More than two dozen communities of religious women serve the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and southeastern Wisconsin. Within these institutes and societies can be found women from every walk of life and every background, animated by different charisms and bound by different kinds of vows. Some are nuns, some are sisters, some live a contemplative life, some belong to an active congregation working in the community.
But what all these holy women have in common is their response to a call within themselves to serve the Body of Christ by uniting their lives in a special way to His Bride, the Church.
Since the visibility of religious sisters is shrinking in the modern Church, it’s important to amplify their stories in the hopes of inspiring new vocations to consecrated life, without whom “the future of the new evangelization … is unthinkable,” wrote Pope John Paul II in his 1996 post-synodal exhortation “Vita Consecrata.”
In this issue, three sisters connected with congregations serving Milwaukee share reflections on their spiritual journeys and advice for young women who may be feeling a similar call to serve the people of God through consecrated life.
Exposure to religious life is critical for vocations
All three sisters recalled having positive interactions with religious women in their childhoods. Sr. Immaculata Osterhaus, vocational directress for the Carmelite Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus’ Northern Province (based in Wauwatosa), was taught by Benedictine sisters for the first 12 years of her schooling and later worked in the sisters’ home for the aged.
“They were very good examples of women who loved Jesus, who worked hard and served God through others,” she said.
Likewise, Sr. Kathy Braun, a member of the U.S. Provincial Leadership Team for the School Sisters of St. Francis, recalled being taught by Franciscans in grade school and high school and being drawn to “their joyful spirits and their sense of camaraderie and collegiality,” she said.
Sr. Stephanie Spandl is a member of the North American Vocation Team for the School Sisters of Notre Dame’s Central Pacific Province, which includes its Milwaukee community. Though not all of her teachers in childhood were sisters, several of them were.
“I always had an interest in who they were. I admired the sisters. I was curious about them and about their life,” she said.
It’s important to pay attention to who God puts in your path
This is a piece of advice Sr. Stephanie likes to give women discerning a vocation, who can often feel overwhelmed by the “multitude of communities out there” and the enormity of information available on the internet.
“One thing I say to women is: pay attention to who God puts in your path — whether that’s an online path or an in-person path,” she said. “What event comes your way and what religious (communities) are a part of that? Who’s in your area?”
Sr. Immaculata relayed the experience of another sister in the Wauwatosa Carmelite community, Sr. Carmelita, who “had no desire to become a religious sister” despite being active in church and having the benefit of aunts who were sisters and an uncle who was a priest.
But after receiving a scholarship to attend a private school operated by Franciscans, Sr. Carmelita began to feel an inner call, said Sr. Immaculata. “That was the beginning of her vocation story,” she said.
“Really try to let God lead,” advised Sr. Stephanie when it comes to discerning religious communities. “You might have preferences or tendencies, and that’s fine, but try to be open, so you can really aim for the charism of the community.”
You will continue to grow and change even after discernment ends
Just like those who experience a vocation to marriage or to the single life, religious women are dynamic beings who continue to evolve throughout their entire lives. Their profession of vows is not the terminus of their spiritual development, but rather the commencement of a different phase of it.
“As you live your call to religious life, you stay for different reasons, and it goes deeper and deeper,” said Sr. Kathy. “It did evolve for me. I’ve had a full life of varied ministries, kind of like the back of a tapestry.” Sr. Kathy has worked in healthcare and pastoral care, even ministering with the Franciscan outreach to immigrants on the US-Mexico border.
“One thing prepares you for the next thing, and the next thing always seems to be more life-giving and more challenging and stretches us to grow in different ways,” she said.
Trust feelings of peace — it could be God talking
Visiting a community in-person is an important part of discernment, Sr. Stephanie said — but some women mistakenly assume that if they feel a kinship and a sense of ease with a particular group, they won’t be challenged enough.
It’s important not to confuse growth with pressure, she said.
“Just because I felt at home with (the School Sisters of Notre Dame) doesn’t mean I didn’t stretch and grow in this community — I did, a lot. It was the right fit, because if it’s not then you don’t strengthen and grow, you break,” she said. “Your vocation doesn’t have to be hard. God really does call us to be happy. He calls us where our personality and gifts and talents are going to fit and resonate.”
You have nothing to lose by discerning
Those who are feeling a call to explore the idea of religious life can only benefit from following that instinct, said Sr. Stephanie.
And creating a “culture of vocations” within the church requires us to “listen for God’s call in the big and the little decisions of life in our faith communities.”
“You can think of vocations as those big life choices, but we can also say being called to teaching or called to nursing is a way I am called to use my gifts. We often talk about vocations only in terms of sisters and priests and brothers and consecrated virgins, but marriage is a vocation. Single life is a vocation,” she said. “I think the thing that we often forget is that we’re all called to holiness. And we all have a vocation.”