though it’s impossible to know which interactions will bear fruit in the form of future vocations, Sister Riley said she is not worried about the future of her congregation.

“God has always taken care of us,” she remarked. “I think we forget that from our beginnings, anything that’s happened has been because God has been in charge.”

Tags: Religious Orders
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