May 16, 2011
At Age 28, Sr. Mary Judith is just beginning life with the Dominican Sisters of Mary.
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
The fresh-faced, habit-garbed sister leaned forward in her chair and said to Oprah, “Jesus is a hard husband to be married to because if something goes wrong in the relationship, I know it’s me.”
Oprah and her audience burst out laughing at Sister Mary Judith’s witty, yet profound statement about her relationship with Jesus.
The program about the Dominican Sisters of Mary Convent in Ann Arbor, Mich., was an unexpected one from Oprah’s usual offerings. Unexpected too was the convent opening its doors and the sisters opening their hearts and souls to the television cameras.
Oprah’s celebrity status did not dazzle Sister Mary Judith. “She’s just another human soul waiting to be filled.”
Still, it’s a long way from life on an Indian reserve in northern Saskatchewan to a Michigan convent and Oprah’s stage.
The 28-year-old sister looks back on her spiritual journey with disarming directness.
Her mother Gay is Metis and she and her husband John – both teachers – had five sons and two daughters.
“The values in which we grew up with always included God,” says Sister Mary Judith.
“My parents were very prayerful and they continued to seek God.”
It was Gay’s work in the pro-life movement that drew them to the Catholic faith – “They (Catholics) were the backbone of the pro-life movement” – and the family, save the two oldest brothers, converted to Catholicism at the Easter Vigil in La Ronge in 1997.
Sister Mary Judith’s conversion took some time to move into her soul. She journeyed to New Hampshire to study philosophy at a liberal arts college. She delved into the Catholic faith studies and that, plus Eucharistic adoration, found her “growing in love with the Catholic faith and that has continued to this day.”
As she came to know God more, “a desire to give myself was developing in me, a realization of who I was called to be.”
Boyfriends? Sure. “But I have a pretty big personality and needed someone who would challenge me. I never found that.”
The crisis came in Sister Mary Judith’s junior year when a close friend back in Saskatchewan was shot.
It was Thanksgiving and she was volunteering with a group of sisters in Harlem.
“By the grace of God I was with the sisters,” remembers Sister Mary Judith. “I would have been a lot more reckless in my reaction. I still had structure while I was trying to deal with this news.”
Chaos filled her life when she returned to college. “I was fed up with just words.
“I was living in two worlds – up North and this New England world. The two worlds collided and I was asking myself who I was called to be. A lot of restlessness. My life has been driven by restlessness – the desire to fill the loneliness, that emptiness.”
She sought answers in a two-day silent retreat given by the Dominicans.
“I was not aware of anything except the silence and what was going on within.”
On the last day of the retreat, she was kneeling before the altar and “I experienced the feeling, ‘If you want to be happy, give your whole life to me.’
“It was clear to me that this was what God wanted. I was at that point of no return. It was life or death before me. I was either going to despair myself or I was going to give my life.”
Following the Scripture of immediacy – obeying God’s call at that precise moment in time – she did not return to college and applied to the Dominicans.
The vocation director “did a lot of talking to the mother superior. She saw something in me – maybe a diamond in the rough.”
Sister Mary Judith has been a Dominican for seven years and makes her final vows next year.
She’s quick to dispel where the real work lies when one takes that step into religious life. It’s not the giving up your worldly possessions. “The real work and sacrifice begins when you truly face yourself. The most challenging journey has been encountering myself in the gaze of Christ.
“Every sister has a vocation within their vocation, a calling within a calling, where God is calling each person to show his love in a different way. It is like we each are a prism and there is this one little ray of life that shines on who God really is.”
Sister Mary Judith’s mission this year is teaching Grade 5 in a Texas school. (The order sent her back to school to get an education degree.)
It’s a polyglot mix – three-year-olds to Grade 5, with 70 to 80 per cent Hispanic and 80 per cent from divorced homes “which makes for heavy burdens.”
The three sisters work with lay people, “helping them become who God wants them to be and ready to open their life to the love of God.”
Delight fills Sister Mary Judith as she tells of finding a priest to come to the school and hear Confessions. “It was Dec. 14 and some of the staff had not been to Confession for 25 years.”
“They had champagne after. They were coming from a background where going to Confession was the most horrible thing. Now they know it is a way to give God the burden we are carrying. They had tears in their eyes and were so ready to begin a new life.”
Sister Mary Judith is not alone on her religious path. Brothers Joshua and Nathan are studying for the priesthood with the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius in Chicago.
“My parents raised us for heaven,” says Sister Mary Judith. “They knew that was their goal as parents. The three of us, when we talk, we all realize why we are where we are.
“It wasn’t like ‘Let’s all go and be holy.’ It was an individual personal journey for each of us. But a lot of it was our complete hungerness for God and inability to be mediocre, given our parents and the way they lived their life.”