by Caitlin Thornbrugh
Eight home-sewn aprons. Black, one-inch face, wristwatch. Rosary. Sewing needles and thimble. Bible. Stamps. Sheets. Undershirts. Sensible, lace-up Oxfords.
These were all items on the packing list of 21-year-old Madeline Respeliers as she prepared to join the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia.
On Aug. 15, Respeliers was one of 19 women entering the religious community in Nashville, Tennessee.
Objects that didn’t make her list: pants of any kind, her favorite Chaco sandals, books, her camera and her cellphone.
Though she said not being able to wear pants anymore was going to be “weird,” Respeliers was joyous as she described her journey to a religious vocation.
She recalls feeling the desire to become a Sister as early as second grade. At Ascension School in Overland Park, when asked to draw what she wanted to be when she grew up, young Madeline created an image of a nun.
“Well, I also said I wanted to be a cowboy, but no one took that very seriously,” said Respeliers with a laugh.
Respeliers’ friends and family weren’t particularly surprised by her decision, partially because of her early interest in religious life.
“I felt like it was the fulfillment of everything she’d been her whole life,” said her mother Jeanne Respeliers.
Of the eight Ascension parishioners to join a religious order since the church’s founding in 1991, she is only the second female.
“We want to celebrate it,” said Father Nathan Haverland, associate pastor of Church of the Ascension. “It’s a very exciting moment for our parish. Something to be very proud of — that one of ours is entering the religious life.”
“After a really bad day, that’s straight where I would go,” said Respeliers.
Despite her prayerful environment, she wasn’t always certain a religious vocation was her life’s calling.
“I never saw the type of peace I had in the adoration chapel as something I could build my whole life around,” said Respeliers.
She also acknowledged religious life was not something you decided to do on your own.
“You can’t do it just as an act of will,” said Respeliers. “It has to be a response to a call of love.”
In addition to being worried about making the right decision for her, Respeliers also faced the concern of how people would respond to her calling. She feared that her classmates wouldn’t understand.
“Following a religious vocation is just a very radical affirmation of the fact — not just that God exists, but that he loves you, cares for you, and that he has a plan for your life,” said Respeliers.
Founded in 1860, the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia have been blessed in recent years with an increase in new members. They have gained 156 new Sisters since 1988, making their current community total over 230, according to their website.
They are a teaching order, and Respeliers will continue to pursue her passion for teaching as a Sister. While student teaching in college, she said she couldn’t help thinking, “I want to be doing this in a Catholic school, in a habit.”
Along with teaching, she is drawn to the order’s active style of community prayer.
“They stand up, they sit down, they bow deeply,” said Respeliers. “They do all these things to really emphasize this unity of body and soul.”
Respeliers said it’s what she needed to maintain an active prayer life.
After visiting Nashville, she knew it was where she was supposed to be.
“I would be happy sweeping the floors of the Nashville Dominicans,” said Respeliers. “I would be happy just doing their dishes. I wanted to be a part of their community.”
When Respeliers reached a peace of mind about her decision, she undertook the application process. This involved physical and psychological exams, as well as meetings with active Sisters in the community. However, she did deeply consider what it would mean for her to give up having children.
“You’re not giving them up to be empty,” said Respeliers. “You’re giving them up in order to be more completely filled. Motherhood is a vocation. Just like religious life is a vocation.”
Advice for discernment
When asked about advice for other young people considering the religious life, Respeliers’ recommendations were simple: Don’t worry too much. And pray.
“If you have a strong relationship with prayer and you leave that door open,” said Respeliers, “[God is] going to lead you gently. The thing about a vocation is that it’s very much a journey.”
Respeliers has just begun her journey, but feels grateful and blessed for what she has experienced so far.
She wants young people to know that “[God] confirms by peace and he confirms by joy.”