In Good Faith

IGF054 In Good Faith with Sister Mary Pellegrino, Senior Vice President at Plante Moran

Podcast Recorded: April 27, 2022
Sr Mary Pellegrino CSJ
Description

Sister Mary Pellegrino, Senior Vice President of Plante Moran consulting firm, and her consultant team work to ensure that religious institutes realize their potential and meet the challenges of the day, through the lens of their mission and charism. By changing the way the story of religious life is currently told, from one of scarcity and diminishment to one of abundance and social capital, Sister Mary sees exciting possibilities for religious institutes to collaborate in creating a more just and equitable world. Prior to working with Plante Moran, Sister Mary served as congregational moderator of her community, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, Pennsylvania, and served in the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the US. Mary has also served in vocation formation ministries for her congregation, as well as parish and campus ministries.

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MP3
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Show Notes

(2:30)  Who’s Zooming who?

(4:51)  Chapter

(5:45)  Serving the Sisters who serve others

(11:16)  The abundance perspective

(18:58)  Sister Power

(23:52) The baking of the bread

(32:28)  Sisters are critical yeast

(40:58)  Growing up

(44:10) A vocation begins

(48:43)  Entering the community

(51:31)  Living in community

(54:50)  Combining vocation and Vocation

(55:14) “DRE” in name only?

(1:00:20)  Vocation Ministry

(1:02:33)  A difference in vocation and Vocation

 

Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden

Sisters of St. Joseph US Federation

Plante Moran
 

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About our Guest

Sister Mary Pellegrino, Senior Vice President of Plante Moran consulting firm, and her consultant team work to ensure that religious institutes realize their potential and meet the challenges of the day, through the lens of their mission and charism. By changing the way the story of religious life is currently told, from one of scarcity and diminishment to one of abundance and social capital, Sister Mary sees exciting possibilities for religious institutes to collaborate in creating a more just and equitable world. Prior to working with Plante Moran, Sister Mary served as congregational moderator of her community, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, Pennsylvania, and served in the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the US. Mary has also served in vocation formation ministries for her congregation, as well as parish and campus ministries.

Transcript (Click for More)+

Sister Rejane  
This is In Good Faith, a conversation about living faith in everyday life. I'm Sister Rejane of A Nun's Life Ministry, and our guest today is Sister Mary Pellegrino, Senior Vice President of Plante Moran consulting firm. Mary and her consultant team work to ensure that religious institutes realize their potential and meet the challenges of the day, through the lens of their mission and charism. By changing the way the story of religious life is currently told, from one of scarcity and diminishment to one of abundance and social capital, Mary sees exciting possibilities for religious institutes to collaborate in creating a more just and equitable world. In exploring those possibilities, Mary uses the analogy of religious women being critical yeast for change, and the powerful example of growing the anti-human trafficking movement in the economic sector. Prior to working with Plante Moran, Sister Mary served as congregational moderator of her community, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, Pennsylvania, and served in the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the US. Mary has also served in vocation formation ministries for her congregation, as well as parish and campus ministries. Sister Mary grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in an intergenerational Italian neighborhood, where daily life was interwoven with the Catholic faith. She first encountered religious sisters as teachers throughout her school years. During her college years, while living in an intentional community with Sisters of St. Joseph, and working in her field of journalism, she discerned her call to religious life. Well, I'm very delighted to have you on our In Good Faith podcast today.

Sister Mary  
Well, you know, I really feel privileged and honored to be invited. You know, I've never done anything like this before. So I'm looking forward to it. And really, just to having this conversation with you.

Sister Rejane  
Yes. Thank you for saying yes! And I'm glad we can introduce you to a new platform.

Sister Mary  
[laughter] Thank you.

Sister Rejane  
Sure. Well, I always like to tell my audience, if I have a connection with my guest, and so I have been able to interact with you virtually, with my Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth community, when you and your Plante Moran team started with us in 2019, as we were preparing for General Chapter. So the first time I met you was this past February, in person at our chapter.

Sister Mary  
That's right! At your Chapter.

Sister Rejane  
During a blizzard.

Sister Mary  
Which was really a delight for me, because during COVID, so much of our work had converted to virtual and I met so many people over Zoom for about 15 months. To be able to actually meet people in person--I was really delighted to have the opportunity to meet you and many of your sisters that I had just seen only over Zoom.

Sister Rejane  
Yes. And it was like, I felt like I knew you, but you had to remind me, "I think this is the first time we're actually seeing each other." I'm like, "Oh, you're right!"

Sister Mary  
Right! Right.

Sister Rejane  
But it was a gift to be able to come together as a community and so grateful to have you and Plante Moran working with us, and continuing to work with us, as we go into the future.

Sister Mary  
Oh, thank you. We were just thrilled. And I think one of the things we so appreciate and enjoy about your community is just the spirit and vitality that's just so evident. I mean, it was evident to us even on Zoom. And then when we were able to be with you in person, it was even more evident. And particularly for the sacred event of a Chapter. I think you and I both can appreciate what that is, and was just particularly touched to be present at a time during your Chapter. And so we're very much looking forward to just this ongoing work. You have amazing opportunities to really express your mission and we're excited to really partner with you in ways of helping it to happen.

Sister Rejane  
Right. And for our audience, when we talk Chapters it is a very, as Mary said, sacred event where we are coming together as a whole community to set our direction, in my community's case, for six years--for some it's four, sometimes it's five--and kind of come up with a vision statement, a directional statement for the leadership, and then we also elect new leadership. So we took nine days out of our lives to do some of the hard work of contemplative discernment and conversations and decision making. So Mary, I was wondering, can you kind of talk about your current ministry, so people have a concept of what you are involved with in working with Plante Moran?

Sister Mary  
Sure. So I currently am working with Plante Moran. My colleagues and I make up a very small service group within a much larger firm called Plante Moran. And our service group works particularly and primarily and only with religious communities, and primarily women's communities. And our work with the communities is really assisting the leadership groups and whole communities in planning for their future. And I came to this work, ironically, through my own experience, when I was serving in leadership in my own community. We really were needing to do some comprehensive planning for our property, for our ministries, for the ways that we would support our sisters throughout our lifetime. And so we actually hired Plante Moran. We hired the two colleagues I work with are Jerry Gumbleton and Erin George. And they really led us--not only my leadership team, but our whole community--through a process of considering what is the current call for not only how we live in community, but also for the expression of our mission through our ministries--and helped us to really think differently about our resources and how we could make different choices about the resources that we had. And so that was my experience working with them. And we were able to really implement a number of recommendations. And so when I was completing my term in leadership--I had served 10 years in my community's leadership--Erin and Jerry contacted me and asked if I would be interested in joining their team. They had recognized that, while they can bring a particular kind of expertise--and they do bring an amazing range of expertise, from everything from financial analysis, to elder care, to property--what they recognized is what they couldn't bring was a perspective of the life of a sister, and a religious community. And so they had brought another sister on board, prior to my coming on board, and then she transitioned to another ministry. And so I was mildly interested at the time when they invited me to consider it. I was finishing leadership, and I knew that I would take a sabbatical. So I said, "I'm gonna take some time off. Let's talk about this at another time." So about maybe eight or nine months later, we took up the conversation again, and they explained the work and the opportunity to really work with communities. Because most communities, really, we have to be making these very practical decisions about our resources. And we have to be able to make them through the lens of our mission, and our charism. So most of my work is really helping a community and a leadership team situate the practical decisions that need to be made through the lens of what is the call, you know, what's the contemporary context that we're needing to express our vocation and our community's mission within. So that's basically the work that I do.

Sister Rejane  
And I think that's so important, what you talked about--the lens of our mission in its contemporary context. What I have so appreciated in these three years your work with my community is you had us read one of your articles called "Esther's Gamble," right? And what I so appreciated was your ability to reframe our current reality of the US women religious right now. And you really showed us that a lot of times our lens is looking at our life as one of diminishment as sisters age and pass away. And that our history has been one of scarcity of resources. You've reframed it and said, "Look: we have an abundance of resources. And in our time working and ministering with people here, we have social capital." Can you elaborate on that? It gives me energy and new life to have that frame of social capital and abundance instead of diminishment and scarcity to live out.

Sister Mary  
Yeah. Yeah, thank you for that. Because I do think that's probably one of the most underrated sensitivities, let's say, about religious life at this time. And where I see that is, you know, for a long time, the narrative about religious life in the United States has been a narrative of diminishment. And it's just been this comparative narrative about, "There's fewer sisters than there were in the past. The sisters are growing older. The communities are growing smaller." And it's a relative narrative, that really kind of idealizes this moment in history, this anomaly in history of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, those decades when religious communities were growing larger, when we were seeing women religious enter communities in the United States that had really been founded by immigrant sisters. So we had this narrative that religious life was continually growing, and in order to be effective, it had to be big. There was a lot going on socially during those times, as well, and within the church. The church itself was growing. We were seeing parishes grow, we were seeing school systems grow. And so this narrative about looking at religious life now and saying, "Oh, it's diminished"-- you know, that not the whole story. We are smaller than we were in the past. But that bigness was an anomaly. And so when we look at religious life, maybe back at the beginning of the 1900s, late 1800s, it was small. We were not seeing those large communities and large groups of women entering, like we were seeing in the 40s and the 50s. So just understanding that comparative history, I think, is really helpful. There’s a lot of reasons I think, for not only sisters, but just generally in our culture, that we really kind of approach life through a sense of scarcity. It's a sense of, "Well, there's not enough. We don't have enough. There's not enough money, there's not enough people, there's not enough of us." So that's really the scarcity narrative. And what I think is really a much truer narrative right now is that very when you take the comparison out in terms of numbers, and size, and when you really look at the impact that women religious have had in this country and continue to have, one of the most significant resources that we bring is our influence. And that's what I kind of frame is social capital. It's these networks of relationships that we have and that have been built over decades. And so while there may be fewer sisters overall in the United States right now, and there might be fewer communities and we might be older, the amount of influence that we have is probably more significant than it's ever been historically. And I think we see that, and I think we see that in the ways that sisters really position ourselves in the public forum around issues like immigration, human trafficking, health care. You know, the ways that we use our relationships, and we kind of use our social capital to really influence what is happening locally, wherever we are--and collectively, what's happening nationally, wherever we are. And I also see that globally as well. So to me, it's not so much a story of how many are there of us, and how young or how old are we. But it's really a story of where will we put our influence? And where will we exercise the influence that we have in service to mission?

Sister Rejane  
We will pause for a brief break. This is In Good Faith, a program of A Nun's Life Ministry. We want to thank our sponsors and individual donors like you, whose support makes the In Good Faith program possible. We'd love to hear from you, our listeners, and your input helps us create the podcasts that you enjoy. If you could take a few minutes after the podcast to fill out a brief survey, we would be very grateful. You will find the link to the survey in the Episode Notes of the podcast. We will be right back.

Welcome back. I am Sister Rejane of A Nun's Life Ministry, and my guest is Sister Mary Pellegrino. You can find past episodes of In Good Faith, and all our podcasts, at anunslife.org and on all the major platforms where you get your podcasts. I like how you're focusing on the questions, right? Numbers are just kind of like a fact. Right?

Sister Mary  
Right. Right!

Sister Rejane  
And I like it where you said we have to start asking, and going deeper, right? Because numbers stay on the surface. And where will we put our influence? Where will we re-uncover our mission and charism and express it? Because that's the beauty: religious life is always evolving. And we have that ability to re-express it in the context of now.

Sister Mary  
Right! And using the resources that we have. I know, in my own community--and probably you see this in in yours, too--that we have these really incredible networks of relationships.

Sister Rejane  
Can you speak more of that? What does that look like?

Sister Mary  
Well, when I look at my own community--I'm a Sister of St. Joseph of Baden. Baden is a small municipality about 20 miles outside of Pittsburgh. And we're situated along the Ohio River. We're in a rather economically challenged and depressed area. Our county, Beaver County, fluctuates between the third and fifth oldest demographic in the country. And so, we have a particular reality and setting. Within this setting, we also have an amazing number of relationships with community organizations that share our values or that are aligned with our purpose and that are connected to us either because of who we are collectively, or because we've had sisters who have been really effective and instrumental serving in, in various areas. So when we look at how will we express our mission--many of our sisters individually might be transitioning out of active ministry. At the same time, we're in relationship with all these organizations that are having impacts on food scarcity in our area, on climate in our area. And so if you come into our area--and I think this is the same for you, and it's probably the same for many other communities--people will know our communities. And they'll say, "We know that the Sisters of St. Joseph have opened their grounds for community gardens to address food scarcity in our area, or they have opened their property, or they're engaged in doing racial reconciliation work." And so they know us by how we're positioning ourselves in the broader civic community. And I think we have those kinds of reputations, and those kinds of influence, because of the way individual sisters gave their lives in the past. You know, we were educators, we were in health care. So we have all of that--reaping this harvest of the fruits of labor of our sisters that have gone before us. And seeing that we might be fewer, and we might be older--but as a community, as a collective, what we can catalyze, is going to have a broad-reaching effect in terms of responding to current and contemporary needs. So that's how I see these networks of relationships: we amplify our mission, and our charism by who we're in relationship with. Does that make sense?

Sister Rejane  
Yes, it does. That's very powerful. Because I think so much, we've thought of what we can do as individuals.

Sister Mary  
Yeah.

Sister Rejane  
And we have that within our US narrative, too, right? But we're community. And so it is a both/ and. And trying to transition to that kind of collective.

Sister Mary  
Yeah.

Sister Rejane  
I loved how you talked about your community and its local place--and yet, what we do kind of spills over. And for me, as a Sister of Charity of Leavenworth, we're also on a river, but it's the Missouri River. And we have an army fort here, and veterans. And so this has kind of shaped who we are. And I think what you've been talking about with this network of relationships and positioning ourselves within our realms of influence goes to another concept, which I know is not yours originally, but I love--and it's critical yeast. And I have to tell a story as to why I love this. So when I entered community originally, I loved baking bread. Someone had given me the friendship bread--remember those? That starter that just keeps growing and growing and you share it? And I would joke around, it's the bread that can make you lose friends because they do not want any more of your bread at a certain point. But I loved it--that idea of yeast. And so when I entered, of course, I was struck by Leavenworth, or "worth of leaven," in my name of my community, right? And I remember as a novice--there's a there's a certain ceremony going in, and I chose that symbol of Eucharist, the breaking of the bread, and then I had so much starter I just baked all this friendship bread. Very creative--you could put vanilla pudding in, chocolate chips and cinnamon. I've done it all. And so I did that as the reception to tie the Eucharist to what we can do with their hands.

Sister Mary  
Oh, that's beautiful. Wow.

Sister Rejane  
So of course, I can really identify with what you've been saying about that the act of leavening power of yeast is really a metaphor for religious life today. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Sister Mary  
Where I first heard that--and I just fell in love with the concept--was from John Paul Lederach, who is a peacebuilder. And I think he is either still on faculty, or perhaps retired from Notre Dame. But he was a longtime peacebuilder in international settings, where there were experiences of protracted violence and conflict at the local level. And as I understand it, he began his career going into conflict mediation, and then really began making observations and learning and seeing these patterns of the traditional approach to peacebuilding and conflict mediation were not effective because they really just engaged the representatives of the conflicted parties. The traditional approach was to negotiate solutions, and negotiate the peace at a representative level. And what they found is that those peace accords were often very fragile, and they often collapsed at the local level--the level of practicality. And he made some really significant observations from analyzing those circumstances and wondering, "Well, what's not happening?" And he discovered that what wasn't happening is that the people who are most closely affected by the conflict or the violence, or the differences--their experience was not really being included in a solution. And those were people who are typically just on the ground at the local level. And so if you had conflicting parties, and they were occupying the same social space, like neighborhoods, or tribal areas, or the market, and the solutions really didn't address, "What happens when I go to market, and I'm faced with violence from this conflicting party?" And so what he began to do is to pay attention to what was happening on the ground, so to speak, and discovered that when there were people on the ground able to really exercise influence in their relationships across the conflict, then those conflicts had a better chance of being resolved. And the peace accords had a better opportunity to be effective. There was one example I remember where it was a protracted tribal conflict. And the women from both tribes had to use the same market. And at one point they began to talk to one another to say, "How is this going to work? How are we going to use this market? And how can we keep our children safe? And how can we keep our family safe, when there's this conflict all around us?" And so they really worked with basically the perpetrators of the conflict to say, "The market is safe space. Whatever you have to do with your conflict, keep it out of the market, because this is where your children are. This is where your families are. This is where we have to really be able to live as one so that we can to thrive as a community." And so when he began to see that, he actually coined the phrase "critical yeast," as opposed to "critical mass." Because typically we would think you change a system by having more and more numbers aligned with a certain change.

Sister Rejane  
Okay.

Sister Mary  
But his perception was "No, you can change a system by the influence." Yeast acts as a catalyst. So--and you know this--yeast is the smallest ingredient. But without it, there's no catalyst for change. There's no catalyst for growth. And so John Paul Lederach speaks about critical yeast: it's not about the numbers, it's about the quality of relationships, and the quality of the networks that can actually catalyze something different happening. I think that's where women religious, if we were to lean in to that dimension, and stop trying to compare ourselves to what we were before, in terms of how many we were, what were we doing--and think about, what do we influence? And what can we catalyze? And what can we help to change and make different because of who we are now? For me, that's very exciting.

Sister Rejane  
Yeah. Do you a concrete example of where women religious are being that critical yeast?

Sister Mary  
Yeah, well, that's interesting. I love this story. And I know this aspect of the story--there might be other aspects of the story, but I love this aspect of the story of my understanding of how the anti-human trafficking efforts of women religious took root in the United States. I could be wrong about this, but I think it's pretty accurate. So I'm just gonna say that as a caveat.

Sister Rejane  
Sure.

Sister Mary  
Well, so this was a number of years ago, and maybe 10, 15 years ago or so. And the Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph in the United States--all of the communities of Sisters of St. Joseph in the United States, we have a federation, like you have a Federation for the Charity Family. So we have a Federation for the Joseph family. And our federation was planning an event. And we were planning it with, as you know, Rejane, Nix Conference.

Sister Rejane  
Of course!

Sister Mary  
So Nix Conference Planning Associates, run by Kimberly Ritter.

Sister Rejane  
Good woman.

Sister Mary  
Yeah, she's great. So our planning committee was meeting with Kimberly, and they were really trying to decide what hotel and they knew the city. And so in the RFP for the hotel--

Sister Rejane  
Remind me, what's an RFP?

Sister Mary  
Request for proposal?

Sister Rejane  
Thank you.

Sister Mary  
So they were putting together a request for proposal from a number of different hotels, and I think this was in St. Louis, to see who could accommodate them. So one of the elements in the request for proposal was what was the hotel's position, and what were they doing, to combat human trafficking. Human trafficking--I think the listeners will have a sense of it. They call it modern day slavery, but it's really the illegal transport of human beings for sexual exploitation, labor exploitation, both men and women, but primarily girls and women. And so our Federation had really begun wanting to address systemically how we could have an impact in that area. So one of the questions was, "What is your hotel chain doing to combat human trafficking?" And Kimberly--and she'll tell the story--she didn't know what that meant. She thought it was about moving traffic on the street. Like, "Do you mean what will they do to help you cross the street?"

Sister Rejane  
Oh, wow. Sure, right. I can see making that interpretation easily.

Sister Mary  
Right! And so the Sisters of St. Joseph said, “No, this is what human trafficking is." And Kimberly, at that time, had two teenage daughters. And she was horrified by it. And she started to do all this research on it. And she just became passionate about that. And so she built that into her business model, then, in how she addressed and worked with entertainment venues, how she worked with hotel venues. She actually started another nonprofit that was to address human trafficking, and she has become a really significant figure in anti-human trafficking. Her company works with so many of our religious communities in conference planning. And at the same time, women religious began to be much more involved in understanding human trafficking both in the United States and globally. So through global networks that we have all over the world, we're able to educate, we're able to disrupt some of the economics because there's an enormous amount of cash exchanged, and money exchanged, because of human trafficking. And so women religious all over the world are involved in disrupting that trafficking chain. And I think that's a way that we look and say, you know, there's a few sisters working specifically in activities related to human trafficking. But collectively, as a whole, most of our religious communities are engaged in anti-trafficking, using our influence to disrupt and to really change the conditions that create the opportunity to be successful in human trafficking. So that to me is one of the most visible areas of influence. And our communities could probably say what other things we are influencing locally?

Sister Rejane  
Right. Oh, I so appreciate you sharing that story with Nix and Kimberly. I had no idea.

Sister Mary  
If you have a chance to talk with her about it, she just--yeah.

Sister Rejane  
Well, and just from asking the question, your federation, "What are you doing to make sure this is not going on in this hotel?" And like you said, it had that ripple effect, right?

Sister Mary  
And the hotel that was selected, what I remember about that is they had not really addressed it, and through the contract negotiation and agreeing to host our event, they agreed--I wish I knew what hotel chain it was, but they agreed to make a commitment to have not only that local hotel, but their chain, to educate employees. Because part of it is really educating the employees of a hotel to recognize when are people being trafficked right in your hotel. And I remember at the beginning of our Federation event that year, we did a celebration with the hotel, because they signed on to their commitment during that event. That has been a ripple effect within the hotel and entertainment industry.

Sister Rejane  
Wow, that's a powerful witness. And a great example of that metaphor of being critical yeast as religious, and having such an effect. We are going to take a moment for a brief break. This is In Good Faith, a program of A Nun's Life Ministry. We want to thank our sponsors and individual donors like you whose support makes the In Good Faith program possible. Please visit anunslife.org to make a donation or to become a sponsor of the ministry. We will be right back. Welcome back, you are here with Sister Rejane of A Nun's Life Ministry, and my guest Sister Mary Pellegrino. Sister Mary is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, Pennsylvania. You can listen to this episode and all the episodes of In Good Faith podcasts on the website at anunslife.org and on all the major platforms where you get your podcasts. We also want to thank you, our listeners. We would love to hear your thoughts about the podcast. Just leave us a voicemail at 913-214-6087. Thank you so much. Well, Mary, we've been talking like big picture, right?

Sister Mary  
Right!

Sister Rejane  
So we're gonna go back in time a little bit. I have to ask a little bit about your childhood and what was life like in your family, and your first thoughts of becoming a sister.

Sister Mary  
Okay! So I grew up in Pittsburgh, I was born here. And I grew up in a city neighborhood called Beachview. And I have two older brothers--there's just three of us. We're just about all within three years. So we're very close in age. And I grew up really in a neighborhood where I had more relatives, who were my neighbors--I just assumed everybody lived by their relatives. So very large Italian family on my father's side. And I grew up two doors from my grandparents. And for the first five or six years of my life, my mother's mother, my maternal grandmother, lived with us. And then the house got full, and she moved out and lived by herself, for a while and then came back later. But I was really surrounded by so much family when I was growing up, and really tight-knit neighborhoods of neighbors that had been together for years and years and decades. And I when I look back, there's probably a significant number of first-generation immigrants or second-generation immigrants in my neighborhood, mostly Italian, some Irish. And I went to Catholic school--St. Catherine's was my home parish--and the Sisters of St. Joseph were at my parish and at my school. And so I was taught by my community for the first eight years for in grade school. And then I went on to Catholic high school that was run by the Whitehall Franciscans, Sisters of St. Francis of the Providence of God, in Whitehall, which is a suburb of Pittsburgh. And there were a number of different religious communities teaching there at the time. I was always around church. My father was very active in our parish, and my grandmother was very active. So it was just really kind of normal to be around church and to have, you know, priests and sisters around. I remember when I was growing up--so my grandmother, and maybe like three or four other women--and this is probably the same in many parishes--they pretty much ran the parish.

Sister Rejane  
Yes.

Sister Mary  
Yeah. And so it would not be unusual for the pastor--like, I go see my grandmother, and there would be the pastor in the kitchen. And, you know, asking about, "Now what do I do about this? Ange, what do I do about this?" And there's my grandmother telling him, "Well, this is what you should be doing." So I just grew up around the church. I was really active, and it just seemed normal--the life of a sister just seemed normal to me. And I remember in junior high. There were two or three of the Sisters of St. Joseph and some lay teachers when I was in junior high and I just remember watching the sisters and their manner with one another and with the kids, and they were just engaged in our lives and engaged in one another's lives. I remember thinking, "I want that. Whatever that whatever they have, that's what I want." And I guess that was my first thought about, "Yeah, I wonder what that wonder what that's about."

Sister Rejane  
So kind of that joy that you felt, like, there was joy within their relationships not only amongst themselves, but with all of you?

Sister Mary  
Yeah, it was joy, there was fun, there was laughter, there was compassion. They were just kind of with us. They were our teachers, but they also visited our homes, or they also ran the carnival, they did all of those things. And they loved life. I think that's what I mostly noticed. I was exposed to different communities in high school. And that's where I began to see that, oh, there is a difference. Communities have a different kind of personality. And so anyway, I was really seriously thinking about religious life in high school. And then, it was my senior year, and two really good friends who are twins, and their dad died suddenly on Easter night. And I just remember thinking, "Wow, if that's what God does, I don't want any part of that." And it was such a crisis of faith for me. It was not my first experience of death, but I think it was my first experience of death in my formative years. So I really just kind of left the church. I just stopped going to church and just was really angry and confused, and then went off to college in that kind of state, and was on the periphery of church during my first couple of years of college. There's no rhyme or reason to this; it just got to a point where I thought, "You know, there's got to be more to life than me doing really well in school and having a lot of friends." I just felt a kind of an emptiness. I just really felt like, you know, I just can't do this alone. And I really was missing a relationship with God. But I don't think I could have said that. But that's what happened. And I think I really kind of began to return to the church and return to a relationship with God. And I found that that interest in being a sister was still there. And so I just kind of became more involved and connected with my community while I was in college, and did a summer ministry program that allowed me to live in community with the sisters and also minister in some of the activities that they were ministering in at the time. So that really gave me a flavor. And I continued with that after college, and I remember thinking, "All right, I'm just gonna get this out of my system." So I wrote to ask to enter the community, and I thought, "I'll do this for a year."

Sister Rejane  
How old were you?

Sister Mary  
I was, I was 23 when I entered. A year after a year after college, I entered. And I thought, "I'm just gonna do this for a year. I'm just going to have to get it out of my system." And after a year, I was like, "Wow, this is in my blood." I remember I had an internship between my junior and senior year of college. I was living in community with our sisters. And I was going to my internship every day, which was in the city parks department of the Pittsburgh Parks and Recreation. So it was in the PR department of the city parks department. And then at night, I was visiting women who were incarcerated in our county jail. And the way that those were situated is my office where I would go for my internship was in the city county building. And out the window, I could see the county jail. It was right across the street.  So I would go in during the day, and I would be writing and doing PR and looking out the window, and I knew people in that jail. And then at night, I would go to that jail. And I would look up, and I would see where I worked during the day. And I felt like I was just living in two different worlds. And they were both good. And yet, I knew I needed to make some choice. And so that's really, I think, what set me on a path of really serious discernment to really understand what was the call. Because could I thrive in either life? Probably. But which of those is really the call of God in my life? And that's really where I kind of entered into some deeper discernment.

Sister Rejane  
Thank you, that's, that's a powerful story. You had to make a choice; you could thrive either place, really, kind of pursuing into journalism and communications. And yet the call the service and community and that inner life was where you felt God was drawing you.

Sister Mary  
Yeah. The opportunity to live in community with other with sisters who were really committed to that life, and then also with other young women like myself, who may or may not have been considering religious life, but we wanted to have an opportunity to serve. And I think that's really what drove so many of us: we were looking for ways to serve. But for me, the combination of those, of committed community life and service. I think that's where when all of that came together for me. I think that's what I knew what was different.

Sister Rejane  
Right, right. And you hear that a lot from discerners, even today. They can do service, right? But what do we have as women religious? We have this committed communal life. And that is oftentimes very attractive for discerners.

Sister Mary  
Right! Yeah. And I mean, it's, it's not--as you know, it's not easy. It's hard. It's hard work. Commitments are hard.

Sister Rejane  
Oh, yeah. I always tell people, "What's the best part about religious life? Oh, community. What's the worst part? Oh, community."

Sister Mary  
Right! Commitments are hard.

Sister Rejane  
But it's the same if you do marriage. You have your good times, and your bad.

Sister Mary  
Exactly. I don't know if you found this, Rejane, but I've found there have been real periods of times where I've had to recommit.

Sister Rejane  
Yes. Oh, it's not a one-time commitment. Absolutely not.

Sister Mary  
It's like, "Oh, man, I gotta recommit. Because is this what this means?"

Sister Rejane  
No, it's so true. Well, I'm impressed--23! I love hearing everyone's story, because every story is different about your call and your vocation. Because for me, I entered at 31.

Sister Mary  
Oh, wow!

Sister Rejane  
So I did I definitely took the circuitous route, and had lots of different experiences before I was willing to just make that conscious--because it has to be a conscious decision. Right?

Sister Mary  
Right!

Sister Rejane  
That's the beauty of discernment: you have to enter into the process. But, yeah, so I love to hear that, that you were able to make that decision at that age. And I also kind of hear some of those gifts from communication and your journalism--you were able to use those, right?

Sister Mary  
Oh, yeah.

Sister Rejane  
In your ministries that you've had over the years.

Sister Mary  
To some extent, going into to a journalism and communication really was a way to just allow some natural gifts that I had to really be utilized and grow. Maybe just circumstantially, I just used those gifts from the very beginning. In my early years, I was doing some grant writing for my community. I mean, there's so much involved in public speaking, and just being able to write. So in terms of utilizing those gifts, I've seen every opportunity for that. In that sense of making this choice, I guess it was about a career, in the traditional sense of the word, and a life, in the sense of religious life. I think that's what I was grappling with. God is just amazing, because all of our stories are unique. And God uses just any aspect of our lives. And when we're awake enough to it, any aspect of our life, is really a sacramental moment.

Sister Rejane  
Yes, yes. Sometimes you don't recognize it, but you might reflect back on it in prayer, and you're like, "God was there in that, but I couldn't see it at the moment." So some of your other ministries--You worked in youth ministry and campus ministry?

Sister Mary  
I did. I did. I think one of my first ministries after the novitiate was I was a DRE, Director of Religious Education and Youth Ministry for a parish. And that makes me it makes it sound like I was really sophisticated and prepared and I was not. It was like this parish that kind of ran itself. It was not far from our motherhouse, it was in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. This whole region has been settled by immigrants, European immigrants, for the steel industry. And so in Ambridge, in this little town, in probably within a mile square--maybe less than a mile square--there were seven parishes, Catholic parishes. Six of them were ethnic, and settled for ethnic immigrants, and one was territorial. So I was working at the parish, at Christ, the King parish, that had been originally settled for Italian immigrants. And so this is like the late 80s, early 90s. And the parish had been founded in like 1910, or 1920. And they only had their third pastor, so that--

Sister Rejane  
Oh, my goodness.

Sister Mary  
That's right! And we were still in first generation. And so the kids that I had in CCD and youth ministry, were just second generation, many of them. And so the commitment, the family commitment to church and to the faith was just phenomenal. And so we had committed teachers for CCD, we had classroom CCD from K through 12. When I was offered the job, I was like, "Listen, I don't really know anything about this." And they're like, "Listen, we're gonna run it. You just have to, like, oversee it." I was like, "Okay, I can do that." So. But anyway, it was just a wonderful place to have a first experience of ministry. And from there, I went into campus ministry at a state school, Indiana, University of Pennsylvania. And then from there, I went into vocation and formation ministry for my community for about nine or 10 years. And then then I went back into campus ministry at a Carlow University, which is a university sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh. And I was a Director of Campus Ministry there for a couple of years, and then I was elected to leadership. I served two terms in those four years.

Sister Rejane  
Was it hard transitioning, for you, from a very external ministry where you're with people and youth ministry and campus ministry to now, as leadership, you're working for the sisters, right? Both in vocation work and in leadership.

Sister Mary  
Right. I think the harder transition for me was going from those early years in parish and campus ministry, into Vocation Ministry. I remember just feeling like, "Oh my gosh, this is more navel gazing than anything else." And so that was the bigger transition for me. But when I began to really see what the nature of Vocation Ministry is, and how we wanted to approach it--it was not about recruiting women for our community, it was really about cultivating vocation, whatever that vocation would be in a person's life. And so that really was really compelling for me, to really work with, with young women and some young men too. Because during that time, we also started the Young Adult Ministry, at a community house for young adults that I was a part of.

Sister Rejane  
Did you live with them?

Sister Mary  
I did, with a couple other sisters. And at that time, our diocese really did not have a lot of opportunities for young adult ministry. And so what we were doing there, in addition to the community life, we were also offering programs for prayer, spirituality, some young adult faith formation programs out of the house. That was really a privileged ministry, to be a part of that. And we did that for about five or six years. And then the diocese really did begin providing some other opportunities for young adults. So we began to see, you know, is there something else we could put our energies into. To see Vocation Ministry not so much as about recruitment, but to see it really as serving the discernment of the church--that really gave me energy.

Sister Rejane  
I like that. I mean, as A Nun's Life, we talk about cultivating vocations, regardless of what that actually looks like. Yeah. And I think so much of it is being able to have that relationship with God. And God wants you to tap into your natural gifts and talents, and to really love life.

Sister Mary  
Right! Right!

Sister Rejane  
And what's the best way to express that?

Sister Mary  
Yeah.

Sister Rejane  
A vocation is definitely different than a career.

Sister Mary  
Yeah. And really helping people to explore, what is the life that's going to bring you joy, and that you're going to bring joy to others? And if joy and happiness and freedom, if they're not fruits of your discernment, then it's probably not for you. Really helping to say, "Okay, what are the fruits here? Because you're not supposed to be crabby."

Sister Rejane  
Right? And it's hard because when you're talking about what's going on inside you, there's nothing tangible, right?

Sister Mary  
Right.

Sister Rejane  
So people think vocation is just career like, "Oh, that's concrete. Whether I'm at home working on the computer and connecting on Zoom, for those that are working remotely, or whether I'm going to an actual physical location and working and then coming home"- but there's so much more to a vocation, and a lot of it has to do what's going on inside of you.

Sister Mary  
Right?

Sister Rejane  
And I like how you said, "the fruits." It's not necessarily tangible, but in a way, it is! Because if you're in tune with your relationships with people, they're gonna reflect back to you whether you're crabby or you are happy.

Sister Mary  
And it's really about thriving. You know, God doesn't make us not to thrive. And so, where are we thriving, where are we growing deeply? That might be in a committed relationship with another person. It might be in a single life. And for us, it's in this vowed community life. And what you do kind for a living, that's secondary for all of us. But I think just really helping young people to sort that out because there's so many demands and pressures that they have to navigate.

Sister Rejane  
Yes. In Good Faith is a production of A Nun's Life Ministry, helping people discover and grow in their vocation by engaging questions about God, faith and religious life. This program is made possible through the grace of God, and the support of our sponsors of A Nun's Life Ministry, and you, our listeners. Don't forget to call us and leave a message. Tell us what you like, ask a question, or just say hi. Call 913-214-6087--and visit us at anunslife.org. God bless.

 

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