She was drawn to serve overseas. That’s where she went in high school and in college – overseas. That’s where she wanted to go. She never thought she would join a religious order or serve in the United States, but that’s where 25-year-old Mary Meleski is now.

Meleski1Mary Meleski holds a young boy in this picture taken during her trip to the Dominican Republic as a college student. (Submitted photo courtesy Mary Meleski)“I came to New York out of a desire to leave the country and I’ve been here now for two and a half years, so it’s kind of funny how God works, because I definitely didn’t plan to be in the U.S. and I still am,” said Meleski, who’s in her second year of candidacy with the New York-based Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Meleski was 17 years old when she realized God had a special plan for her life.

Through her church, Our Lady of Lourdes, Milwaukee, she was involved in service work. When members of her church were asked to visit their sister parish in Haiti in 2003, with her own money, Meleski went along on the two-week mission trip.

“I think, for me, that was the first time I felt close to whatever God was calling me to,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave Haiti and go back to high school.”

In Haiti, Meleski experienced extreme poverty and the intense need for mission work.

“It was the first time that the face of Christ became very present to me,” she told your Catholic Herald in a telephone interview last year. “In those that were being served, and those who were providing services to the people, I felt incredibly close to the person of Christ.”

But something deeper than poverty and her desire to do mission work was drawing Meleski to what the experience and the people had to offer – the strength of the Haitians helping Haitians.

“It’s because of what they do to help each other and, my parish, when we went down, we supported a mission house that was a Haitian program,” Meleski said. “It was them helping other programs in the city, so that wasn’t our donations or anything that we were doing, but we were helping Haitians help themselves, helping them reach out to one another.”

After meeting the Haitian people, Meleski found she had a hard time relating to her Greenfield High School classmates.

“It was hard for me to come back from Haiti and relate to peers that had no idea what I experienced,” Meleski said, explaining that the desires and immediate needs of American teenagers for cell phones and cars are materialistic and “sometimes kind of selfish.”

“Even things like going out to eat – we go for fast food (here) and people are upset because it takes 30 seconds instead of 15 seconds to get your food. …” said Meleski, who waited up to an hour and a half for food in Haiti because no one was served until all the food was ready, and ordering French fries meant peeling, cutting and frying potatoes on the spot. “So, just kind of like that … impatience and need for instant satisfaction and gratification.”

Meleski struggled with who she was and remembered a time when she cried, thinking, “Doesn’t anyone get it? Don’t they understand that being in relationship and sharing responsibility for one another’s happiness is what’s important?” she said, adding, “When I was in Haiti, despite all the hardship, there was joy … joy that doesn’t come from (material things).”

Meleski said her peers seemed to be “self-oriented,” but she was more concerned with being “other-centered.” She wanted to return to Haiti.

The Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was founded by St. Frances Cabrini in 1880 in Italy. Mother Cabrini moved her mission work to New York where the sisters’ work focused on immigration, education and health care.

When her dad encouraged her to spend six months or a year there instead of repeating the short experience, Meleski was surprised – what father of a young woman would urge his daughter to go off to Third World countries?

“He was encouraging me that if that was my desire to go back that just that little experience wouldn’t be enough to really discover anything, that I needed to go for longer … for more mission experience, because he really saw that as a desire in me to be there,” Meleski said, noting that her parents have always been supportive of her decisions.

Meleski said she went to college while she was young and in the habit of school, instead of returning to Haiti, and earned an education degree from St. Norbert College in De Pere in 2008 that certified her to teach Spanish and English as a Second Language; an education degree armed her with skills she could use no matter where she ended up.

She studied in Ecuador for a semester during college and took a two-week alternative break to the Dominican Republic.

It was in the Dominican Republic, which borders Haiti, when “everything came full circle” for Meleski and reminded her to remember how important Haiti was in her life.

In these developing countries, where relationships and faith sustain people, Meleski felt she was fulfilling her greatest desire – to love those in need.

After college, Meleski worked for a year to pay off student loans before she became a lay missioner with the Cabrini Mission Corps. The lay mission program, sponsored by the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, allows lay women and men to live and work with the sisters for a contracted period of time. She signed up for a one-year program.

“After six months I first considered religious life. I never imagined myself as a nun,” Meleski said. “We had the opportunity to live with them (the sisters). I felt strangely at home. The life (the sisters) chose was what I was looking to find.”

As her mission year ended, Meleski told the director that she was leaving and wouldn’t return as a missioner. The director reported this information to the provincial, who asked Meleski why.

“That was the first time I kind of processed out loud why it was that I was leaving,” Meleski said, explaining that she didn’t know why because this was all she ever wanted to do. She realized that she wanted to be more than a missioner – she wanted to live in community with the sisters.

“For the first time in my life I lived with people that understood me…” Meleski said. “For the first time I was actually doing what I wanted to do with my life and it wasn’t short term.”

Meleski imagined she would get married and have a family someday.

“When I think about marriage and having a family, it makes me happy,” said Meleski, one of nine children. “There are certain things about marriage that I would love to experience, but when I look at the big picture, I’m still looking for something more, something different that fulfills me in another way.”

As a nun she can love all people and still “have children,” but in a different way, she said.

Meleski was formally accepted into the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, or the Cabrini Sisters, as a candidate Sept. 9, 2011.

“This is a missionary community,” she said. “To go wherever the need is. It’s a combination of what your desires are and where the needs are – mutual discernment. If they ask you to go somewhere they ask you to pray about it. Our sisters are in 17 countries. It’s not necessarily what you’re trained for; it’s where the need is.”

That may mean Meleski will stay in the U.S., but she’s not concerned.

Meleski’s learned that she doesn’t need to fly to Haiti or the Dominican Republic to serve. “Mission is wherever you are. Whatever city you’re in, whatever job you have, there is always mission there,” said Meleski, who is the only candidate in the province, and about seven years away from taking her final vows. “It’s about relationships and it’s about, as Christians especially, sharing the love of Christ with people … and being open to the way that they also show you Christ, because they do.”

Meleski’s living by the words of Pope Benedict XVI.

“Let Jesus surprise you,” she said. “I do not know what Jesus has in store for me, but he hasn’t disappointed me yet, and he’s always taken care of me, giving me every grace, courage and energy that I need to keep going!”

Tracy Rusch, Catholic Herald Staff, contributed to this story.