Why I Became a Nun

by Melannie Svoboda SND on January 5, 2015

Pope Francis has declared 2015 the Year of Consecrated Life. Consecrated Life essentially  includes individuals who have professed the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. They can be priests, sisters (nuns), or brothers. To mark this year, I will write a few posts on several aspects of consecrated life. I begin today with a rather personal one, one that attempts to answer the question my students often asked me: “Sister, why did you become a nun?” (They sometimes posed this question to distract me from whatever boring subject matter I was teaching!)

I became a nun because I felt called to be one. I saw no visions. I heard no Darth Vader voice saying: God wants YOU to be a nun! But I felt an attraction to the way of life. As I was growing up I was drawn to its mystery, its total commitment to God, its dedication to good works, its prayerfulness. The few nuns I knew (my great aunt was a Joliet Franciscan and the Cleveland Ursulines taught me catechism) seemed happy. In high school I got to know more nuns, the Sisters of Notre Dame. Most of them seemed pretty happy too—especially after school when I year of consecrated logodiscovered they were more than excellent teachers. Some were actually fun. In high school I was also smitten with the idealism of the JFK Era and was already harboring thoughts of joining the newly formed Peace Corps after college. I was pretty sure I was capable of dedicating two years to the Corps, but then another question loomed: Could I dedicate my whole life as a sister?

That question would not go away. It persisted. In fact it was the call’s persistency that really got to me. It would “show up” while I was engaged in all kinds of activities: praying at Mass on Sunday (where you might expect the call to show up). But it also arose while I was conjugating verbs in Sister David’s Latin class, sitting on a sand dune with a couple of friends, listening to my sister’s Pat Boone records, playing funny games at a pajama party, writing earnestly in my diary, and even while dancing a slow dance with some lanky Old-Spice-scented boy.

I didn’t say “yes” right away to this call. The prospect of never having a husband or children gave me pause. Serious pause. (To this day I believe that was the greatest sacrifice I made.) Unsure what to do, I talked with a few trusted people: two nuns, a priest, and a few friends. I talked to God too. A lot. I whined to God too. (“Why me? Can’t you ask someone else?”) Eventually I decided I had to try this way of life. I had to give it a chance. If I wasn’t happy I told myself (and later my family and friends), I would leave. Honest! Though I was not quite 18, I already knew that deep joy was an unmistakable sign that you were where God wanted you to be, and you were somehow partnering in God’s Grand Designs.

The day I entered religious life, standing by the big yellow house with Dad and Mom.

 

So on July 2, 1962 I entered the Sisters of Notre Dame. I remember it was an overcast Monday. And it was one of the saddest days of my life. Even after all these years I can still conjure up that pit-in-the-stomach feeling I had as my family piled into the car to take me to the convent. I sat in the back seat between my mother and sister. As we pulled out of the driveway I turned around to take one last look at the big yellow farmhouse I had called “home” my whole life— and which I thought I would never see again. (In those days, we nuns never went home.) And I sobbed and sobbed along with my mother and sister. My father didn’t drive the car that day. Most unusual. My brother John was at the wheel. (My brother Paul had to work). That day was memorable for yet another reason: it was the first time I ever saw my father cry. Yet, despite the pain and gloom of leaving home, I had this sense that, in driving toward that convent, I was pointing my life in the right direction.

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This is the group of postulants I entered with in 1962. The picture was taken several weeks after we had entered. I am in the bottom row, the third one from the right. Six of us are still Sisters of Notre Dame. Sisters Mary Jo Ludwig (top left). In  the middle row: Pat Teckman (far left), Joanne Keppler (next to her), Marilyn Sabatino (far right.) Bottom row: Sally Huston (far right).

It is hard to say exactly why I became a nun. I have stumbled for the right words here. That’s because God’s Grace is involved, and Grace cannot be pinned down with words. Grace resists rational explanation too. Grace is always beyond anything we can say or explain.  What I’ve written here was my experience of the “call” to consecrated life. Other Sisters (and priests and brothers) might have a different experience. If you are a sister, brother, or priest, you might want to share a few words about why you chose consecrated life. If you aren’t a religious, you might want to say why you chose marriage or your particular spouse—or why you chose a particular career or life’s work. I welcome your comments!

PS: On January 3 my vow group marked our 50th anniversary of first vows. We celebrated by spending a few days together at our community’s vacation house. We had fun reminiscing, catching up one each other’s life, and relaxing together, thanking God for the countless blessings of the past 50 years.

While trying to decide whether to enter the convent, I often listened to and played the song “Moon River” by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer. The phrase Moon River became something of an image of Divinity for me. These words became mantras for me: “Wherever you’re going I’m going your way…Two drifters off to see the world…There’s such a lot of world to see…We’re after that same rainbow’s end…My Huckleberry Friend…” To this day I associate the song with my decision to become a Sister. Here is one of my favorite versions of this song by Andy Williams:

 

{ 40 comments… read them below or add one }

Shauna Bankemper January 5, 2015 at 4:33 am

Hi, Melannie! Thank you for sharing your “call” experience! You said it well – you can’t put the reaction to grace into words. You came close! I too love “Moon River.” Happy New Year, My Huckleberry Friend!

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 6, 2015 at 8:35 am

Thank you, Shauna! I hope things are going well for you in Rome! Melannie

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sr.jyosita snd, Arusha, tanzania January 5, 2015 at 5:03 am

dearest sr.Melannie
thank you for sharing your vocation story. I will share it with 22 of my novices.

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 6, 2015 at 8:37 am

Dear Jyosita, Thank you for writing all the way from Tanzania. I marvel that you (we) have 22 novices in Arusha. How wonderful! May God bless you in your ministry of formation! Melannie

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Kathleen Magiera January 5, 2015 at 5:48 am

Beautiful reflection on the consecrated life Sr. Melannie.

As a married person, I knew that my husband was the one early on. Our faith has seen us through the ups and downs of our marriage. Last night, we had a down moment but my husband was right there. Keep us in prayer please.

Kathleen

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 6, 2015 at 8:38 am

Dear Kathleen, Yes, I will keep you and your husband in prayer. And I really agree with you that it is our faith that sees us through the ups and downs of living. Thank you for reminding us! Sr. Melannie

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Jean Shott January 5, 2015 at 10:10 am

Mom always said if things were going right, you are where you are meant to be, doing what you are meant to be doing. Some years ago, I felt the “finger of God” pushing, not pulling, me to volunteer to work with our Church Youth Group. If no one came forward it would disband. Several of us came forward to work together to keep the group going. We even got to Denver for World Youth Day with the Pope! I went to a couple of other World Youth Days, but that first one was the most spiritually dramatic for me. I have often felt God present in my life.

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 6, 2015 at 8:41 am

Dear Jeannie, Your decision to work with your church’s Youth Group is exactly the kind of discernment I had in mind. I like how you describe the “finger of God pushing, not pulling” you to come forward. I’m sure the kids are glad several adults volunteered to keep this vital group going. Thanks for writing, cousin! Melannie (Dolly to you)

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Diane January 5, 2015 at 10:12 am

I am struck by a couple of things in your explanation . First of all
The number of the women in the picture who were in the same postulant class. Wow! And of course the number that are left as nuns; less than half. I have twin aunts; both of them who joined different orders about the same age. Neither of them are nuns anymore, although one of them still does call herself a sister. Certainly something to ponder; what has happened here. Thank you for your continued thoughtful writings. Happy New Year!

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 6, 2015 at 8:43 am

Dear Diane, Yes, the call to religious life is a mystery. For some, the call is for only part of their life–or so it seems. I’m no better or stronger or holier than the women who left. Tom’s point (above)about the twists and turns of life rings true to me. Thank you for writing, Diane! Sr. Melannie

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Tom January 5, 2015 at 10:46 am

I have always been fascinated by how long it takes a river to flow from point A to point B on a map; how many twists and turns it make as it follows the natural lay of the land. ” Clever” folks used to remove the bends in rivers for their own purposes, always with disastrous results. I thank God for all the bends In my river of life.

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 6, 2015 at 8:46 am

Dear Tom, Your words are beautiful! Thank you for the image of the river. When I fly, I’m always amazed at the many winding rivers I see…Thank you for connecting this image to our experience of living. (Readers: Tom is a diocesan priest…) Melannie

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S. Pat Newhouse, SC January 5, 2015 at 11:00 am

Happy 50th Anniversary S. Melannie!
Thanks for your reflection on “Why you became a Sister.” I was just asked that question yesterday. Like you said, “Grace cannot be pinned down with words.” For me, who was taught by the Sisters of Charity for 12 years, I believe it was their prayerful, joyful, giving spirit that sparked my interest and I wanted to be a part of that. I’m very thankful for my 56+ years as a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati.

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 6, 2015 at 8:48 am

And congratulations to you, Pat, for your 56+ years as a Charity Sister! Yes, nothing sparks our interest quite like a joyful, prayerful, giving person! I appreciate your response! Melannie

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Mary Schneider January 5, 2015 at 11:28 am

Sr. Melannie I am not too concerned about how you received your call, I am extremely grateful that you did receive it, act upon it, and remain so faithful throughout. Your fantastic writing ability is also a call I am very glad you answered. When I think of the blessings and treasures you are storing up in heaven by your acceptance of your calls, I am “blown away.” God Bless You always!

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Mary Ann Burke January 5, 2015 at 1:17 pm

Hi Melannie,
As usual you do us proud!
Congratulations on this your 50th ! It’s a GREAT YEAR to be filled with new memories, so much more to write about.
It’s a wonderful time to reflect on all the twists and turns since you’ve entered. So grateful to God and my traveling companions like you along the way. “It’s a WONDERFUL Life! Thanks for telling people about it.

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 6, 2015 at 8:51 am

Dear Mary Anne, Yes, it is a wonderful life. And you proclaim that by the way you live this life as an SND and the way you serve others–especially as a spiritual director. Thanks for being such an inspiration to me along the way. Melannie

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 6, 2015 at 8:49 am

Dear Mary, Wow! Thank you for your affirming words! You certainly know how to encourage someone! Gratefully, Sr. Melannie

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Ellen January 5, 2015 at 1:17 pm

Thank you for sharing your experience. So glad you made the hard decision!

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 6, 2015 at 8:50 am

And thank you for making the decision to respond to my blog! Gratefully, Melannie

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Suzanne Sayer January 5, 2015 at 1:26 pm

Congratulations on 50 years–and how wonderful you could get together with your vow group.

I like Tom’s observation about rivers. Our lives are filled with twists and bends.

So thankful for you and your devotion to your vocations. Happy New Year!

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 6, 2015 at 8:52 am

Thank you, Suzanne, for writing. I agree with you about Tom’s beautiful words–which apply to all of us! Sr. Melannie

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Sister Janet January 5, 2015 at 5:20 pm

I entered religious life when I was 35. I had felt the call at different times but in my 30s I felt irresistably drawn by God. To say “no” would have meant I couldn’t fully be myself. As a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, I feel I can continually deepen my relationship with God and enjoy the love and support of many others on the journey. Some would say I had a “delayed” vocation but I believe it was right on time, God’s time. It wasn’t until I met the Sisters of Notre Dame that I truly felt at home. Letting go of my apartment, its furnishings, my car, my charge cards, my bank account, and especially my freedom to come and go as I wished when I wished, was monumental. It is God’s great love for me and the love and support of the Sisters that daily keep me faithful to this call to religious life.

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 6, 2015 at 8:56 am

Dear Janet, Thank you for sharing your vocation story with us. We responded to the same call by within the context of very different circumstances. We Sisters of Notre Dame (from Coesfeld, Germany) always consider your sisters (from Namur, Belgium) as our first cousins since we both call St. Julie our “mother”! I know you already know that, but I wanted my readers to know that connection too. Thanks again for writing! Melannie

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Jean Hartl January 5, 2015 at 5:22 pm

Melannie,
How special that you share this!! You Rock…you did then and you do now. Thank you!!

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 6, 2015 at 8:57 am

Jean, I think you’re the first person who ever told me that I “rock.” I kind of like that! Thanks! Melannie the Rocker

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Sister Miriam January 5, 2015 at 7:20 pm

I too was asked to write why I became a nun. Short version: My brother had some emotional issues and things seem to finally be working out when he was killed at the age of 18; I was 15. The old Baltimore Catechism: “Why were we created, to know, love, and serve God in this life, and be happy with Him for all eternity” is what brought me through this tragic time. Forty years later I have never regretted my decision.

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 6, 2015 at 8:59 am

Dear Miriam, My sympathy to you on the death of your young brother…Even though he died over 40 years ago, the pain of loss is probably still deep. Only now you are closer to being reunited with him then you ever were…Thank you for sharing your vocation story with us. Melannie

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Rosemary January 6, 2015 at 7:14 am

Hello Sr Melannie,
Thank you for sharing your wonderful story of how you became a nun. I am always in awe people in consecrated life. I am in my 50’s, have been married for over 30 years to a wonderful man and have three grown children. Even though I went to Catholic schools and were taught by nuns throughout my schooling, becoming a nun never entered my mind. I think God planned for me to be a wife and mum – which I love. It is only now that I am much older that I feel a calling to serve God more, and I am looking forward to doing more around my parish. God Bless you and thank you. xo

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 6, 2015 at 9:01 am

Dear Rosemary, It sounds to me like you followed God’s call to marriage and raising a family. Yes, I agree that it seems “God planned” for you to be a “wife and mum.” I bet you’re a good one too! Thank you for writing! Sr. Melannie

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Patrick Mahoney January 6, 2015 at 9:02 am

Happy 50th Sr Melannie,
I am fortunate that as a Deacon I have both a family and a vocation. I am certainly
grateful that you entered religious life and see how God has given us your remarkable
insights and wonderful writings. God Bless You . “By the Way” and “Gracious Goodness”
are my daily readings. Love ’em!!!!

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 6, 2015 at 9:11 am

Dear Patrick, How nice to hear from a Deacon! I’m sure there are unique challenges in being a deacon of the church and having a family. But there are also unique blessings too! I’ve come to know several deacons that I admire very much. They bring a distinct perspective to the spiritual life that the church really needs. Thank you for writing! Sr. Melannie

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marian January 6, 2015 at 10:22 pm

Sr. Melanie,
Congratulations on your decades of service and devotion to your calling.
I just love what you said about “(God’s) Grace being “beyond anything we can say or explain.”

I look forward to reading your weekly blog. I am usually savoring it before I open my lunchbox on Mondays! I feel twice blessed when I find another inspirational message from you in “Living with Christ”

What I love about your blogs is that they are scholarly and down to earth at the same time. They have a personal quality to them.
I started following you when I was nervously anticipating working with blogs for a post-bac coursework. I thought before I put anything on the web, let it first be to glorify the King, because…

I nothing lack if I am His…
Blessings & congrats again
Marian

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Frank Sheridan January 8, 2015 at 3:48 pm

Wonderful piece! Congratulations on 50 years; the SND is blessed to have had your faith and humor. It was great to read about your journey and the feelings(scary) about embarking on it.

I’ve always loved your writing. Thoughtful, concrete, and optimistic, it always weaves together the stuff of real material life with the love that gives us form and hope.

I received your card and letter and was very touched. Once again, thank you for a kindness that came without warning.

I’ll be reading your blog weekly and be looking forward to your thoughts.

Peace,

FX
Go Buckeyes!

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 9, 2015 at 1:23 pm

Dear Frank, Thank you for your kind words about my writing…It’s good to hear from you again. Sr. Melannie (Readers: Frank and I taught together years ago in Middleburg, VA. He was a young, new, enthusiastic English teacher while I was a “seasoned” religion teacher!)

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john January 8, 2015 at 4:15 pm

thank you sr. melannie for sharing your story !!
I have had the call to priesthood since I was 12 and now I am a grown man of 49 and the call has become much stronger the past few years. I have been in spiritual direction regularly now and meet with my pastor as well.I so enjoy your readings in living faith book, they really help me spiritually.This March I will be entering a discernment program with others and then to seminary. God never gave up on me, always gently calling me. I am filled with joy!!!!

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 9, 2015 at 1:26 pm

Dear John, Thank you for sharing your discernment story with us. God’s “time frame” and ours don’t always coincide…I will certainly hold you in special prayer. I wish you continued joy! Sr. Melannie

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Cathy Baier January 11, 2015 at 4:50 pm

Congratulations on 50 years of consecrated life! You have been so faithful in following God’s plan for your life. Your writings have inspired so many–including me–in their spiritual walk. My life has been dedicated to caring for others…especially children. I have been a teacher of small children for over 30 years and also a cathechist…this year for second graders. God has blessed me with this talent and hopefully I have been able to help touch and enrich the lives of many.

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Sr. Jeannette Roy January 11, 2015 at 5:12 pm

Dear Sr. Melanie,
The description of your call sounded a lot like mine. I was only 17 when I pronounced my first vows. Many said I was too young, and maybe I was, but I gave myself to God as I was then, and have renewed that offering every day at Eucharist. My greatest concern was not being able to be mother and have my own children. Well., God does not forget our wishes. After over 58 years as a religious, I taught school and was principal for many years; was provincial of my community and am presently a “nanny”. I have my own family. I started caring for my first child when she was 14 months. She is now 10. I still care for her weekly.
The next family the girl was 14 months and is now 8 1/2. Her baby sister is 4 1/2 and I started caring for her when she was 4 days old. I just began my 8th year with this family. What a God of “awe” we have. I also was asked to help an immigrant family. The mother gave birth to twins and nearly died. I came into this family and the twins and now the new baby of 2 months consider me “grandma”. The mother says I am her mother as her own mother in Africa abandoned her. WOW! I always loved all that I have done but this is the BEST for the LAST.

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carolyn January 14, 2015 at 9:22 am

Dear Sr. Melannie, I am late congratulating you on your 50 years as a sister. Congratulations! I considered becoming a School Sister of Notre Dame in High School, but after college, I met the man I felt God wanted me to make a home with. We married in 1961, and it has been a beautiful experience, better every year. But there have been many ups and downs, as in any relationship. Now we are parents of 3, and grandparents of 8. Each day presents reasons for praising God for his goodness to us. I feel that those nuns, as well as my good parents, prepared me for the challenges of life, and to always bring every problem to Our Loving God, who always answers in the very best way.

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