Giving in to God's plan

In first grade at St. Aloyisus School in Los Angeles, Cristina Caballero knew exactly what she was not going to be: a Sister of Mercy, like her teacher.

Every day, the class would have morning prayer, then the teacher would ask the girls who wanted to be a sister when they grew up. Most of them raised their hands, but Sister Cristina said she never did. When the teacher asked why, “I would say I had other plans.”

That didn’t change when she went to high school, working at a five-and-dime starting in seventh grade to pay the tuition, as the money her mother made from taking in laundry, caring for neighborhood children and selling knitted goods went for her four brothers’ and sisters’ grade school fees. In high school, it was the School Sisters of Notre Dame asking why she didn’t think she had a vocation to religious life, and at Loyola Marymount College (now university), it was the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet.

“Of course, they all could see what I couldn’t,” said Sister Cristina, 60, who celebrated her 40th anniversary of joining the community in August. “I had a vocation, but I was in denial.”

‘It was an adventure’

It was Mercy Sister Mary Timothea Sullivan at her home parish of St. Aloysius who got Sister Cristina to reconsider her decision. Sister Cristina was helping at the parish school for a year as part a Christian service class for Loyola Marymount, and while she was doing that, Sister Mary Timothea asked her to help with a weekend retreat, then offered to send her to a come-and-see weekend at the Mercy Sisters’ motherhouse in Burlingame, California.

“I asked her, ‘Are you on drugs? I don’t want to be a Sister of Mercy or any other kind of sister,’” Sister Cristina said. But Sister Mary Timothea said she had already spoken to Sister Cristina’s mother and gotten permission, and she had an airline ticket already paid for. The sisters in Burlingame were expecting her and would be at the airport to pick her up.

“I’d never been outside of Los Angeles, let alone on an airplane, so it was an adventure,” Sister Cristina said. “And I said I would be getting the monkey of being asked about religious life off my back.”

She learned later, after she had entered the community, that Sister Mary Timothea had asked her brother to buy that plane ticket.

Sister Cristina enjoyed the weekend, but she didn’t change her mind immediately. Her plan, she said, was to complete her degree in art, move to the coast and work as a teacher.

But over time, she decided she had to at least give religious life a try. When she entered the community the following year, in 1976, there were five women in her class. She was the only one who said she wasn’t sure she would be in religious life forever.

“I just had to make sure I wasn’t supposed to be there,” she said.

Now she’s the only one of the five who is still a Sister of Mercy.

Role reversal

While she was initially resistant to her vocation, Sister Cristina said, she always liked the Sisters of Mercy, who served in her parish and school.

“I’m an inner-city kid, and there were all the temptations you would expect,” she said. “The Sisters of Mercy were always there for me and for my family. They weren’t high and mighty. They were always gracious and hospitable. I always wanted to help others the way they did. I didn’t think I was worthy to be a religious. I didn’t think I was vocation material. … It took God saying, ‘Where am I really calling you? You’ve got to listen.’”

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Her mother, she said, cried with joy when she told her she was entering the community. Her father wasn’t as pleased. “He said I should get married because I needed a man to put me in my place,” she said.

They reconciled before he died (“He told me he was so proud of me,” Sister Cristina said), and half the church at his funeral was filled with Mercy sisters and associates.

Her ministry has included teaching second grade and middle school and being a principal and school administrator in California as well as vocation work for the Sisters of Mercy. She ministers now as the co-director of the Mercy associates and as director of Catholic identity and family evangelization at St. Francis School in Bakersfield. This autumn, she has gone back to her first ministerial assignment, teaching second grade as a long-term substitute.

She also works with women from St. Francis Parish who have expressed an interest in religious life.

She still finds that funny, given her attitude when she was growing up.

“When I’m working with women, with associates or in another role, I always ask the question, and that’s one thing I will continue to do,” she said. “‘Have you ever thought about a religious vocation?’ Because that’s what everybody asked me.”

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.