By RASHAE OPHUS JOHNSON
As young girls, Anastasia Kenney and her little sister played Mass. They cloaked their heads in a white curtain, draped accordingly as a bridal veil or a nun’s habit, and served crackers and grape juice to each other as they pretended to receive Holy Communion.
Some 30 years later, Kenney is moving into a convent and aspiring to wear a white habit in earnest.
The religious vocation startled even her.
“I was horrified! I was the least nunnish person I knew,” said Kenney, 35, of her initial inclination. “I thought the last group of sisters I’d be living with was my sorority sisters.”
Now she’s settling in with the Dominican Sisters of Immaculate Conception, a Polish community that began accepting Americans five years ago.
WORKING IN THE WORLD
The background on Kenney’s iPhone screen features three Dominican nuns in full white habits bounding across the Justice, Ill., campus where they operate ministries involving teaching, retreats and care of the elderly. In order to pay off $65,000 in student loans, Kenney will work outside the convent for a year before officially beginning formation as a religious sister.
After graduating from the University of Idaho with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and completing master’s courses in social work and community mental health, she mounted a diverse career in social services. She has been youth director at Holy Family Cathedral, a volunteer political campaign organizer, teacher at Holy Rosary Academy, advocate for the homeless, child protective services specialist, missionary volunteer doing hospice in Kenya and a pregnancy support counselor.
“She’s been drawn to jobs that deal with really intense suffering,” said Kenney’s friend Tiffany Borges, who wrote a letter of recommendation for Kenney’s application. “The way she handles it is to bring it to [eucharistic] adoration. I’ve been impressed that her response is simply prayer and bringing it to God.”
GROWING UP IN THE FAITH
But Kenney had much to experience and overcome before heeding the call to serve as a religious sister.
Raised in several states and Europe by Catholic parents who settled in Anchorage with the Air Force in 1987, Kenney felt expected to attend a Catholic college. She chose Loyola University because it was farthest from home. She was an inactive Catholic and self-described materialistic sorority girl with a free-spirited lifestyle. Within a year, however, New Orleans became “too crazy” for Kenney, and in 2000 she followed love to Idaho. She was planning to get married when a messy breakup left her venting on the phone to her mom. Her mother suggested she attend Mass to feel better.
“I was thinking, ‘What is that going to do?’ but I took her advice,” Kenney said. “I went to the Newman Center and met such active, vibrant young people there. To this day I’m still very good friends with the people I met there.”
With renewed faith Kenney enrolled in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) and received the sacrament of confirmation. She joined her family in Anchorage in 2001 and there discovered a rich community of faith centered around Holy Family Cathedral, both with the resident Dominican friars and in the young adult scene. She immersed herself in Catholicism, meeting with a close circle of friends to devour papal encyclicals and collaborate on the establishment of a lecture and discussion series known today as Theology & Brew.
“We were just so hungry to have our faith fed,” Kenney said. “That helped us deepen our faith and develop such a love for it.”
NEED FOR HEALING
Kenney first explored a religious vocation in 2002. Overriding her parents’ objections that she wasn’t ready, she participated in an inquiry at a Dominican convent.
“When I came back, I thought I didn’t have that calling,” Kenney said. “A call can be authentic and get thwarted the first time around. I didn’t have the maturity I needed and the healing I needed. God had to heal me of a lot of things first.”
Healing was critical. Kenney estimates she was 10 or 11 when she developed destructive eating habits that rapidly mutated into acute anorexia and bulimia. Despite two hospitalizations with therapy plus fervent prayer and support from loved ones, she could not overcome the affliction. It took an act of God.
Kenney finally found peace through a healing Mass by Father Santan Pinto, a priest whose mission is to form laity as disciples. Her roommate and best friend, Kate Collins, persuaded her to see him during a stop in Anchorage in 2010. Kenney’s parents accompanied her.
As Father Pinto laid hands on her head, “It was awesome in the true sense of awe,” marveled Kenney’s father, Matthew Kenney. “She cried out in anguish and kind of collapsed. Then she stood up, bewildered, and ran off. When she came back, she was changed.”
She went home and prayed earnestly. And then, she ate. As Kenney ate her first real meal in over three months, Collins entered and wept at the sight.
“I tend to be very objective and analytical. I’m the kind of person where God needs to hit me on the side of the head with a 2×4,” Matthew Kenney said. “Seeing something so manifest and physical occur — there was no way to explain, physically, what I saw. It was a purely spiritual event.”
“The Gospel came alive for me in such a profound way,” said Kenney, who now enjoys a primarily vegetarian diet. “Healing is possible. It shouldn’t seem supernatural to us. We have the Eucharist. We have the sacraments. The Gospels are rich with stories of healing and being made whole.”
As instantly as the healing eliminated her eating disorders, it also quelled any lingering doubts as to her religious calling.
“God meets us in our brokenness and suffering, and his love and his healing of a soul witnesses to his power,” she said. “A lot of us have different forms of brokenness to surrender to the Lord and to overcome with his grace. It doesn’t mean that we’re not able to serve God.”
A VOCATION EMERGES
In fact, Kenney believes her struggles and recovery will enable her to even better serve as a religious sister.
“I’ve always had the heart for it. I’ve always been drawn to prayer and to people who were really in need and needed someone to care for them and help them and give them a sense of hope,” she said. “The key to conversion is to love people where they’re at. Find Christ in everyone, and meet them where they are.”
So she’s packing up all that love with a cherished relic of Saint Gemma Galgani and many photos of a well-traveled life, leaving her golden retriever Henry to her parents and shipping her Ford F-150 to a convent outside Chicago. She will miss Alaska’s outdoors, especially the ski slopes and her special prayer spot at Beluga Point, and she’ll miss swimming, as the Dominican Sisters of Immaculate Conception wear their habits perpetually. She’ll also miss her family.
Today Kenney laughs heartily regaling the pretend Masses of her childhood. One of her two younger sisters is married, and she anticipates the other also will serve in the married vocation. As for Kenney, her bridal veil and nun’s habit will be one and the same. She is impassioned to be the bride of Christ.
“I feel like the Lord has wooed my heart. That love is so firing, I can’t imagine not responding,” she said. “This is a profound and beautiful love relationship. It’s a love story.”