In honor of a season full of younger sisters making vows, Giving Voice reached out to interview participants who have recently, or will soon be making this sacred journey.
This month, we’ll highlight interviews with Sister Michelle Garlinski, a sister with the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary in Winnipeg, Canada, who, as a “later professed” sister, took her first vows in her 40s earlier this year. Her unique journey has led to creating a new retreat for women and men religious under 55 with Fr Ronald Rohlsier. We’ll also hear from Sister Romina Sapinoso, originally from the Philippines, who will make first vows Sept 22 with the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, after a summer discerning and working with refugee youth in New York. And, we’ll hear from Sister Christina Chávez, a sister with the Congregation of Divine Providence of San Antonio who made first vows this summer, and is currently out on her first mission as a campus minister at the University Catholic Center for the University of Texas.
GV: What are some of the greatest joys and struggles in becoming a vowed religious sister?
Sister Michelle: I was so joyful that day [making vows]! I can remember I greeted all of the guests at the door as they came in and I remember everybody remarking “we’ve never seen you so happy!” I think there was just a deep joy in me, that wasn’t a laughter kind of joy but a joy of saying “This is it and this is true.” I found where I am most in love with God and it’s in this vocation.
So I think the joy from that day has been like being on the mountain top in some ways; climbing and reaching that place. But I think that it was more than just a mountain top day. The fact that I had 12 of my sisters from the US-Ontario province; that our sisters locally were so excited and joyful with me, and that my family were an integral part of the celebration. All of the worlds that reflect Church for me were there. All of the worlds that have been community and have taught me to be community were there.
And I think that going forward? Well, there isn’t a day that I don’t wake up and choose my vows every day, the same way that married people do. So I think how am I bringing living Christ’s presence to the world today. How am I bringing someone joy and making their life just a little better today? It’s a choice every day, it’s a choice to be community every day; to be mindful, and to be that witness of community. Whether it’s with the sisters or with my workplace or family, it’s a particular witness that I am called to and I need to hold myself accountable to.
Sister Michelle, making vows
Sister Romina: All of my different worlds are coming together on Sept 22nd and it’s kind of comical to picture all of them together. We have several people from different cultures and countries who are coming. Sisters from Korea, from Cincinnati, Kenya, and just many different aspects of my life finally coming together. It’s just all those worlds coming together and it’s going to be so exciting and different.
Everything is so right, right now. I actually don’t feel any doubts. This is the time and the place and what I’m supposed to do. It just fits right now for me and God knows, probably two days before I’ll start feeling weird, but, it’s been a long time. At this point I feel very peaceful about it, I am a little overwhelmed about the amount of details but my inner self, it feels right. It feels good, it fits.
Sister Christina: The struggles are all about the things that you can’t do, and that is definitely hard. But in the same way, the vows bring joy, they bring freedom! So I know where my obedience lies, so I don’t have to be tied to other things. I don’t have to be tied to a society framework. I have been able to grow in confidence, and I’ve been trying to form myself in that way.
Sister Christina, making vows
GV: Can you tell me a little about the transition going from being a non-vowed member of your community to being a vowed member?
Sister Christina: My novitiate experience was all in preparation to go do ministry. I was able to get internship experience at a University and it helped me see and get more exposure as to where other people come from. The students who are employed all come from different ways of being a Catholic. So now I am helping people deepen their feelings for what being a Catholic is, and it [my formation] helped me be a better minister.
Now that I am working, for me the vows are a structure, a base structure from where I am navigating. My vows help me to tie to my sisters of the past. The vows are both for myself and for the reign of God. Because I’m this vowed person, I am making all of my decisions through this lense, which feels really freeing.
GV: What has surprised you in making the step of becoming a vowed religious sister?
Sister Michelle: What’s interesting is we can know something is going to be difficult with our heads, but as women who are entering religious life, older than ‘what they used to be’; I think that when we enter we’re more educated, more aware. We bring different questions and realities. And because the entry point is different, we are aware that we are going to have different struggles, but I think the surprise for me was how difficult it is for my heart.
We can give a different language to the fact that our communities are getting older and there is a sense of diminishment. We can reframe it as a time of deeper communion, but, that’s the reality. So we have to struggle through the grief and loss. And I knew it going in.
Our religious communities have been very proactive about things like healthcare, and our separately incorporated ministries, so I don’t feel that weight. But we have this really precious gift of presence, and you just don’t want to let it go. It’s such a teacher for you - a kind of wisdom time with the older sisters.
And don’t get me wrong, I love our connection of younger men and women religious. I initiated a movement of women and men under 55 to go on retreat every year.
GV: Can you talk a little more about the retreat?
Sister Michelle: During my novitiate year, I attended the National Association of Vocation Formators and Directors. My leadership asked if I could come home for that, so I was just there experiencing the conference looking around the room, thinking “who am I growing old with in Canada as a religious?”
I returned to Berkeley and I just held it in prayer, and I can remember praying with it and thinking “What do I do with this? Where do I go with this?” Because all religious have retreat time during the year I knew that could be something that gathers us. I’m connected with Fr Ron Rolheiser, and I knew that he came to Saskatchewan every summer. And I thought, why not? So I reached out to Ron and said, this is what I’m feeling, would you be willing to dream with me? And he said “this is too important not to.”
So the summer of 2017 we had our first gathering and it was important to me to be both men and women religious, I think it’s a model of Church we hold. So we offered it again this past summer. Our motto or what is driving us is ‘do the small well.’ We keep the retreat simple and it’s not a complicated time, there is quite a bit of silence, and input. Time to have sacred conversations and get to know one another a bit.
GV: During this time of crisis in the Church, what does it mean to live the vows?
Sister Christina: “I feel this need as a call to action, and that a lot of people don’t realize that we [sisters] are not a part of the clergy and we’re not ordained. So what I feel is the need to empower our laity and help people and hold people and encourage them to be a part of the change.”
Sister Romina, on right, with International Rescue Committee colleagues in New York this summer
GV: What did you learn through processes of discernment about making vows that may have been challenging?
Sister Romina: It was helpful to speak with people who are non-white about the vows. I asked some other sisters from the Philippines about the vows, and what that background means. Our context of poverty is very different than what sisters in the United States experience.
My family is in the Philippines and they are simple people, they are not educated, and they won’t have enough money to retire on even though they work their whole life. That is a very different kind of concern for somebody who is entering the religious life from that culture. I don’t know of any of the sisters who I lived with who would worry about their parents’ healthcare or retirement. They can freely enter into a situation where they won’t own anything and be more comfortable knowing they won’t be able to help them out should something come up.
My parents were very supportive, but it weighed heavily on me knowing that I will be limited in the way that I can help them, and that is a very different situation than those who have grown up in more affluent societies that do have basic healthcare, even if it’s not perfect here.
But I learned, through discernment, that the vow of poverty is about coming into your limitations, which means you have to give up having control over the future. It is another level of letting go and surrender. So I will embrace that poverty, knowing that more than half of the world lives in this kind of situation and my family is one of them. It is about embodying this so that I am in solidarity with half of the world and that my family is also in that situation.
To feel more comfortable joining the sisters, I saved up and I had to leave a certain amount of money for my family. And now, it’s time to do what I feel God is asking me to do. And I think part of that grace, is that God will take care of it.