By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff
FALL RIVER, Mass. — While some religious may discern their vocation at an early age, that wasn’t the case for Sister Peter Joseph.
Although she was raised in a good, Catholic family, she recently noted that she didn’t personally know any nuns before deciding to join the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.
“I didn’t have Sisters around me at all,” Sister Peter Joseph said. “It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be a Sister, it was that I didn’t know there still were Sisters around. I never saw any — so it just wasn’t on my radar.”
During a trip to the area last week with fellow Dominican Sister Peter Thomas, the two nuns took the opportunity to discuss their respective vocations and some of the aspects of religious life with Catholic school students and parishioners in the diocese.
Their four-day visit was sponsored by the diocesan Vocations Office and included stops at St. Michael School in Fall River, St. Francis Xavier School in Acushnet, St. John Paul II High School in Hyannis, and retreat talks given to the ECHO program at Christ the King Parish in Mashpee and junior retreatants at St. John Paul II High School.
“When I was in middle school, that’s when I really had an opportunity to learn more about my faith,” Sister Peter Joseph said. “Instead of just getting dragged along with my family on Sunday, I started to read things for myself.”
It was also during this time that Sister Peter Joseph’s father — who had been raised in the Lutheran faith — decided to convert to Catholicism.
“He had a conversion when I was in sixth grade and he came into the Catholic Church,” she told a classroom of seventh- and eighth-grade students at St. Michael School in Fall River. “He had always been impressed with my mom’s example of service, and he was a pilot and another pilot he had been flying with was Catholic and really knew his faith, so he started talking to him.”
Sister Peter Joseph’s father converted to Catholicism when she was 11 and “that had a really big impact on me,” she said.
“I was at the age when I started thinking about those same questions,” she said. “So everything my dad read, he gave it to me and I would read it as well. I started to realize there was this whole Catholic mindset that should really be informing everything in my life.”
Impressed by the congregation’s charism of teaching and preaching the Good News, Sister Peter Joseph soon joined the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist and professed her final vows to the order two years ago.
“Our community was founded in 1997 and is primarily located in Ann Arbor, Mich.,” Sister Peter Thomas explained. “There are about 120 of us now. We’ve all taken the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.”
For Sister Peter Thomas, it was St. Dominic’s example and the opportunity to teach that were the biggest draws for her.
“I’m a convert myself, so I’ve always been very interested in why we believe what we believe,” she told The Anchor. “The fact that the Dominicans have been doing this for 800 years was key to the draw.”
With an ever-growing need for vocations to carry on the mission of the Church — especially for religious Sisters — the two nuns were only too eager to share the joy of their life with those in the diocese.
And as Dominicans, this type of missionary work is one of their top priorities.
“St. Dominic loved preaching and he encountered people in his time who weren’t always hearing the truth being preached,” Sister Peter Joseph said. “So he founded the ‘Order of Preachers’ and when Sister and I write our names out, we write ‘O.P.’ after our names, for ‘Order of Preachers.’ We share what we know about God and our life. The whole Dominican family has that same tradition that we follow.”
A typical day in the life of the Sisters begins at 5 a.m., when they spend a Holy Hour with Jesus in front of the tabernacle. After morning prayers, the nuns will have breakfast together inside a refectory — a tradition dating back to St. Dominic’s time where the religious gather together to eat meals in silence while listing to someone read from Scripture.
“So we’re getting food for our body and food for our mind at the same time,” Sister Peter Joseph noted.
After breakfast, the nuns will begin their daily work routine. For younger novices, this might include cleaning up or attending formation classes in the motherhouse. But Sister Peter Joseph and Sister Peter Thomas will head off to teach at Father Gabriel Richard High School nearby.
The Sisters will gather again in the motherhouse for lunch in the refectory and then enjoy some recreation time.
“We generally have recreation for an hour after lunch,” Sister Peter Joseph said. “Sometimes we’ll go outside and play soccer or volleyball or basketball — whatever sport you like to do, we probably play it in some variety at our motherhouse.”
Work and additional chores round out the afternoon, while the Sisters will once again come together for dinner, additional recreation time, and evening prayers before turning in.
“We all sit down and pray together; then we’ll have our Compline prayers at night, and we’re in bed by 10 o’clock so we can all get up again at five the next morning,” Sister Peter Joseph said.
“Some people may think it gets boring, because we do the same thing every day,” she added. “But we have a lot of joy and a lot of fun in our day. We love living with the Lord and we love living with each other. It’s one of the great things about being a Sister — we have a strong sense of community.”
Although her congregation was founded in 1997 and is relatively new, Sister Peter Thomas said it remains steeped in Church tradition, like the two-toned habits they receive when they become a novice.
“Our habit is white, which signifies being pure and holy like Our Lady, and our veils are black, which signifies penance,” she said. “We also wear a 15-decade Rosary on our left side. Knights would wear their swords on the left side, so we see our Rosaries as our weapon to go into battle to fight for Jesus.”
The Sisters will also adopt a new religious name at this time, generally choosing one or two patron saints to replace their baptismal names.
“There’s a lot of instances where names get changed in the Bible, and it’s always an important moment,” Sister Peter Joseph said. “When God gives someone a new mission, sometimes He changes their name to signify what that new mission will be.
“Most of our Sisters are named after one or two saints who become their patrons. But some of our Sisters are also named after Our Lady under different titles — we have Sister Immaculata, for the Immaculate Conception; or our superior is Mother Assumpta, for the Assumption.”
Sister Peter Thomas said being able to share their vocation stories with young people in the diocese — especially during this Year for Consecrated Life — is a great opportunity and blessing.
“I was really excited when the Holy Father announced the Year for Consecrated Life, because I know we need the prayers,” she said. “I was grateful for it — not just for our sake, but to remind the Universal Church that we’re part of the Church family and showing the very organic interplay between the different vocations.”
For Sister Peter Joseph, her congregation’s mission of teaching and preaching goes hand-in-hand with promoting religious life.
“Our community was founded to teach, certainly, but a particular part of our charism was also to spread religious life itself in response to John Paul II’s call to the New Evangelization,” she said. “We hope to give young women a chance to talk to us and know that religious life is out there and available to them.”
Recalling how she didn’t have any real-life examples of nuns in her life when she discerned her own vocation, Sister Peter Joseph stressed the importance of finding contemporary ways to share the joys of being a Sister.
“We’ve done the Oprah show and a few different things like that,” she said. “We put out a couple of CDs of Sacred music recently and we also had a couple of Sisters compete on the game show, ‘The American Bible Challenge.’ So we’ve done some of those things to promote ourselves.
“I know one of our Sisters reflected about how we go to the convent for this hidden life with God, so why would we do all this and go out so much? And to me it’s all for the good of the Church. We need to go out and spread that Good News or invite others in to see us living it. It’s been a privilege to get to be a part of some of those unusual things that were not on my list of things I thought I’d be doing in the convent.”