by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — When it comes to vocations, little things mean a lot. Just ask Stephanie To. Stephanie To (pronounced “toe”) really didn’t have a clear idea of what religious life was like when she was growing up as a member of Most Pure Heart of Mary Parish in Topeka. She knew individual priests, of course, and understood their role in parish life, but nuns remained pretty much a mystery.
One Sunday, when she was in the seventh grade, a visiting priest gave a homily about vocations while she was serving Mass. The celebrant, associate pastor Father Bill Bruning, leaned over and said to To, “I think you’d make a good Sister.” Right. Whatever. “I didn’t know what to say to him,” To said. “Besides, it was during the middle of Mass.” And she didn’t think one bit about it for years.
That small, offhand comment, however, was like the planting of a seed — but one that would not bear fruit for many years. To graduated from Topeka West High School in 2001, and earned her undergraduate degree at Washington University in St. Louis, with the intention of entering law school at St. Louis University. And then the dormant seed began to sprout.
“I was home for the summer between undergraduate and law school, and the Gospel reading [at Mass one day] was from Matthew — ‘the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few,’” she said. “I joked with my friends that priests are always talking about vocations to the priesthood, but for the first time I got the sense that God was talking to me — that he wanted me to do something about it.”
To at first tried to shrug the feeling off, but every time she went to Mass, it seemed that something — a reading, a prayer, anything — seemed to speak directly to her and the possibility of pursuing a vocation as a religious. The timing was most inconvenient, but the thought wouldn’t go away. To consulted a priest, who encouraged her to go on with her plans to attend law school, since as yet she didn’t have any clear idea of what else God was calling her to do.
“I came back to St. Louis and prayed about it some more,” To said. “Through prayer, it became clear that [to pursue religious life] was what God was asking of me.” She proceeded to visit several different convents, but none seemed a good fit until a friend told her about the Sisters of Life, an order that was founded in New York City in 1991 by the late Cardinal John O’Connor, archbishop of New York. The order is both active and contemplative.
In addition to the traditional vow of poverty, chastity and obedience, the Sisters of Life take a fourth vow — to protect and enhance the dignity and sacredness of every human life. They support pregnant women in need and women dealing with post-abortion issues.
“Over spring break of my first year of law school [in 2006], I went to New York to visit the Sisters,” To said. “Their life just reflected where I saw my own prayer life going and what I saw Christ leading me to.” Rather than leaving law school and joining immediately, however, To continued her studies, believing that it was what Christ was asking of her at that time. The decision to stay in school was not her only struggle.
“I knew some Sisters, but I never understood what it was about their life that I couldn’t also do as a married layperson,” she said. “I love kids and would love to have a family of my own. I thought I could serve the church and still have a family.” “But when I visited the Sisters and saw their prayer and community life, it really opened up my eyes,” she added. “It was a struggle, and when I went on a retreat, I talked to a priest who told me to pray before the Blessed Sacrament for stability of heart. That was the turning point, I think.”
To applied to the Sisters of Life, and she was accepted. She will not, however, enter the novitiate anytime soon. The reason is money. The Sisters, who take a vow of poverty, cannot afford to take responsibility for To’s $50,000 college debt.
“I’ve been trying to raise funds by talking to the Knights of Columbus and pro-life groups around here,” she said. In the meantime, she’s studying for the bar exam and is looking for a job to pay off her student loans. While her former classmates are beginning to climb the ladder of their careers, To is preparing to lay down her life for Christ. “This really appeals to me,” she said. “I’ve been pretty strongly pro-life all my life, and I’m really just asking Jesus to show me the way he wants me to go.”