Lord Jesus, Hear our pleas, our good shepherd and divine physician. We implore your mercy…
With 18 new postulants, Dominican sisters in Michigan see a vocations boom amid the pandemic
This spring, most of us were just trying to navigate a new stay-at-home lifestyle as the world shut down. Eighteen young women were doing more — preparing to leave family, friends and worldly possessions behind for the radically different life of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.
On Aug. 22, at their motherhouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the Sisters of Mary welcomed one of the largest postulant classes in their 23-year history. Now numbering more than 150, the order has always been blessed with a “different kind of vocations crisis” — more applicants than they have room to house. But this class is something special.
“I call my vocation a COVID miracle, because the majority of my discernment happened during the pandemic,” said Sister Genevieve, from Phoenix. She isn’t alone; her fellow postulants, who hail from across the United States and Mexico, found their discernment and entrance uniquely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A “normal” discernment process for a young woman usually involves attending one or more discernment retreats, extensive conversations with Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, the vocations director, and, ultimately, asking for papers (making a formal application to enter the order). If accepted, she is invited to attend Pre-Postulancy Week, a preview of life in the community.
Finding ways to be with God
This year, after cancelling the spring discernment retreat, Sister Joseph Andrew said she “took to the internet and picked up the challenge of contacting the young women. … Each of them needed my reaching out to them to extend an offer to speak with them via phone and, should things progress, via Zoom.” Far from being a roadblock for the vocations director, she said contacting each girl individually “provided a beautiful contact that was one-on-one and capable of the deep discussions that I would have had with them during the retreat. In fact, in some ways, it might have enabled a longer conversation.”
Meanwhile, the would-be postulants were coping with lack of access to the sacraments and the resulting challenges to their spiritual life and discernment.
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To read the biographies of all 18 postulants for the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, go to sistersofmary.com/meet-the-postulants.
“Not having access to the sacraments really showed me that my entire life revolved around going to Mass and being able to adore Christ in the Eucharist,” said Sister Jenna, from Wappingers Falls, New York. “I found solace in the fact that even though in that moment I was separated physically from Christ in the Eucharist, in only a few months I would begin living life as a bride of Christ and striving to be with him for eternity.”
“I had a hard time praying at home because I always had distractions around me, whether that be electronics, a book I was reading at the time or an unfinished art project that was staring me in the face. In other words, my prayer life decreased dramatically,” said Sister Jacinta, from Galesburg, Illinois. “Though I would never wish to go without the Eucharist again, I am glad I experienced it, because I now greatly appreciate and truly understand the importance of Mass and the Eucharist. It has made me a better Catholic.”
They found creative ways to stay close to Jesus, even without Mass. “I became very good friends with EWTN.com since they had a 24/7 adoration livestream. Meanwhile, my family got used to seeing a sticky note with ‘Praying’ attached to my door so that I could get a little bit of peace and quiet,” said Sister Autumn, from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Sister Genevieve was able to make regular Holy Hours at her parish. “I am very grateful that I was able to go to adoration almost every night, because I believe it was the source of grace Jesus used to help me say ‘yes’ to my vocation.”
Sister Rory, from Michigan City, Indiana, summed up the feeling of the whole group: “I never want to be separated from him again, so next time there’s a pandemic, the only place I want to be is in a convent.”
Blessings in disguise
The lockdowns also meant that Pre-Postulancy Week would not be held in person. Sister Joseph Andrew had to pivot quickly to turn an immersive week into a digital experience. Pre-postulancy lets the girls meet each other and many of the Sisters of Mary, spend time in the motherhouse, learn the postulants’ daily schedule, take formation classes, ask questions “and simply enjoy getting to know their new family,” she said.
“For me, personally, these Zoom lessons were pure joy. I could easily see each one of them, and their faces told me everything!” Sister Joseph Andrew said. “I could read them like books and thoroughly enjoyed myself and watching them enjoy themselves.”
Sister Amber, from Pittsford, Ohio, also found benefits of those Zoom meetings.
“One blessing … was seeing all the other pre-postulants’ faces once every week for about a month, instead of seeing them just for a week altogether. Also, pre-postulancy was able to be earlier, and our questions were answered sooner, and we knew if we were accepted sooner, which was an amazing blessing,” Sister Amber said.
Sister Mary Clare, from Alameda, California, added, “With each pre-postulancy week meeting, I was able to learn more about the Dominican order as well as the Dominican way of life, and with each meeting also came more excitement and joy.”
“God gave us so many graces throughout the months before entrance, and our communication through Zoom and email was a blessing — even if it was not one we were expecting,” said Sister Eilis, from Linesville, Pennsylvania.
A growing order
Usually, the new postulants’ families have the option of traveling to witness their official entrance into the community. This year, the women were given the option: have a trimmed-down, socially distanced ceremony outside with their families, or have the full entrance ceremony inside the motherhouse chapel. They voted unanimously for the 40-minute chapel ceremony with Scripture and beautiful music, which family and friends could watch online. Each woman, dressed in the simple blue postulant uniform, was introduced to and welcomed by their new religious family. They were also given the blessed Dominican cross they’ll wear until they receive the habit next year.
What will vocations look like for the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist as the uncertainty of the pandemic continues?
Sister Joseph Andrew is making full use of the sisters’ digital platform, goledigital.org, to prepare talks and podcasts for any woman who wants to learn more about vocations, and she plans to make the November discernment retreat both in-person and livestream. She’s certain the influx of new vocations won’t stop, saying, “I am convinced that our number of vocations will increase far more in the young women who will enter in 2021, because where the challenge abounds, God’s grace abounds all the more!”
Rebecca W. Martin is associate editor for trade books at OSV.