A Call to Serve
By: Mary L. Peterson
Photo: Mary L. Peterson
It’s 10:45 a.m. on a rainy Saturday morning in downtown Nashville. Hidden behind a large iron gate and a line of trees which seems out of place in the middle of a city, stands the red brick elegance of St. Cecilia Convent.
The inner workings of the old handle squeal and click as St. Cecilia Vocation Director, Sr. Peter Marie, opens the door to the main entrance. In the mere seconds before she ever says a word, she gives off this sense of calm, understanding and joy.
Inside the convent the looming white walls are clean and pristine. The shiny wooden floors are the kind you would tip toe across in the dark, knowing the slightest weighted pause will give away your midnight snack run.
A sea of well-loved couches and arm chairs fills the family area to the right. A small group of children sit in a half circle in front of another sister who patiently answers their questions. A doorway just past the visiting area opens up into a grand, white staircase and an ornate wall, a unique change from the warm lived-in rooms around it. A gray and beige tiled room with small stained glass windows on the far wall sits at the bottom of the stairs. Directly in the center, surrounded by four white pillars, stands a bronze statue of the order’s patron saint, St. Cecilia. A pedestal with a vase of yellow flowers sits at her feet.
Pews line the back of the chapel while small wooden chair and desk pods take up most of the space in the middle of the chapel floor.
“Our pods face the center so that we can pray, chant and sing facing each other. Isn’t that beautiful?” Sister Peter Marie says with a smile.
As Sister Peter Marie leads the way out of the chapel, she excitedly says hello to another sister. They hug like family, share smiles like old friends and chat like colleagues.
This life of religious vocation can seem structured, simple and puzzling, but in a convent there is a home, in these sisters a family and in this religion a meaning. The life of a religious sister begins not necessarily with a choice, but often with a call.
People raised in the Roman Catholic faith often hear the term “the call” used to describe the call from God to be a religious person. Sister Peter Marie says it is different for everyone.
It’s an inaudible notion from the silence of the heart. “You surrender what you want to do, what your plans are.”
However, answering the call is not instantaneous. A life of dedication and surrender takes time to process. For Sister Suzanne Stalm, Spiritual Ministry Coordinator of the Sisters of Mercy in Nashville, the call was ongoing.
“I was influenced by other sisters when I was very young and I wanted to be like that, but the call continued,” she said.
Sister Suzanne entered religious life at 18, fresh out of high school. During her grade school, Sister Suzanne felt connected to the Sisters who taught her at Catholic school. She also felt her call at home.
“I had extremely loving parents and I experienced that kind of human love. Through that it was very easy for me to experience God’s love,” she said.
One scripture reading stuck out in her mind when she sought the religious life. She remembered the story of Elijah, who hid in the mountains and looked for God in a storm, in fire and in earthquakes but, in the end, finds him in the gentle breeze.
“That passage was of great consolation to me, and it gave me the comfort and the courage that God wasn’t asking me to do anything really hard or painful,” she said. “God called me to that scripture passage to recognize him as gentle. Over the years, it also became a call for me to be a gentle breeze to other people,” she said.
Sister Suzanne speaks as if she is placing her words delicately in each sentence. Slowly and carefully she describes her life growing up and the sisters who influenced her to join the religious life. However, being a sister just comes naturally to her. She doesn’t have to think about how she’s going to respond. There are no “ums” or “uhs” when she speaks. Her dedication flows from her words just like a gentle breeze.
For most people it is difficult to trust something so intangible. Without concrete evidence, it is hard to change an entire lifestyle.
“It feels like you’re making this up,” Sister Peter Marie recalls. “You find yourself asking, ‘Is this really the call?’”
Giggling to herself she tells of a retreat she went on with other women who felt the same disbelief. These women came from all over to explore whether or not they had been called to the religious life. She remembered the fellowship of women all asking the same question.
At retreats like the one Sister Peter Marie described, the journey to becoming a sister starts. These women spend years in contemplation and prayer, learning about the life God calls them to lead. They spend years in contemplation and prayer, learning about the life God calls them to lead.
It all comes down to the question, “Is this where God wants me to be?” To answer this question, young woman spend first year of religious life as a postulant. For one year they spend time in prayer seeking God’s guidance and getting to know the sisters of the order they have chosen.
“At the end of one year, if she finds she has been called, she takes her first temporary vows, which are very important to us: poverty, chastity and obedience,” Sister Peter Marie explains.
In the second year, novices receive a habit with a white veil and their religious name, usually the name of a saint, to signify this new chapter of their lives. After two more years, the novices renew their vows. They continue their time bonding with the sisters in the order and seeking guidance through prayer. Overall, the novitiate stage lasts for seven years. The most popular question sisters hear: What does it mean to be a sister? What do they do?
“It’s a radical following of Jesus Christ,” Sister Peter Marie explains. “You love Jesus so much that you want to be as close to him as possible, and the fruit of that is service.”
In both the communities of St. Cecelia and the Sisters of Mercy, service is a big part of their everyday life. Sr. Peter Marie shared stories of the Sisters of St. Cecilia in the community. All of the sisters wear full white, polyester habits with black veils. The sisters of St. Cecilia travel to give talks, teach and work with various charities. Their community is large and spread out throughout Nashville and sometimes even the world, but they always have a home to return to.
The Sisters of Mercy in Nashville run a retreat center. They open their doors to anyone who needs a quiet, sacred space. Currently there are only 22 sisters who live at the Sisters of Mercy convent. They live a more relaxed life as many of the sisters are older and retired.
Because the Sisters of Mercy spend most of their day inside helping run retreats, “you’ll see many of us not wearing habits,” Sister Suzanne said. Instead, they wear modern, modest and more relaxed clothing. What the sisters wear all depends on the guidelines of their individual order.
Though there are many orders of sisters, one thing stays the same. Their day is scheduled and full of prayer. They start and end their days early. They have moments designated to meals, recreation and work. There are moments of group prayer throughout the morning, mid-morning, afternoon, evening and night, a schedule which is based off of the Liturgy of the Hours, a book of prayers with specified times of day to offer up each prayer. The sisters celebrate Mass daily. The life of a sister is scheduled and on the outside may seem strict.
Though sisters are known for their contagious joy, being a religious sister requires sacrifice. Sisters give up seeing and speaking to their family on a regular basis. They have a strict dress code and don’t earn or spend large amounts of money. They don’t wear make-up or go out with their friends on Friday night. However, for them this sacrifice is a blessing. Sister Peter Marie sees the beauty in the sacrifice.
“People who give of themselves, give the most joy.”