Pictured above: Sister of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Evelyn Okoye shares her vocational “glossary” during a recent panel discussion at St. Mary’s Dominican High School. (Photo by Beth Donze)
By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald
Those who feel a tug toward the consecrated life often are surprised by the calling and vigorously resist it at first, said three religious sisters, sharing their vocation stories with eighth graders and freshmen at the St. Mary’s Dominican High School.
The March 28 panelists – Sister of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Evelyn Okoye, Teresian Sister Gloria Murillo and Dominican Sister of Peace Kathy Broussard – told their teenage audience that prayer, spiritual direction and hands-on mission work played key roles in helping them to discern God’s plan for them and sealed their desire to dedicate their lives to the religious sisterhood.
Sister of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Evelyn Okoye shares the mission statement of her religious community, established in her native Nigeria in 1975. (Photo by Beth Donze)
Exercises helped her to discern
Sister Evelyn said she felt Jesus “knocking on my heart” as a teenager growing up in Nigeria.
“(Choosing a vocation) was really a battle for me,” recalled Sister Evelyn, who sought the counsel of a spiritual advisor at age 20 to help her establish a “GPS” – some navigational help on how to journey from vocational doubt to the best fit for her unique set of gifts.
“It was not just about what I want to do, but what does the Master want me to do?” Sister Evelyn told the Dominican students.
Sister Evelyn’s spiritual advisor challenged her to some “pretend” role-playing: For one week, she was to imagine her life as a wife and mother; the following week, she was instructed to assume the lifestyle of a religious sister.
After these exercises, her spiritual director asked: Where did you find fulfillment? Where did you find peace with God?
“My first (vocational leaning) was to be married; to have a man of my own; to have kids, but something kept disturbing me to say you have to do what actually God wants of you,” said Sister Evelyn, recalling how the sisterhood suddenly “clicked” with her.
To be certain, she entered the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, a Nigerian-founded community begun in 1975 with the help of New Orleans’ Sisters of the Holy Family. Their focus areas are education, counseling/social work, health care, promoting devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, youth ministry, spiritual direction and human trafficking.
Sister Evelyn, a sister for 16 years, currently teaches religion at St. Mary’s Academy in New Orleans and hopes to be reassigned to her native Nigeria this summer.
“God does not take us on the same route,” Sister Evelyn said.
Teresian Sister Gloria Murillo was drawn to the prayer-centered spirituality of her religious community. She originally assumed she would marry, but felt drawn to living in community with the Teresian Sisters. (Photo by Beth Donze)
Married life loomed large
Sister Gloria said she was drawn to the Teresian Sisters, currently numbering 2,000 women worldwide, for their focus on the question that informed the spirituality of St. Teresa of Avila: How does my relationship with God lead everything that I do in my life? The Teresians serve primarily in education and health care, Sister Gloria said.
“God is involved in everything that we do, and in order to fulfill whatever ministry we are doing at the moment, we are going to pause and take time to pray before we do anything,” said Sister Gloria, the assistant director of the Archdiocesan Spirituality Center.
During a round of rapid-fire questioning, Sister Gloria first asked the students for a show of hands on whether they had ever considered becoming a religious sister, eliciting few yeses. Conversely, nearly every hand went up when they were asked if they had ever thought about dating, makeup, clothes and grades.
“At your age, I can promise you, I didn’t even know what the words ‘religious life’ meant. My only idea of being a nun was what I had seen in movies, so you’re in good company!” said Sister Gloria, a graduate of New Orleans public schools.
On top of that, as she approached young adulthood, Sister Gloria was surrounded by constant reminders of marriage and family: her three brothers were married; her own peers were getting married; and she herself had once been engaged.
“I was at a place where I’m wondering, ‘What is going to happen to me for the rest of my life?’ I just didn’t feel fulfilled,” she said.
‘Conversations with God’
One of the things Sister Gloria wasn’t at loose ends about was Mass. She enjoyed going on Sundays, and her attendance soon grew to include weekday liturgies.
“I was actually having conversations with God. I was saying to God, ‘Why not me? Why can’t I be like my brothers?’” Sister Gloria said. “It seemed that all God wanted me to do was to keep on going to church and pray.”
Finally, a priest asked her during confession if she had ever considered becoming a religious sister.
“I started crying. (I told him) ‘No, not me. Not me!’” recalled Sister Gloria, adding that after much prodding, she agreed to spend a few days with the local Teresian Sisters to see how they lived, prayed and worked. Mission work in a Texas border town finalized her choice.
“God kind of knocked me over the head,” Sister Gloria said. “The more time I spent time in prayer with the sisters, the more I heard Jesus speaking to me clearly. My heart was on fire!”
Thirty years later, Sister Gloria has never regretted a day of vowed religious life.
“Even though it’s been very hard sometimes, it has been the greatest time of my life,” she said. “I enjoy waking up every day and saying to Jesus: ‘Thank you that you’re with me, that you’re guiding me and that you’re helping me one more day to say “yes” to you in this love affair you and I have.’”
Dominican Sister of Peace Kathy Broussard told the Dominican students about her ministry of death penalty mitigation. Her vocation to the religious life was a later one: it didn’t surface until age 36. (Photo by Beth Donze)
An ‘unlikely’ candidate
Sister Kathy’s journey varied from the other panelists in that she didn’t consider the religious life until age 36, assuming she was bound for a career in law and singlehood after declining two marriage proposals. For 13 years after her high school graduation, she had stopped practicing her faith, returning only after her mother asked for her help in decorating the church.
When someone asked Sister Kathy, then in her early 30s, to be a CCD teacher, she wondered aloud why she, of all people, was being asked.
“They told me, ‘because you know why you left the church and you might be able to stop somebody (from leaving),’” said Sister Kathy, who began taking theology classes at Loyola and ultimately became her parish’s DRE.
More and more people began mentioning the possibility of her becoming a religious sister, but she resisted the idea until volunteering in Arizona with the Missionary Sisters of St. Dominic.
“The real revelation was when I went into the desert to pray and be with the people there,” said Sister Kathy, describing the day she made her final vows, 25 years ago, as “the greatest day of my life.”
“God really does help you make the adjustment (if you have doubts),” she said. “It was a journey that I prayed really hard about every step of the way.”
Sister Kathy’s ministry for the last 10 years has been an unusual but rewarding one: death penalty mitigation, a field that calls on her master’s degree in social work.
“I find out if (those facing a possible capital punishment) are intellectually disabled or have some other disease,” Sister Kathy explained. “I help humanize them, because it’s easy to put somebody to death when you don’t see them as a human being.”
Sister Kathy said she could not do such “emotionally draining” work without the prayerful support of her religious community.
“God created all of us and we’re in his image,” she said. “You pray a lot about your clients and what you can do for them.”
The March 28 panel was held at Dominican in observance of Women’s History Month and National Catholic Sisters Week.