SPECIAL TO THE CATHOLIC HERALD
When Abigail Irigoyen was 5, she woke up from a dream in the middle of the night calling out for her parents. They ran into her dark room and kneeled down beside her and asked if she was all right.
She sat up and told them that she had a dream that a beautiful woman came to her and took her to a beautiful place she couldn’t describe. She told her parents she didn’t want to leave it and she’d asked the woman if she could stay but the nameless woman told her no. She said that Abigail had a lot of work to do first back where she belongs.
“But you will get to be here one day,” she told her parents she was promised. Jennifer and Lorenzo Irigoyen were confused but had always known their youngest daughter was remarkable and somehow different from other children.
Abigail, a daughter of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, liked to listen more than talk. She loved Mass and asked her Catholic but not particularly devout parents to go to church often. After her dream, her devotion grew and the Irigoyens began to lovingly call her their conscience as they increased their learning and Mass attendance to keep up with their daughter’s growing love. She yearned to be close to Jesus in the Eucharist even before her first communion, and as the years passed, she craved to know all she could about the lives of the saints. One day her older sister Allison was flipping through a book and Abigail stopped her when she got to a picture of St. Bernadette.
“That’s her,” she said in her soft voice that even as she grew never sounded louder than a whisper. “That’s the woman from my dream who showed me everything,” she told her mother and sister.
Jennifer went to her spiritual director, confused about the things her 7-year-old daughter told her she was hearing and feeling. In church, when the family filed into their pew Abigail began to leave several spaces in between her and her parents and sister. When Jennifer told her to scoot closer she would say, “No Mama, I have to prepare you for the separation.” Her priest told her not to make too much of it but to continue to nurture her love for the cross. The Irigoyens bought their daughter books and took them to Mass and helped them learn all they needed to grow in holiness, as they watched Abigail’s passion soar and her spirit continue reaching upward.
“She was the catalyst for all of our growth,” Jennifer said, remembering how her daughter encouraged their daily Mass attendance beginning at age 7 when one morning she sweetly looked up at her mother and said, “Mama I know you’re busy; just drop me off at church so I can be with Jesus.”
Through Abigail’s voracious reading about the saints and our Lord, she taught her family and those closest to her without preaching. Her gentle spirit that burned for Christ drew people to her and was one reason of many that Jennifer questioned her daughter’s need to step away from the world into a cloistered convent.
Jennifer helped her daughter shop around for convents and monasteries from the time of her first communion. They visited orders all across the country to give Abigail a chance to sit with nuns and find out more about them. At the end of their meetings, quite often the nuns would look over at her parents, smile and say they believed the little girl was being called to the vocation and that all she needed was time. As time passed, Abigail began to only want to visit cloistered orders. Jennifer knew that would mean a more permanent separation, and prayed to ask God to let his will be done, even if his will was to break her heart.
Just before Abigail turned 18, the family heard about the Poor Clare Monastery in Rockford, Illinois. They made the trip to visit and when the Mother Abbess, who also had the calling from a young age, met Abigail she said, “She is meant to be here.”
As Abigail’s heart soared at finding her place, Jennifer’s heart broke. She knew her close relationship with her daughter would soon change forever. For the first nine years, postulates can only write their family one letter a year, and receive six visits for three hours each through a grate in the parlor. They cannot touch at all. Jennifer thought about those nine years, and the canonical year when she would not be allowed to see her at all. She thought about how the six visits would be cut down to four when Abigail takes her final vows. She wept at the memory of that stark realization of what she would lose, but through her tears smiled at her daughter’s words.
“She told me that I had to stop thinking in the natural world,” Jennifer said. “She told me to think supernaturally because we’ll be even closer than we’ve ever been. That’s what I keep telling myself.”
In January 2018, just after her 18th birthday, on the feast of the Betrothal of Our Lady and St. Joseph, Jennifer, Lorenzo, and Allison hugged Abigail for the last time standing inside the convent. She was immediately vested and came through the parlor, where the family is allowed to see her through the grate, wearing her habit. Jennifer said it was more than overwhelming. Abigail had been trying to help her family see that this was where God was calling her, that this was what her heart yearned for, but they didn’t really understand until they saw the radiant joy on her face that day.
“I saw her glow,” Jennifer said, “and I knew right then that I had to let her go because she was so happy; it was so clear she was where she is supposed to be.”
Jennifer had asked her daughter many times before that day why she had to leave. It was so clear she’d changed people’s lives when she lived outside the walls of the convent. Jennifer couldn’t understand how going away from the world where she could affect so much change was what God would want. But Abigail told her, “Mama, of course I can do more there; I can pray for people I’ve never even met. I’m going to be united in prayer.”
It was gut-wrenching but Jennifer said that on that day she saw it’s not that they want to separate the women from their family, but that there’s such great work to be done, work that requires focus and so detachment is important.
Abigail’s day at the convent begins early; the 23 postulates and sisters rise at 12:30 a.m. to pray Matins and meditate. They retire again just before 2 a.m. and sleep until 5 a.m. They rise again and have breakfast, and walk through their day in silence, only speaking to one another out of charity when needed. They attend Mass, and adoration and short periods of prayer and work. The order is simple, abstaining from meat all year long, and only eating what people have donated. It is a life turned fully toward the foot of the cross.
Jennifer said that the first visit a few months later was hard, that Abigail said she sometimes yearns to be held by her parents, to sit with her sister, to know their lives. She said the separation hurts, but she knows she’s where she wants to be, and more importantly where Christ wants her to be, away from the noise of the world, wrapped in quiet, close to the heartbeat of Jesus in the Eucharist. She said “Mommy I’m home. I have no doubt this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
From her earliest days, friends and strangers often told Abigail’s parents that she would one day be a saint, a fact that her mother is hesitant to speak of for fear of sounding prideful. Instead, when she speaks of how she saw holiness in her daughter from a young age she points away from herself to the miracle of grace and Christ’s love for her daughter and says that even in her pain at the separation, her gratitude is unending.
“When I get on my knees every day, the first thing I do is give thanks,” she said. Daily she asks for the intercession of St. Francis, St. Clare, St. Collette, and blessed Marie Celine, her daughter’s beloveds in heaven. She asks for their protection for Abigail as she continues to detach from her former life. She asks for peace.
“I beg them to be there for her,” she said. “It is a remarkable honor to be the mother of someone so holy but I will never again be the arms that hold her, so I ask those heavily saints to hold her. I ask Christ Jesus and our Holy Mother to be my arms, I ask them to help me be strong enough to let her go.”