By Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller - OSV Newsweekly, 10/2/2011
From a 102-year-old sister who preaches to her community through her holiness and perseverance to a 30-something formerly nominal Catholic who is now a dedicated priest in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, the five people on the following pages all have something in common: a calling to serve God through a priestly or religious vocation, and a determination to follow his will, even if at first they were reluctant to answer his call.
And although there have been sacrifices — and maybe even some doubts — along the way, the rewards far outweigh them.
“My vocation is what I expected, and more so.” Sister Ruth Ann Hehn told OSV. “My life has been enriched in every way.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.
Returning to order she once left gives sister new perspective on her calling
Sister Helen Huss, 76, met the Holy Cross Sisters when she was teaching in Merrill, Wis., and the sisters, who had a nearby community and school, brought their team for volleyball games.
She was so attracted to their way of life that she entered the convent in 1960, but left in 1968 before final vows.
“It was very structured at the time and I didn’t fit in,” she said. “I didn’t like teaching anymore, either.”
She went into nursing but “felt like something was missing” and that she “needed to be with people with like values to feel whole.” So, she reconnected with the sisters in 1980 and eventually professed her vows.
“That was after Vatican II,” she said. “The Church had changed, the community changed and I changed. It was a lot different then and we were freer to do what we actually wanted to do.”
Sister Helen found fulfillment in home health care and taught at the Charity Hospital School of Nursing in New Orleans, La. Now retired, she does volunteer pastoral care at the Sanctuary of the Holy Cross, a nursing home rehab facility in Silver Spring, Md.
“I like caring for people and I like the ministry I’m doing now,” she said. “I bring the Eucharist [to patients] and we talk about their relationship with God and how God can help them.”
When she was younger, Sister Helen bought a convertible and a sailboat and, she said, “I got whatever else I thought would be good and fun. But those things aren’t important. It’s what you do in your life. It’s about relationships with each other and with all of creation. If you don’t feel good about these, then I don’t think you can ever be happy.”
Priest no longer running away from God
Father Timothy Gallagher was raised Catholic but his mother was Protestant and he grew up in Georgia with few Catholic friends.
“I just didn’t have a strong Catholic identity,” he said. “I experienced lot of different worship groups and as beautiful as it was, there was always something different in my core that troubled me.”
By his late 20s, his faith was sitting on the fence: Catholic or Protestant? The Church’s emphasis on Mary was a big obstacle, and at one point, he said, “I felt like if she wasn’t in the picture, I would be more at peace. So I really had to figure out what it was all about, and either embrace or reject it. If I rejected Mary, I could go on and reject the whole Catholic Church.”
So he started praying the Rosary as his father had taught him, just to see what happened.
“What happened was grace,” he said. “I had a really strong experience of peace and love from God, and I started going into a personal relationship with Mary. It was kind of like the initiation of something new and good. It was the opening of a door that I would always try to walk around in the past.”
Father Gallagher, 39, was ordained two years ago and is parochial vicar at St. Pius X Parish in Conyers, Ga, in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
He felt called to vocation after rediscovering his faith, but wasn’t ready. When he joined a group of men considering the priesthood, he looked at it as just an opportunity to eat pizza with some guys who also were trying to figure out their lives. The application from the vocations director sat on his desk for a year. Meanwhile, he went to daily Mass and prayed Holy Hour devotions.
“I was really enjoying my life,” he said. “I had been in the military and I was a physical therapist, and I had a strong attraction to married life. But I felt like the Lord was inviting me, but not forcing me. I eventually filled out the application, and I was 30 when I entered the seminary.”
Father Gallagher called his priesthood “a gift from our Lord.”
“I don’t have to run from the Lord anymore,” he said. “He has captured my heart. I am a priest, and that’s who I am. There comes a great clarity in knowing what your life purpose is.”
Chance encounter with Mary eventually leads military man to his priestly vocation
It was a long time and a long distance between when and where Conventual Franciscan Father Kerry Abbott had his first knowledge of Catholicism and when he was ordained.
His first awareness was in the fourth grade in Greece, where his father was stationed with the U.S. military.
“Who is that?” he asked his brother about a church statue of Mary that they passed on their walk to school.
“That’s Jesus’s mother,” his brother replied.
Coming from a devout Southern Baptist family, the boy didn’t know what she meant to Catholics.
“But it was really clear to me that she was going to be a very distinct presence in my life,” he said. “I really believe that she led me to her son and to understand that I was called to be a priest.”
He began conversion as a teenager when his family returned stateside, and made a solemn profession of faith in 1976 after college and after enlisting in the U.S. Air Force as an air traffic controller. Later as a civilian, he thought about the priesthood.
“But I wanted to be married,” he said. “I wanted to go to law school and live in one town for the rest of my life. I knew that if I held out long enough the Lord would leave me alone and deal with someone else who wasn’t as much trouble and as much work.”
The Lord didn’t.
A former girlfriend suggested that he visit her brother, a Conventual Franciscan. He agreed, just to be polite.
“It was a dark stormy night and when my headlights hit the novitiate, I had the feeling that this is where I would live, that this is what the Lord wanted of me,” Father Abbott said.
A priest suggested that he become a military chaplain, and the Province of St. Joseph of Cupertino in California later agreed. He was ordained in 1990 and two years later became an active duty chaplain with the U.S. Air Force.
He served on military bases and was deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan where troops may not see a priest for months. He celebrated Mass in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces and was in convoys that came under attack.
“I have seen people wounded and some have died in front of my eyes,” he said.
Father Abbott retired from the Air Force in January after 24 years service with the rank of lieutenant colonel. In July, he became vocations director of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA.
“I am blessed that so many people took the time to say that they thought the Lord was calling me to something, and to walk that journey with me,” he said.
Centenarian sister’s perseverance an inspiration to Dominican community
In 1930, Dominican Sister Mary Jeanne Partington went on retreat with the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, Tenn., and a week later, she went back to stay. She professed her final vows on Aug. 17, 1935.
At 102 years old, she is now at the motherhouse, completely bedridden.
“But she continues to be a beautiful inspiration to the whole community in her fidelity of living 81 years of religious life,” said vocations director Sister Mary Emily Knapp.
Sister Mary Jeanne earned a bachelor’s degree in English and education at Peabody College in Nashville, then taught primary school and served as principal. She retired in 1986, and helped in schools until 1992.
“Prayer is the most important part of my day,” she said, and indeed the other sisters consider her a “powerful meditation.”
“Now as she lies in her bed each day, she is still preaching to us,” Sister Mary Emily said. “She is faithfully joining the community at prayers and daily Mass and proclaiming the Gospel to us — not by the words she may be saying, but by her very being. This is very much like Pope John Paul II at the end of his life — he taught us what it was like to end life beautifully and with great dignity. Sister Mary Jeanne does the same for us in community.”
Sister Mary Jeanne has one word of advice to younger sisters. “Persevere,” she says, and she has. At 102, she may be the oldest ever member of the community.
“What does God still want with me here?” she often asks, then has her own answer: “I guess he’s not through with me yet!”
Wyoming sister's work with poor families allows her to live out Gospel message
Out of seven siblings in Sister Ruth Ann Hehn’s family, three have religious vocations. She and her older sister Rosella are Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, and their younger brother, Father Robert H. Hehn, is pastor of St. Mary Parish in Rifle, Colo. Their aunt also was a nun.
“My parents thought it was wonderful,” she said about their religious callings, “and we have four married brothers with wonderful families.”
Sister Ruth Ann, 69, grew up in Colorado and entered the convent in 1960, right out of high school. She taught school for more than 25 years then found a ministry in housing, a charism in the Vincentian tradition of serving the poor.
“I’m working directly with the poor in their shelter needs, and there are so many needs out there,” she said.
Sister Ruth Ann volunteered with the Sacred Heart House for homeless women in Denver and now is site manager for Holy Trinity Manor in Cheyenne, Wyo., a 30-unit subsidized complex owned by the Diocese of Cheyenne and HUD. She also works with the Interfaith Hospitality Network, which is part of Family Promise, a national program that helps low income families find secure housing.
Her work, she said, is like being a landlord. There are applications to review and process, files to keep, and other administrative duties. But it is also a ministry.
“It has enabled me to live the Gospel message, and it’s been a wonderful ministry and wonderful witness,” she said. “My vocation is what I expected, and more so. My life has been enriched in every way.”
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