A Vocation Story by Sister Jennifer Schaaf, OP
At one point, I dreamed of getting married and having a house with a white picket fence, a dog and 2.5 children. I had a degree in music education and planned to teach elementary school for the rest of my life. I didn’t envision becoming a nun.
Then, life hit.
My first year of teaching was full of heartbreak and what felt like countless tragedies. Several deaths occurred, and my first day of teaching was September 11, 2001. In the midst of so many tragedies, I was trying to figure out how to be the best teacher I could be. I knew I also needed to begin a Master’s program in order to renew my teaching license, and I realized that I needed something more – something that would help me understand life in new ways. I enrolled in an M.A. in Pastoral Ministry program at the University of Portland in Oregon.
It was when I entered the Pastoral Ministry program that the thought of becoming a sister became real. I knew sisters before then but wasn’t drawn to religious life. Growing up, there were two religious sisters who were essentially the pastors of my church. There was an experimental program in the Northwest, dealing with the lack of priests in rural areas. This created teams of priests, sisters and deacons to cover many parishes for sacramental, pastoral and administrative needs. I grew up knowing priests and sisters as family friends, but it was a tumultuous time and both of the sisters in the parish ended up leaving their communities
One of my professors, a Dominican Theologian, walked into the classroom and was a young vibrant woman, passionate about teaching. Instantly, she pushed my understanding of God through liberation theology and theologies from many different perspectives. On one occasion, just before the war with Iraq broke out, she brought in a bumper sticker that said, “I have family in Iraq.” Calmly and quietly, she explained that we have human family, Christian family and Dominican family in Iraq, which means that we need to reevaluate the value of going to war. It was the sense of social justice, being part of the institutional Church, but willing to remain on the margins as women religious, that piqued my interest in religious life and initially made me realize that my life mirrored hers in many ways.
The concept of the Dominican Family has been a big part of my entry and ongoing discernment to religious life. Before completing my Master’s, I moved to Ohio to work in campus ministry at a Dominican college, interacting with Dominicans from across the country and throughout the world who were engaged with students and young adults. The common language of prayer, study, community and preaching united us in ways that transcended any actual language barriers.
Within my own community, I’ve found the love and support of my sisters, as well as witnessed how they live the values I initially saw in my professor and throughout the Dominican world. Although it wasn’t without twists and turns, and many questions along the way, I’ve found my identity in being Dominican: preaching the Good News of God’s love, especially to the poor and marginalized. This now happens through conversations with my university students who are discerning major life questions, through working with a community in Nicaragua, and in community with my sisters who engage in many different areas of brokenness that require the Good News of God’s love.