There are some decisions that require a choice; there are other things that choose you.
That’s how two members of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia with ties to the Milwaukee Archdiocese describe their path to religious life.
“I rebelled a little, and felt as if I were pulled in both ways,” said Dominican Sister of St. Cecilia Elinor Gardner, a Milwaukee native. “It began happening while attending St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, where I was majoring in philosophy and I kind of got hooked on monastic life.”
While she had no intention of pursuing religious life, she enjoyed praying the Psalms and evening prayers with the Benedictine monks and attending daily Mass.
“It was really a powerful experience, but not everyone who does that is called to religious life and there are a lot of young couples that do this together,” said Sr. Elinor. “I remember asking the monks if there was anything similar to their order for women, and they said ‘no.’ So, after graduating, I attended grad school at Boston College for philosophy and loved that. Though the idea of religious life was still there, I wasn’t ready and left it in the back of my mind.”
‘Recognizing the gift’
Growing up, Sr. Elinor expected she would end up getting married and have a family. Realizing that the attraction to religious life was a sign from the Holy Spirit took a long time to realize.
“I was attracted to marriage and family life and felt it wasn’t natural to give all of that up and give my whole life
For more information
to Christ, but still, I had the desire for this,” she explained. “Finally, I had to find out whether God was really calling me and took the first step of recognizing that this was a gift and be willing to go out on a limb. When I found out about the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia and went on a retreat three years into my graduate program, things happened quickly and I took the first step.”
According to their website, nashvilledominican.org, “the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia were founded in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1860, although as members of the Dominican Order, they can trace their roots to St. Dominic’s founding in the 1200s of this mendicant Order dedicated to the preaching and teaching of truth.”
Sr. Elinor, 37, entered the convent in 2003 and took her final vows seven years later.
Today, she is an assistant professor of philosophy at Aquinas College in Nashville. She lives at the St. Cecilia Motherhouse with more than 230 sisters.
“Though at first I had doubts, once I entered, I knew it was right and grew more certain the longer I have been here,” she said. “I felt as if I were becoming more of myself through being a nun.”
Being the eldest of nine children, Sr. Elinor’s parents were not surprised when they learned their daughter wanted to become a nun, though she never said anything to them. Her call to religious life was not profound, but more of a quiet journey.
“I was raised Catholic, my family belongs to St. Anthony on the south side. Intellectually, I never doubted God or the truth of our faith,” she said. “It was a great fit and though I always had certitude, I wasn’t always a good Catholic and not always living the faith as it should be. I didn’t have a specific conversion, but it has been ongoing.”
For young women feeling the nudge of the Holy Spirit to the vocation of a religious sister, Sr. Elinor quotes the late Pope John Paul II who said, “Be not afraid.”
“It is scary to think that this is your whole life and you wonder if you will be happy,” she said. “But God will not be outdone in generosity. If you give him a little, he will give you so much. I am very happy here; of course, there are ups and downs and challenges and sorrows, but it is a beautiful life and I am filled with joy and peace. And that is a clear sign for young people, if you go somewhere and experience peace, it is a good sign that the Holy Spirit is working.”
A tug from God
Dominican Sister of St. Cecilia Sr. Elizabeth Marie Kalscheur describes a similar, surprising journey to religious life.
Although she grew up in Beaver Dam in a loving, happy Catholic family, in high school she developed many strong disagreements with church teaching. So it was a surprise to Sr. Elizabeth Marie that she would later feel a tug from God to become a religious sister.
“Toward the end of high school I started to pray more, which led me closer to Christ, but I didn’t experience a conversion into the fullness of the Catholic faith until I studied abroad in Rome for a year during my sophomore year of college,” she said. “I attended the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, and while in Rome I learned and experienced the unity and beauty of the Catholic Church which has made Christ present in the world for 2,000 years. I was then able to accept the church’s teachings and live in the freedom of the truth.”
Sr. Elizabeth Marie, 32, began going to adoration, confession and daily Mass on a regular basis and met several friends with the same desire to grow in holiness. While in Rome, she studied at the Angelicum, the Pontifical University run by the Dominicans.
“Their teaching and example planted the seed of Dominican life in my mind, and the witness of my friends and classmates helped me to be open to the question of what my vocation might be, which was something I never considered asking before,” she explained. “Through prayer, I felt that Christ might be calling me to be his bride, but it wasn’t until I visited Nashville in January 2004, that I decided I should take the leap and enter.”
Once she entered the convent, Sr. Elizabeth Marie experienced peace and joy, that even in the midst of the struggle of dealing with her own sin and weakness, she knew God wanted her there.
“I felt called to be a Dominican because of the emphasis on truth and preaching. I appreciated the joy and down-to-earth spirit of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, as well as their charisms for music, as this is a big part of my life,” she said. “I also wanted a community that loved the church and loved Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, and we try to do this in our congregation.”
To the delight of her parents, David and Barbara Kalscheur, members of St. Katharine Drexel Parish, Beaver Dam, and siblings, Josh and Ruth, Sr. Elizabeth Marie professed her final vows on July 25, 2011. She is a senior morality and Spanish One instructor at Mount de Sales Academy in Baltimore.
“I am immensely happy,” said Sr. Elizabeth Marie. “I am definitely more free, more myself, and funnier than I ever was before. I even learned how to play basketball in the convent!”
Along with five other Dominicans who administer and staff Mount de Sales Academy, Sr. Elizabeth Marie resides in a Mount de Sales convent.
For young women contemplating a religious vocation, Sr. Elizabeth Marie suggests not being too focused on the question of vocation and more focused on living the Christian life and responding to God’s grace each day.
“As one does this, whatever God has planned for a person will become clear,” she explained. “Also, I would tell them that entering isn’t the same as making final vows. God may also be calling someone to religious life even if they don’t feel 100 percent certain about it. He doesn’t always give this kind of certainty because he always gives his grace and peace.”