by Jill Ragar Esfeld
LENEXA — At the first fundraising dinner of Gratia Plena House of Discernment for Women here, a simple pillowcase embroidered with a small cross was on display.
In her keynote speech, Sister Marie Hesed, SOLT, told the story of how the pillowcase came into her possession.
“Saint Teresa of Calcutta was my mother,” she said. “I was with Mother in Calcutta before her death.
“I was leaving for Africa on one of my missions, and I went by Mother’s room thinking that I would not see her alive anymore, to ask for Mother’s blessing.
“A Sister was changing her bed, and she handed me Mother’s pillowcase.”
This French-Canadian nun from a small village in Quebec had experienced an incredible life, and she captivated her audience with tales of her journey.
She received her calling at her confirmation.
“The moment the bishop put his hand on my cheek,” she said, “I knew I was called; I was set aside.”
That began a life of discernment.
“I have 44 years of religious life and three different communities,” she said.
In her 20s, Sister Marie entered a contemplative cloister in Canada, but soon realized her call was to contemplative life in the heart of the world.
She met St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta in the Bronx, New York, in 1976, and had the honor of being the first candidate of the Missionaries of Charity Contemplatives.
With St. Mother Teresa, she spent 27 years establishing new convents for contemplative nuns.
During her missionary work, Sister Marie heard her own “call within a call” that led her to join the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT) and establish the Domus Trinitatis Retreat and Renewal Center, located on 31 acres outside Carroll, Iowa.
“My life cannot be said in 20 minutes,” Sister Marie told her audience. “It can be said in a few minutes because my life is simply the life of the tremendous love of God for me, and my awareness that I am deeply loved by God.”
Sister Marie spoke with passion, from her own experience, about the need for women to have support in their discernment.
“God calls every moment of our lives,” she said. “And he calls and knocks at the heart, it doesn’t matter how old you are.
“But you need the proper environment — not water, air and light, but rather a spiritual environment.
“Gratia Plena is a means to offer this spiritual environment.”
Located near the campus of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa, Gratia Plena is a house where post-college-age women live in community while growing in holiness and discerning God’s call for their lives.
Father Scott Wallisch, co-director of seminarians and Gratia Plena’s liaison to the archdiocese, echoed Sister Marie’s pleas for support of women discerning a religious vocation.
“There is one priest and assistant [in this archdiocese],” he said. “Their full-time job is to help men discern.
“It didn’t take very long in my role to realize there is another half of the population that needed to discern their vocation.
“And we really didn’t have anything for them.”
Father Wallisch talked with women seeking to discern a vocation and, in the process, came to understand the need for more support.
“When I heard about the vision of Gratia Plena,” he said, “I was overjoyed to know that women would finally have something local to help them.”
Kathleen Fox, director of Gratia Plena, also shared her own spiritual journey to establish a place where women could intentionally discern a vocation to religious life.
“Vocational discernment is difficult, especially in our culture today,” she said. “Living in community with other women who are also serious about discovering God’s will for their life is helpful on many levels.
“That is the main inspiration behind this leap of faith that I’ve taken.”
In its first two years, Gratia Plena has been supported by Fox, the women living in the house and a handful of benefactors.
But funding is desperately needed to sustain this ministry and help it grow in outreach. Go online to learn more about the house, to apply for residency, or to make a donation.