The greatest slide tackler in the history of the Waukesha South High School girls soccer program, according to head coach Peter Byrne, was Sr. Teresa Pandl.
“She was a really, really physical player,” Byrne said. “She had no fear.”
During those days she was called Sarah; now the 32-year-old lives a life where she’s helping others tackle their faith.
Her mother, Mary Pandl, described Sarah as a “rough and tumble” kid during childhood.
“We went to the emergency room with her for stitches more than any of our other kids,” Mary said, adding that she and her husband, John, have six children. “She would just run so fast that her head was ahead of her feet.”
In soccer, slide tackling is one of the most aggressive plays a player can make against an opponent and Sr. Teresa heard plenty from the opposing sidelines.
“The parents of the opposing team used to get upset if I would slide tackle,” she said. “But several times I had referees, after games, actually compliment me on my slide tackling.”
Byrne said she never received a red card, which results in automatic disqualification from a soccer match, but he’s sure, at least once, she was given a yellow card.
Sr. Teresa agreed.
“I wasn’t born wearing a habit,” she said.
As a teenager, her life seemed typical. Her mom said she had a lot of friends. Her coach said she was liked by all of her teammates, and he eventually made her team captain.
But Sr. Teresa was itching to lead a life beyond friends and soccer.
The summer before her freshman year of high school she went on a mission trip to Kentucky with other members of the family’s parish — St. Mary, Waukesha.
“It was the first time I was exposed to extreme poverty,” Sr. Teresa said. “The experience of seeing people who were literally dirt poor had just made a huge impression on me.”
That whole week, she said, she felt God’s presence.
“I didn’t know what it would look like, but I wanted to serve God by serving his people,” she said. “There was no thought of religious life.”
Sr. Teresa went to high school and played soccer with the experience of the mission trip a vivid image in her mind.
Byrne expected a lot from each of his players.
“He pushed you further than you thought you could go,” Sr. Teresa said. “He would say, ‘If you quit now, you’re going to quit the rest of your life.’”
His constant pressure would get a rise out of his players. His “If you quit now…” mantra hit a nerve with Sr. Teresa.
“In the moment when you’re exhausted and think you can’t move another step, it used to make me angry when he said that,” Sr. Teresa said. “But a lot of times now, like if I don’t feel like praying … I think of those words from him.”
In 2000, during her senior year of high school, her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer — a battle she continues to wage.
“I’m back in chemotherapy treatment now,” Mary said. “I’ve been living with it for 14 years.”
That diagnosis changed life for the future Sr. Teresa, who, at the time, was considering at which Division III college to play soccer.
“That’s all I cared about at that time, but I made a quick decision to stay closer to home,” she said, referring to her mother’s diagnosis.
She attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and, like most incoming freshmen, didn’t know what exactly she wanted to study.
In her first year she tried to make friends and have fun, but the college party lifestyle wasn’t what she wanted.
“It was a hard year in terms of surroundings,” she said. “The people I was surrounded with, the things they were doing, I didn’t want to be a part of it … not that I didn’t want to have fun, just not in that way.”
During that year, she would take the bus from Milwaukee to visit one of her older sisters attending UW-Madison, and spend time with her and members of the Newman Center on campus.
One weekend they took a trip to Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. She wanted to be around more “faith-filled people” and, at Franciscan, she realized she would be. She transferred after her freshman year, and began studying theology and catechetics.
“My idea was I was going to be a youth minister or along those lines,” Sr. Teresa said.
She was able to play soccer for Franciscan, while at the same time making strong connections with different nuns on campus.
“They were happy, but it was something much deeper,” she said of the nuns. “You could just tell it wasn’t just a passing happiness.”
It was something she wanted to experience.
“I had a strong sense that God was calling me to religious life,” she said.
Sr. Teresa talked with nuns from different orders, but she settled on the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr of St. George after a visit to their motherhouse in Alton, Illinois.
A month after her visit, Sr. Teresa’s grandmother on her father’s side died, a loss that impacted her greatly. She said she was very close with her, and all of her grandparents, each of them extremely devoted to the faith.
“My grandma Pandl had great devotion to Mary and the saints,” Sr. Teresa said.
Before her grandmother’s death, Sr. Teresa said she was always thinking of the sisters, wondering where they were and what they were doing. But after, those thoughts stopped.
“I realized I wasn’t thinking about them. I wasn’t thinking about religious life,” she said. “It didn’t even seem appealing to me anymore.”
To Sr. Teresa that meant marriage was in her future.
“I really went on thinking, ‘That didn’t work so it must mean I’m going to get married,’” she said.
But during her senior year at Franciscan University she tore her right ACL and needed to have surgery. A month after that injury, she slipped on some ice and broke her kneecap on the same leg.
“Being someone who is always on the go and always very active, and then all of a sudden being … immobilized,” she said. “I felt like it was a gift, in a way.”
While recuperating, Sr. Teresa said she asked the “big life questions.”
“God allowed that to really stop me and give me an opportunity to say, ‘What is really important?’” she said.
Also during that time, she knew some of her friends would be visiting the motherhouse in Alton and she wanted to be with them.
“All I could think about is my friends who were visiting the convent and, like, wanting to be there with them,” she said. “It kind of caught me off guard … I thought I didn’t care anymore.”
When she was fully healed, she decided to enter the order. This was a difficult decision for some members of her family to accept.
The order allows a one-week vacation every other year for the sisters, and visitors can come two weekends a year. They’re also allowed to make phone calls on holidays.
“Any rules reguarding the use of technology and mass communication, or social media, are to help us safe guard our vocations,” Sr. Teresa said in an email. “It is not really a matter of being strict, but rather ordering what is important and necessary. We can use email to communicate with family and friends. Other forms of social communication would be reserved for the apostolate … in all honesty, even if I wanted to use Facebook or something similar, I would not have time for it.”
The restrictions on communication hit the family hard, particularly her dad and her two sisters closest to her in age.
“They were the ones, along with my husband, who had the hardest time with her entering religious life,” Mary said. “They felt that they were losing her … they don’t feel like that now.”
Even her mom had a bit of a rough time with the decision. Mary said she remembers asking God, “Why are you asking this of me, for our daughter to go into religious life?”
“It’s really one of the very few times I felt like I heard God,” Mary said. “I had the sense that God said, ‘Because I knew she would say yes.’ I felt like if this is what God is asking, calling Sarah to, who was I to get in the way of it?”
Sr. Teresa knows it was difficult for her family.
“A religious vocation is a sacrifice of the whole family,” she said. “Even if they’ve wrestled with it, they’ve been very accepting and supportive.”
Since entering religious life, some of her sisters have gotten married and Sr. Teresa wasn’t able to attend the weddings, and their mother continues to battle cancer.
“Those have been the hardest times,” Sr. Teresa said.
She’s made her presence known by making prayer books for her family as a reminder to them that she is always thinking of, and praying for, them.
“The gifts that I give them is my promise to always be on my knees for them. To always keep them in prayer,” Sr. Teresa said. “That’s the greatest gift I can offer.”
When entering religous life, Sr. Teresa professed vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. During her time in formation she was working within the convent and in an apostolate community, all while being in direct contact with a sister who helped her through her journey.
She entered the order Dec. 31, 2004, and professed final vows Aug. 12, 2012, with her entire family present.
“I feel really proud of her; it’s where her heart is at,” Mary said. “I know that she impacts a lot of people … being that visible sign makes you more accessible and approachable.”
Sr. Teresa said she has been approached by people in Walmart asking for her prayers, had conversations about religion with waiters at restaurants, and had people sitting next to her on airplanes tell her their “whole life story.”
“It’s pretty incredible how often you get stopped,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of experiences where people have shared things with me or stopped me just because they see the habit and they’ll know what my life is about.”
She still leads an active life. She’s the director of religious education at Holy Spirit Parish in Overland Park, Kansas, a suburban area of Kansas City.
“Although, you don’t have to drive too far to find fields and cows,” she said.
As director of religious education at the parish she oversees the religious education programs for children who attend public schools and might not receive religious education at school. She also helps plan for the preparation of first Communion, first reconciliation and confirmation. In the summer, she plans and runs the parish Vacation Bible School.
Sr. Teresa also works with the youth minister with a middle school service week and taking teens to a Steubenville youth conference.
“As you can probably guess, no part of the year is ever dull,” she said.
When visiting her daughter, Mary was surprised at how the Kansas community had adopted Sr. Teresa as one of them.
“The kids knock on her door for her to go out and play with them at recess,” Mary said.
She’s been called “The Fun Nun” by family and friends and plans on continuing to be that “visible witness” in her daily life.
“I have always seen my vocation as an adventure with Jesus,” Sr. Teresa said. “I don’t know where he will take me or who he is going to bring into my life. There have been many surprises already and I am sure there are many more ahead.”