Path to religious life varies, especially when sisters start out non-Catholic

by Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans


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Raised in an evangelical Christian family, a young California woman ventures abroad to study among the "dreaming spires" of Oxford University — and is introduced to a whole new world of faith.

Exposed to the traditions of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches by monks and nuns studying and living in local English communities, she realizes that she is moving towards an irrevocable choice.

Engaged to be married at the time, she decides to enter the Catholic Church and discovers, as time goes by, that she is called to become a nun in Germany, many thousands of miles away from home.

It could be a Hollywood biopic — instead, it's the story of a real-life 30-something sister and scholar, Makrina Finlay, now a Benedictine living in a monastery in Dinklage, Germany.

"I thought it was beautiful," she says of her early experiences at the abbey. "It was a place where I could express different parts of myself, ground I knew, and into which I could sink my roots."

The overwhelming majority of those pursuing vocations in religious life in the church were born into the faith. But a small, steady stream of men and women choose first to become Catholic and then, in what is perhaps an even larger leap of faith, choose religious life itself.

Twelve percent of brothers and sisters making perpetual vows weren't born Catholic, according to a 2017 Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate report. Nine out of 10 entering religious life were raised Catholic, CARA reports.

Whereas once a change of denominations would have been called a conversion (and still is often popularly referred to that way), since Vatican II it has been called entering into full communion with the Catholic Church.

Sometimes discerning a call to the religious life can take decades.

A native of Helena, Montana, Sr. Carolyn Gloege, now a member of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kansas, was raised as a Lutheran by a Catholic mother and a Presbyterian father. In high school, both she and her brother Louie (then in college) independently began to explore their Catholic roots.

Gloege, who says she had not considered college, began working as a file clerk in a medical office at age 17. Twenty-one years passed, and Gloege, then the head bookkeeper at the office, thought she was too old to be a member of a religious order but was encouraged by a sister on the staff at the Cathedral of Saint Helena to give it a try.

Gloege, who entered the Sisters of Charity in 1992, spent 22 years as a hospital chaplain. Now the pastoral ministry director for Ross Hall, the sisters' retirement community, Gloege makes visits accompanied by her dog, a rescue named Tiny.

Sr. Kimberly Kessler, who took her final vows as a member of the congregation of the Sisters of the Redeemer last year, had known sisters while doing rotation as a rehabilitation aide at Holy Redeemer, a hospital in the Philadelphia suburbs. The hospital had been founded by Redeemer sisters, who are still involved there and at St. Joseph Manor, the nursing home next door.

Though nominally Presbyterian, her family wasn't particularly devout, says Kessler, who grew up not far away in northeast Philadelphia.

But it wasn't until she took one of the sisters up on her invitation to the motherhouse and started spending Monday nights attending Mass and staying for dinner that she started to wonder whether there might be something more to her attraction to the order than friendship.

"I kept going to the motherhouse. It felt like a second home," she says. "Something was drawing me there." But her non-churchgoing family, having little understanding of the life of a vowed religious, wondered why she didn't find her career fulfilling enough.

As Kessler understood more about the order's commitment to community, prayer and service, she became convinced that she was called to pursue life as a sister. Her family has become more accepting, even excited, about her vocational path, says Kessler, now on the chaplaincy team at Holy Redeemer Hospital.

The avenue in

In some cases, the journey from changing denominations to taking vows as a member of a religious community seems linear, according to accounts from the women Global Sisters Report interviewed. In others, there is a close connection between a wish to become Catholic and enter the religious life.

"There is no canonical law concerning the time to start the application process in regards to a discerner who was not born and raised Catholic yet became fully initiated into the Catholic faith," says Sr. Deborah Marie Borneman, a member of the Sisters of Saint Cyril and Methodius; she is director of member relations and services for the National Religious Vocation Conference. Canon law requires that candidates show proof of baptism, confirmation and "free status" before they are admitted to the novitiate, she said in an email. The vocation conference, however, highly recommends a new Catholic wait at least two years, preferably three years, before application to any religious institute.

Every religious community has discretion to lengthen the required time, says Sr. Christine Still, a "charism promoter" for the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, based in Tacoma, Washington. "Each religious community sets its own time — until the 'honeymoon period is over' and their lives and experiences enable enough maturity in the faith to make the decision to join a religious order," she says.

While the small group of men and women from other faith traditions seeking her counsel included a Mormon, a Quaker and a self-identified former atheist, most were from more traditional Protestant denominations, she says.

All aspirants have unique journeys, Still says.

That's true for those born Catholic as well, she says. Vocation directors are looking for spiritual maturity, whether applicants are raised in the faith or not.

But those who choose to become Catholic face additional hurdles, she says. "Not only are they taking on the traditions of the Catholic Church but the history and traditions of their specific communities. It depends on the person as well as the religious community how difficult that may be. It can be a challenge but exciting at the same time."

A wider world

A School Sister of Notre Dame, Sr. Kathryn Frank (known as Katie), was raised in the Lutheran tradition in Wisconsin. She joined the Catholic Church several years after her marriage in 1974 because, she explains, she thought it was important for both parents to share the same faith tradition.

Frank was a stay-at-home parent while her daughter (adopted in 1980) was young, but she returned to work when her marriage eventually ended. Then, as a divorced woman in her 40s, pondering a potential vocation, she thought: "That's absolutely ridiculous."

But in a meeting with a spiritual director from a religious order one weekend while on retreat, she shared with her all the reasons why becoming a sister would be impossible — and ended up leaving with a collection of pamphlets about the religious life.

The next step? To ask her daughter. "Go for it, mom," her daughter told her. "Then you'd be hanging around with a lot of other women who like to talk about God." That was the permission she needed, she says.

Frank, who entered the School Sisters of Notre Dame community in 1998, has spent most of that time working with the homeless. In 2011, she was elected to the council of her order's new province.

"The advantage I have seen now, being a religious sister and coming from another faith perspective, is an openness to other faiths and a willingness to learn from the people I have met. We can learn so much from each other if we are open to it."

Until she became a sister, Frank had never traveled outside of Cedarburg, Wisconsin. It wasn't until she entered the novitiate that she met an African-American (in Cedarburg, there were none, she says) and they "forged a pretty amazing friendship."

That woman, Sr. Sandra Helton, did have something in common with Frank: She wasn't born Catholic either.

Born in New Orleans (she and Frank now live in Dallas), Helton was the daughter of a Baptist minister. Two of her sisters are pastors, and one brother is a deacon.

"I grew up in a family that was very much into living out your call," Helton says. "I wanted to do what God wanted me to do." But she knew, she said, that God wasn't calling her to be a preacher or a missionary.

While in college, Helton, who eventually earned a degree in teaching theater, started to help train lectors (readers) in a Catholic church. In the process, she got to know priests and nuns associated with the church, she says — and the questions about a divine call persisted.

"I'll tell you honestly, I wasn't so interested in the Catholic Church," says Helton. "The only reason I came into the church was because I had this call."

After joining the church in 1986, Helton began to immerse herself "in all things Catholic."

Though she had been most concerned about her father's reaction, he supported her decision. Her mother, however, "didn't take it well at all," she remembers.

In late 1997, she entered the community where she and Frank crossed paths, entering a congregation that has few African-Americans, though there is a whole Notre Dame province in Africa, she says. Helton took her final vows in 2008.

"It's countercultural. In a lot of ways I'm not in my natural element. Living with a bunch of women is not a natural thing." As a woman of color, sharing a residence with a group of white women also has its moments, she adds.

But, even facing those occasional frustrations, she finds an ongoing affirmation that she is in the right place.

A new calling

Finlay, the Benedictine featured in a 2017 Global Sisters Report Q&A, grew up in an "incredibly observant" Nazarene family in northern California, attending a Christian private school through high school and going on to Azusa Pacific University, which has deep Protestant evangelical roots.

During a semester abroad at Oxford University, she became acquainted with both the Catholic and Orthodox traditions. When she returned home, Finlay began attending an Orthodox church.

Drawn to the history of the early church, Finlay soon revisited Oxford to pursue a master's and a Ph.D., and deepened her friendships with monks she had met there previously.

Her then-fiancé was Catholic — "and I thought before I became Orthodox I should at least see if I could become Catholic."

After serious study and consideration, Finlay decided that, "Catholicism was the less radical choice. It wasn't a rejection [of her previous beliefs], it was another step in faith." Eighteen years ago, Finlay became Catholic.

While she and her fiancé parted ways, her friendships with the Benedictine monks continued. One of them knew the abbess at Dinklage and suggested she pay a visit. Though she didn't speak German, "I kept going back. This felt like home. I could entrust myself to this particular community, this particular place," says Finlay, who currently is both setting up a museum to honor the work of an anti-Nazi local bishop and helping Yazidi refugees who have come to that part of Germany.

Decades before Finlay pondered the implications of church history and theology in Oxford, another young woman, Sr. Mary Colleen Schwarz, had grappled with the sense that she wasn't at home in the conservative denomination in which she had been raised in rural Iowa. "Something was missing," says Schwarz, also a Benedictine. She is vocation director and coordinator of the Global On-Line Benedictine Spiritual Formation Program in the Benet Hill Monastery in Colorado Springs.

Conversations with a priest at college about the meaning of the Eucharist led to regular Mass attendance, she recalls, and eventually, when she graduated and became a nurse, to the decision to become a Catholic. "It didn't go over too well with my family. It took a couple of years" before the tension dissipated, she recalls.

While she became very involved in her parish, and felt a deep sense of belonging, in her mid-40s she began to experience what she calls "another spiritual nudging." It was then, while she was working for Mercy Hospital in Iowa City, she says, that she encountered a Benedictine sister working as a chaplain. Watching her, says Schwarz, "it was like the Gospel came alive in her."

The sister asked her: "Colleen, do you think you have a vocation?" Though Schwarz had by then earned a place as a clinical manager, and the job security and status that went with it, she heard a divine voice telling her: "This is who you are, and you need to do this."

Attracted by Benedictine spirituality, with its commitment to "peace, justice and radical hospitality, and seeing Christ in [the community]," she applied to enter Benet Hill and arrived in 2001.

"The biggest step was telling my father what I was going to do," she says. "When I did, we were walking outside, and he stopped and turned and said: 'Does this mean you will give up nursing?' " When she told him it would mean doing that for a while, he said that she must be serious. Once her father knew, she says, she could proceed.

"I have no idea what I would have done if he had said no," she says now. In the part of the Missouri Synod Lutheran tradition in which she was raised, they don't believe Catholics are going to heaven, says Schwarz. So when her father, then 90, gave her a big hug and said he would see her in heaven, "it was the love I needed to hear," she says. "His acceptance put a bounce in my step."

For non-Catholics pursuing a vowed life, there can be multiple challenges, from parental opposition to the difficulty of entering an alternative culture with unfamiliar rules. But no one interviewed here expressed ambivalence or regret about where their choices had taken them.

"I know for a fact that God called me to it, and God sustains me in this," says Helton, the daughter of a Baptist minister. "There's not a day that goes by that I'm not grateful for answering this call."

[Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans is a religion columnist for Lancaster Newspapers, Inc., as well as a freelance writer.]