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First Person: What Difference do Catholic Sisters Make? What Difference does Sister Maristella Dunlavy Make?

While she was principal at Cathedral Grade School in Springfield, Sister Maristella enjoyed visits with Father John Titus who was at that time the vocation director for the diocese. Father John, it seems, saw something in Sister Maristella that prompted him to introduce her to some of the young men he knew who were discerning priesthood. Over the years, these men, and apparently many others, have come to rely on Sister Maristella’s friendship and support. Here are their stories in the own words.

Sisters Move the Kingdom Forward: Father Seth Brown

Close up portrait photo of Father Seth BrownFather Seth was ordained in 2014 and served in various parishes in the Springfield diocese. For some months he discerned a vocation to contemplative life at the Trappist Monastery in Conyers, Ga., before returning to the diocese to become pastor of Mother of Dolors Parish, Vandalia and St. Joseph’s Parish, Ramsey.

Q: What do you remember about how you first met Sister Maristella?

Fr. John Titus, who was vocation director at the time, mentioned Sister Maristella to me occasionally as they are friends. I knew he had asked her to pray for me. I learned that once you’re on Sister Maristella’s prayer list, you never leave it. It’s funny that I can’t recall our first meeting; I feel as if I’ve always known her. But I’d be willing to bet I went with Fr. Titus to Sacred Heart Convent for lunch and to chat with her. We exchanged emails, and have kept up correspondence over the last dozen years or so.

She and other Dominican Sisters I had grown close to (Sisters Cecilianne, Connie, and Doris) attended my ordinations to the diaconate and priesthood, and my first mass at St. Peter’s Parish in Petersburg. To have them there for those grace-filled moments remains a treasured memory to me and my family.

Q: How does Sister Maristella continue to support your vocation?

A: After I was ordained and began my first assignment at the Cathedral, Sister Maristella, who is the sacristan at Sacred Heart Convent, invited me to celebrate Mass once or twice a month. She introduced me to the larger community there, and of course, being around Dominicans, you have to prepare good homilies. They are the Order of Preachers, you know! I felt challenged to give them my best, and it was and remains a blessing to be among religious women. The sisters always went out of their way to thank me for Mass, to invite me to lunch, or to tell me they were praying for me, for my ministry, and for my family.

What I appreciated most from Sister Maristella, and the other Dominican Sisters too, of course, is that she loves the priesthood of Jesus Christ as much or more than I do. She prays for so many priests. And I know she wants me to succeed at being a healthy, holy priest more than almost anyone. She wants me to be faithful and persevere in my vocation, to get to heaven, and to bring as many with me as I can.

Besides her ministry of prayer and friendship, Sister Maristella also provides for all of my stationery needs! She has developed a cottage industry of greeting cards that carry with them the daily prayers of all the sisters at Sacred Heart Convent. So, if anyone receives a card from me, it’s safe to assume it was made by Sister Maristella!

Q: What difference do Catholic Sisters as a whole make to the church and the world, do you think?

A: First, Catholic Sisters reveal that Jesus calls us to holiness. Also, they are living proof that the love of Jesus and deep intimacy with Him can be enough to live a happy, meaningful life. Their devotion to undertaking the spiritual and corporal works of mercy throughout the centuries cannot be underestimated either. I know firsthand religious life is not easy, but sisters can and do continue to show the love of God to the world by a life of prayer, obedience, poverty, chastity, community, and service. Catholic sisters have a special way of moving the Kingdom forward.

Sisters pour out their lives in service: Deacon Zachary Samples

Portrait of Deacon Zach SamplesDeacon Samples is on track to be ordained to the priesthood in May 2022. He is a student at St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana.

Q: What do you remember about how you first met Sister Maristella?

A: “When I was a student at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, I was involved at the Newman Catholic Center. Our Chaplain at the time, Father John Titus, is a very good friend of Sister Maristela’s. He would often talk about making his famous St. Hedwig's Fudge and then delivering it to Sister Maristella at Christmas. I don't remember this for certain, but I think my first encounter with Sister Maristella was during one of those Christmas fudge deliveries. In those days, I was in the early stages of discerning a call to priesthood, and Fr. John was instrumental in helping to guide me along that path. He introduced me to Sister Maristella because she has a strong reputation of praying for priests and seminarians, and accompanying them on their journeys. While I may not exactly remember the particulars of meeting Sister Maristella for the first time, what I do remember is how quickly we hit it off and how warmly she welcomed and took to me. I remember first noticing her kind smile, empathic eyes, quick wit, sense of humor, and her warm hug. These attributes, and more, immediately drew me to Sister Maristella and we became fast friends. In the years since these initial encounters, I have depended on Sister Maristella's prayer, support, and love.

Q: How does Sister Maristella continue to support your vocation?

A: Sister Maristella has a reputation in our diocese for being what I’ll call the "Keeper of Priests" and the "Keeper of Seminarians." Many of our priests and seminarians have come to know her as a faithful friend, mentor, confidante, and intercessor. Many priests and seminarians, myself included, have come to really depend on her for advice, counsel, prayer, and a warm hug and listening ear. A few years ago, when my mother unexpectedly passed away, Sister Maristella, and a few other sisters from the Dominican motherhouse, came to the visitation and funeral. I remember standing in the receiving line while Sister Maristella sat in one of the rows at the funeral home waiting for the long line to dissipate. As I was growing tired and weary from shaking so many hands and hugging so many people, I drew comfort and strength from looking up and seeing her sitting there clearly praying for my family and me. It is that simple joyful and peaceful presence that she embodies that was so helpful for me then and continues to be today. Her steadfast prayers, support, and love have been a huge part of getting me to where I am today. I will be ordained a priest this coming May, and I know that I have made it this far due in part to her presence in my life.

Q: What difference do Catholic Sisters as a whole make to the Church and the world, do you think?

A: Frankly, I don't know where we as a Church would be without the influence and presence of Religious Sisters. Over the years, I have been impacted and influenced my countless sisters, many from congregations in our diocese. From the Springfield Dominicans to the Alton Franciscans to the Hospital Sisters, so many religious women in our local Church have made a profound and lasting impact. I know I am not alone in this. From ministering in our parishes to teaching in our schools to caring for us in our hospitals to spreading the Good News through various other initiatives and everything else in between, Catholic sisters are simply part and parcel of who we are as Church—as the Body of Christ. Their presence in our Church provides peace, joy, comfort, love, and a true example of discipleship for us all to emulate. Catholic sisters’ presence in our world provides countercultural examples of faith, fidelity, compassion, and a way of life that is totally poured out in service to others, in the service of the Church, and in the service of Jesus Christ. Simply put, their presence in our Church and in our world is vital.

Learn more about Catholic Sisters Week here.

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