By PATRICIA COLL FREEMAN
In July, kneeling alongside the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia before morning Mass at their Nashville, Tenn. convent, were five young women and teens from Alaska – ages 13 to 21. The youth spent a week with the religious sisters praying and talking together, sharing the sisters’ chores and meals — and searching for God’s will about their own life.
Would the summer “internship” inspire these youth toward religious life? That’s still to be seen. But all five say keeping one’s mind open to the possibility and living “a day in the life” of a sister is a valuable experience for any young Catholic trying to discern her next steps — whether they lead to the convent or elsewhere.
“Our vocation is where we’re called to love best,” Marisa Ramos, 16, told the Catholic Anchor in an interview.
A parishioner at St. Benedict Church and a senior at Holy Rosary Academy in Anchorage, Ramos was in the delegation to Nashville.
“I think if you close off any options — religious life is obviously an option — then you’re not truly allowing yourself to love best,” she said.
LIVING LIKE SISTERS
“I just really wanted to know what God’s will was for me,” Oriele Jones, 21, explained. She is a parishioner of St. Benedict Church and an engineering, math and music student at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. With the help of Bob McMorrow, St. Benedict’s youth coordinator, Jones organized the July 12-17 visit to the religious congregation. Besides Jones and Ramos, three others took the trip: Briana Tobin, 18; MacKenzie Fuller, 14; and Catie McMorrow, 13.
The Nashville Dominicans, as they are commonly called, were founded 150 years ago with the mission “to contemplate and to give to others the fruits of our contemplation.” Their main work is in Catholic education; they direct, teach at, or provide campus ministry services to 38 schools and universities across the United States, Canada and Australia. They state that one of their principal goals is “to enlighten minds and inspire hearts with knowledge and love of the Truth, especially the Person of Christ, the Source of all Truth.”
The Nashville Dominicans are well-known and liked by many young people in Alaska, as over the past decade members of the congregation have presented talks at the popular, annual Alaska Catholic Youth Conference (ACYC). Each of the girls who traveled to Nashville this summer had been acquainted with the congregation through ACYC.
“It was really exciting already having that connection,” Jones said. “We were really able to just jump right into the retreat and focus… It felt like home right away because we’ve already known the sisters, and we were seeing a lot of them again.”
At the Dominican convent in Nashville, the Alaskans followed the schedules of their sister-hosts. They woke at around 6 a.m. and headed to the chapel for 30 minutes of meditation and morning prayer. Then came Mass, followed by breakfast with the sisters. Afterward some of the sisters gave retreat-styled spiritual talks to the girls, or together they performed light chores like cleaning the chapel or kitchen.
While the Nashville Dominicans host retreats specifically for those discerning a religious vocation, the Alaskan girls’ time was focused more generally on openness to God’s will — “how to listen for God and how to love,” Jones explained.
During morning leisure time, the girls played games, took walks and talked with postulants and novices — candidates on their way to becoming avowed sisters. There was lunch, a rosary and recreation time. And as the sun waned, the sisters and the girls prayed evening prayer and ate dinner. There was another period of recreation, followed by spiritual reading and night prayer before bedtime.
“The whole day was centered around prayer, which was really cool,” said St. Benedict parishioner Catie McMorrow.
SUPPORT FROM HOME
The travelers found a mix of support but also curiosity and questions from family and friends who knew of their venture to the convent.
It was a “fantastic opportunity,” said Val Tobin, mother of Briana. Such an experience gives Catholic youth “something more to consider as they are thinking about what they are being called to do.”
Briana Tobin — parishioner of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, graduate of Polaris Charter School and soon-to-be freshman at UAA — said non-Catholic friends have showered her with “tons of questions” about the experience. It’s “intriguing” for them, she said, because “we don’t really have the same exposure to religious life as you would in some places in the Lower 48.”
Ramos said her parents were behind her “100 percent,” though visiting a religious congregation for vocational discernment is “nothing they ever thought of doing when they were younger.” Friends were positive, too, she added, but a “little puzzled because I don’t seem to be the type that would do something like this, I guess.”
The five Alaskans found their own amazements and surprises in Nashville.
“It was sort of an out-of-this-world experience,” Tobin explained.
She was struck most by the number and joyfulness of the Dominican sisters — including the retired sisters the girls met during a tea party there.
“There wasn’t one sister who I saw who wasn’t exuding joy,” Jones noted.
As a result, “the sisters don’t seem to really age,” McMorrow said. “So sometimes if you went to look at them, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the sisters that just entered and they’re like 18 or the sisters who are 72 and are sitting in their wheelchairs. They all have this joy about them that the rest of the world doesn’t have.”
McMorrow was surprised also by the beauty of the convent grounds and the chapel with vaulted ceilings and intricate stained-glass windows. “It’s definitely a different beauty than we have here,” she observed.
Tobin and Fuller were awed, too, by the power of silent prayer during the sisters’ monthly day-long, silent Eucharistic adoration. “I’ve never been silent for that long,” Tobin said, smiling. “I had no idea that silence could be that filling.”
Ramos was “blown away by the greatness of it all, by how very, very much God is involved” in the sisters’ lives.
“It’s profound, it’s beautiful, it’s exciting and joyful,” she said. “It’s one thing to know what they do. It’s another to experience it and live like it.”
It’s uncertain whether the positive experience will lead these young Alaskans back to the convent. But increasingly women entering religious life say they first considered the idea in their teens.
According to the study “New Sisters and Brothers in Perpetual Vows” by the Georgetown University-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, those who professed perpetual religious vows in 2011 on average reported they were 19 years old when they first considered a vocation to religious life, and half were 17 or younger.
To be sure the convent experience has inspired these Alaskans to more serious prayer in finding their calling.
“I’ve definitely come back with a sense of spiritual renewal, and I’m definitely wanting to strive for holiness more so than I did before,” Jones explained. Before the trip, “I was just really impatient and kind of restless inside.” But one of the sisters “reminded me that God has a plan for me right now,” she said. So Jones aims to spend the next year on “how to love better and trying to get holy.”
“If I keep Christ as my center and I work on saying, ‘Yes’ [to God] and thinking about his will for me on a daily basis, then I think eventually it will become clear,” Jones explained. Already she has secured a spiritual director to help her in that work.
As to a religious vocation, before the trip Jones couldn’t picture herself as a religious sister, but now it seems possible.
“I’m definitely even more open to it than I was before I went,” she said.
Tobin, who had never seen a convent or been around many sisters before, said the trip “pointed the way for me.” She plans on returning for a religious vocation-focused retreat in January. Until then, together Jones and Tobin plan to go to daily Mass and maintain a prayer routine to “keep us Christ centered,” Jones said.
For a year Fuller has been considering a religious vocation as a Dominican. She said that while visiting the sisters “didn’t really confirm or deny anything,” if she decides to go into religious life, she’ll be well-informed enough “to choose.” Fuller will “continue praying and reflecting on the trip.”
McMorrow said she can envision becoming a religious sister.
“I would really like my vocation to be that, but we’ll see.” For now, she said, “I’m going to live my vocation as a high school student, and I’m going to make it a priority to pray and find a spiritual director.”
And for Ramos: “It’s finish high school, become closer to God, learn his will a little more – do it every single day because it’s not some far off thing. It’s something current and right now. So just do that and hopefully by doing that on a daily basis, he’ll show me what his plan is for the rest of my life.
“God’s will be done,” she said.