ROCHESTER — The joyful enthusiasm of the New York City-based Sisters of Life, whose members spoke during a coffee-house presentation prior to last month’s Rochester Catholic Women’s Conference, made an impression on the young adults who attended.
Taylor Watson, a senior at the University of Rochester, who has been hired to teach at St. John Bosco School in East Rochester, said the sisters’ joy was infectious. But she also appreciated their realism regarding vocations.
"The recognition that you can step back but you can also be so joyful in the discernment process" was helpful, she added. "And you can figure it out … going back to Christ."
During the "Holy Grounds" talk for young adults in their 20s and 30s, which was held March 26 at Press Coffee Bar, the sisters said that discernment doesn’t just pertain to religious life, but also to choosing the right person for marriage.
"Don’t be afraid to make mistakes," said Sister Mary Gabriel, who also spoke at the women’s conference, held March 28 at Aquinas Institute. "We are not alone in discernment."
For the "Holy Grounds" event, Sister Mary Gabriel was accompanied by Sisters Bethany Madonna and Cecilia Rose.
Two days later, during the women’s conference attended by more than 900 women, the positive reaction to Sister Mary Gabriel was "off the chart," said Christine DiNovo, one of the conference organizers.
Cathy Marchand attended the women’s conference with two of her three daughters. She said she found the sisters inspirational, as did her daughter, Margaret, who is a senior at St. John Fisher College.
"I think a lot of young people don’t see religious very often," Cathy Marchand said about the nuns’ long habits and veils. "They were able to convey that joy of giving themselves completely. …In our self-centered culture, it was really great to hear their stories."
The sisters encouraged the women at the conference to see Mary in themselves, added Margaret Marchand. And they live out that advice by not only helping unwed and young mothers with the choice to keep their babies, but also by offering them a place to stay, she added. The sisters also counsel women who have had abortions.
"They’re very inspiring in what they do," she added. "They’re pretty wonderful."
Similar sentiments followed the "Holy Grounds" event, which about 25 people attended.
Lauren Gousy, from St. Margaret Parish in Buffalo, accompanied a friend who is in discernment about religious life. She said she planned to take the sisters’ positive messages and anecdotes back to her volunteer work with the Buffalo Pregnancy Care Center.
"Their charisma, dedication and just joy for life is so attractive," she said.
Also during "Holy Grounds," questions about discernment, making the choice of religious life, the challenges of being a young person in the world today, how to best serve God if one doesn’t choose religious life and infertility struggles were written down and placed in a basket. Sister Mary Gabriel chose questions from the basket, and all three sisters shared the task of answering.
Sister Cecilia Rose said choosing religious life was a huge surprise for her. But that all changed when she visited the Sisters of Life after personally experiencing feelings of restlessness.
"My heart exploded," she said. "The Lord is the one who does the calling. … But he gives us the freedom to choose him back."
And while she had initially worried about having to give up dancing, which she loved, the gift of music has continued in her work. She even played guitar during the event and sang with Sister Bethany Madonna to close out the "Holy Grounds" talk.
Sister Bethany Madonna said she had imagined her wedding day from the age of 5 and was sketching out dresses at 12. But a single choice at a slumber party — to not go with friends to a party where there would be drinking — led her to new friends who invited her to their church youth group. This new group led her to Bible study and a realization that God was calling her to something more than what she had envisioned for her life, she said.
But she didn’t know at first if that meant becoming a nun because, the only nuns she knew of her were the main characters in the "Sound of Music" and "Sister Act," she joked. So, she dated for a while, but soon she realized God was urging her to give him a chance.
"There were so many ways God reached out," she said. "I prayed every night for my future husband, and look what he did for me."
She said God has given her a love that is "perfect and total" and not failed her yet. Her desire for children also has been fulfilled through her choice to join the Sisters of Life, which gathers with the moms they counsel and their children at special events, including an annual Christmas party.
"If God is calling you to consecrated life, say yes," she said, adding that the world also needs good wives and husbands, mothers and fathers. "Whatever you decide … be holy."
"Live and find joy," Sister Mary Gabriel added.