When Sister Ann Kateri Hamm, C.F.R., was 14 years old, she began to sense a call to religious life. The oldest of 12 children growing up in the suburbs outside Washington, D.C., she kept her calling largely to herself through high school and brought it silently with her to Harvard University. In her senior year as a pre-med student, the call finally emerged with a completely unexpected voice—her college roommate.
“I would look at my four years (at Harvard) as God using it and forming me in a way, preparing me for that moment of finally calling my parents,” she recalled Oct. 19 at a panel discussion at the Sheen Center that followed the screening of “For Love Alone,” a new film by Joseph Campo of Grassroots Films examining the lives and vocations of women called to religious orders.
“It came through a really Holy Spirit moment in that God used my college roommate to bring it up in a conversation,” she said. “I was actually crying about a boy who’d broken up with me. She turned to me and said, ‘I’m sorry about that guy but don’t you think God has been calling you to religious life?’ My jaw dropped. I said how did you know that? Why are you asking? And she said, ‘I don’t know, I felt a need to ask that question.’ As soon as she did, this secret, this joy, it wasn’t a bad secret but it was a secret I had been holding to myself, came to light.”
When she finally called home with the news, her father, a doctor, admits he was surprised, but not totally. “There were a few minor hints along the way that my daughter would possibly choose the religious life,” he explained. “But very few. So, this was really to a large degree a call out of the blue. She was a pre-med student. You would think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to be heartbroken she’s not going to pursue my profession.’ I really didn’t feel that at all. It was easy for me to accept because I knew that was most likely going to be right for her. That she had answered her call.”
Sister Ann’s story was one of several such stories related by the panel of religious sisters who each offered their own highly personal stories of their discernment journeys. Father Christopher Argano, director of vocations for the archdiocese, also took part in the discussion.
Sister Stella Mary, O.P., born to Josefina Nazario and Jorge Morales in Puerto Rico, admitted that she initially found her call to work with seriously and terminally ill people when she entered the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne a little off-putting. In fact, she arrived at her vocation rather unexpectedly. She had only been thinking of making a career change when she received the unexpected call to something much bigger. “It totally blew my mind,” she said. But what was even more unsettling, she was being led in a direction she had always shied away from.
“I have to admit that for me, I was not expecting, first to be called to this particular community,” she admitted. “Because I had always kept my distance from the sick and the dying. My mom would say, ‘Let’s go and visit so and so in the hospital,’ and I would say, ‘Very good, I’ll wait for you in the car.”’ When she entered the sisterhood, she made her aversion to such work plain. Then she was given a book to read about the foundress of the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, Rose Hawthorne. “I couldn’t put it down. I was amazed and surprised about the life of the foundress,” she said. “So, I had to pray and after a lot of crying, I said yes.
“I recalled on my first (patient) visit that He gave me a grace. I got through the whole care of a person, which I’d never done before and I knew that He had given me a gift, that I could do it. But I had to trust Him. And here I am 12 years by the Grace of God alone. And I am happy doing what He has asked me to do.”
The 17-minute film focuses on work with the terminally ill as representative of the entire spectrum of tasks that religious women do across their varied vocations, from teaching, to working with the poor, to pro-life ministries and working with young mothers in trouble. The film does not identify the orders featured or even reveal the identities of the sisters who are interviewed. There is a reason.
“In 17 minutes, how do you show the totality of a sister’s life?” explained Mother Clare Matthiass, C.F.R. “We focused on (end of life issues), because we thought if you focus on that, you can see and experience something of the religious sister caring for the person at the end of life. You can also surmise that the religious sisters are there throughout life. We showed 14 religious habits. So visually you are seeing that religious life is alive and well. So even though you’ll see 14 religious communities, if you’re counting, you’ll not learn the name of any community, you’ll not learn the name of any sister interviewed because it’s about the universal experience of God calling His children to himself in vocations. We hope we got that across.”
For Sophia Harris, a 17-year-old senior at St. Vincent Ferrer High school in Manhattan and a parishioner at St Augustine parish in Ossining, the message was about a life of abundance lived to the fullest.
“One of the things I’ve always thought about is how much you’re giving up when you are chosen to come into religious life,” she said. “But one of the sisters talked about how everything that she gave up, she got back and even more. So even if you feel like you’re giving up a lot, so much is given back to you from accepting that call.”