Newman nursing student Sister Mary Jane Frances professed her perpetual vows as a Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) of Wichita on Sept. 26.
Sister Mary grew up as a parishioner of the Church of the Magdalen and attended Kapaun Mt. Carmel High School. Throughout her youth, she never imagined God would call her to sisterhood.
“Even though the IHM sisters taught me in high school, I could not really see myself as a sister at that time. I liked the sisters but I couldn’t imagine that I would be happy being a sister myself,” she said.
After high school, Sister Mary attended Butler Community College and worked as a certified nursing assistant. She had many friends and was enjoying her classes and finding her independence but she felt that something was missing.
“I experienced a restlessness in my heart that could not be satisfied. I had no reason to be discontent; my life was full of good things,” she said. “I had everything that I thought would make me happy, but my heart longed for something more that I couldn’t identify.”
During that time, her thoughts often drifted to religious life. The decision to attend the Fiat Discernment Retreat altered her life forever. “It was there that I finally surrendered all of my plans to God so that He could show me what He wanted for me.”
The retreat was quite literally life-changing. Sister Mary saw for the first time the relationship of love that Jesus was inviting her into.
She said, “Seeing His love for me, I was no longer scared of what He might ask of me. All that mattered was that He was calling me to be His, and I wanted that. After that retreat, I began visiting different religious communities, starting with the IHM.”
She felt a contented fit with the IHM sisters when she would visit so she decided to join them. She enjoyed their strong family life and said she felt like herself when she would visit.
“The sisters live a deep life of prayer in addition to all of their apostolic endeavors. Our life lived in union with Christ through prayer is what has allowed me to persevere in my vocation,” she said.
The formation process is six years in length and is a combination of discernment, growth in a relationship with Christ, learning about what it means to be a religious sister and then being formed in the order of choosing in particular. Sister Mary began that journey in 2014.
Much of the first three years are spent simply discerning with the community whether God is calling a woman to be a sister and if she fits into the particular order of interest.
“It’s all about doing God’s will,” said Sister Mary. “Whether that means a woman perseveres in formation or leaves before final profession. It takes time to sift through the desires of the heart and to discern where God is leading a particular person.”
Those initial three years are very structured and spent almost entirely at the convent in prayer, studying, working and taking part in communal life. The majority of discernment of a vocation is completed during this time. A sister will prepare for her first profession of vows, and in the IHM community, will profess vows for one year and renew those vows annually for three years. This is a time when sisters deepen their relationship with Christ and their dedication to their religious community in preparation for the perpetual vows.
The three years after a sister’s first vows are also a time of professional formation when the sister will go back to prepare to enter the apostolate of the community. The IHM sisters teach in the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Wichita.
“Balancing these last few years of college with my religious formation has not been easy,” said Sister Mary. “The support I have received from my sisters has been indispensable, especially as I work through Newman’s rigorous nursing program. In addition, remaining faithful to my life of prayer has allowed me to keep my focus on Christ, even in the midst of many stressful weeks.”
Sister Mary applied to the Newman nursing program because of its strong reputation and Catholic background. She will graduate in December 2021 with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing.
She said faculty at Newman have been pushing her toward excellence from day one.
“They are unwilling to compromise the potential they see in us and I am so grateful. They are also so supportive of the needs of each individual, and that is not always the case in other nursing programs.”
She is also grateful that Director of Nursing Teresa Vetter has been accommodating toward her needs as a sister.
Upon graduation, Sister Mary will be available to the IHM as a nurse along with another sister who joined the convent as a registered nurse.
The IHM does not currently need a full-time nurse at home but they are preparing for a time when sisters will need more healthcare. Sister Mary is grateful to be able to care for her sisters and keep them more closely integrated into the community, living with their fellow sisters, as their health needs change and develop.
Sister Mary also has plans to get a teaching license to join the communal apostolate of the IHM teaching in the Catholic schools of Wichita.
When Sister Mary is not needed at home as a nurse, she will be teaching.
Throughout her entire vocation, she has been focused on cultivating an intimate and loving relationship with Jesus Christ.
“My whole life is given to Him through my vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. Through the sacrifices inherent in religious life, I am more free to live for Christ and to be filled with His love,” she said.
She said though most people only see what she has given up by joining the IHM and becoming a sister, Sister Mary thinks of it as a small price compared to the joy and fulfillment of belonging to Christ. She noted that people make sacrifices all the time for the things that they love — careers, athletics, etc. — and she is happy to make sacrifices for Christ.
“Finally, for the past six years, I have been growing in my identity as a sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Every religious community has been given a particular charism by the Holy Spirit for the good of the whole Church. The IHM sisters are centered on living by the spirit of Mary, the mother of Jesus, especially under the title of her Immaculate Heart.
“Mary is the one perfectly given to God’s will in love, totally united to Christ, and tenderly caring for all people as mother of the Church. We seek to imitate her surrender to God’s providential will, her loving devotion to Christ, especially through the Eucharist, and her service of the Church.”
Sister Mary can hardly put into words how happy and grateful she is for all that God has provided her, she said.
“I wish everyone could see the joy in my smile and in my eyes so that they might see how good God is. God cares for each person so generously, and in a small way, people get to see that in the lives of religious, who make God more tangibly present. More than anything else, I want others to be able to see the love God has for them; that is what I hope to convey in every encounter, every conversation, every moment of my life. If the world could see the loving and merciful God I meet every day in my prayer, in my work, in those suffering, then the world could not help but love Him as I do.”