Joy and beauty in religious life

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

Two letters in a word allow Sister Mary Elizabeth, DCJ, to tell her vocation story, a roughly four-year, back-and-forth journey of wanting to be a sister vs. wanting to be married with children.

The letters allow her to work with families at St. Agnes Home in Kirkwood, to be a companion to fellow Carmelite Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus and to pursue a vibrant prayer life with the Eucharist and Mary at the center.

In short, they mark the difference between life and death.

The letters -- "d" and "p" -- belong to the word "adoption" and are in the places of the "b" and "r" in "abortion," which some wanted her birth mother to pursue 28 years ago. But Sister Mary Elizabeth's birth mother, a Catholic, wanted her baby to live, simple as that; the 16-year-old mother-to-be also had an important stipulation for adoption.

"She wanted me in a Catholic home, with an older sister," Sister Mary Elizabeth said. "She never had that; her mom died when she was 4, and she only had her dad and older brother."

With a 4-year-old daughter, Sarah, Carol and Tom Riesser fit the bill. They adopted Elizabeth after her birth on Aug. 7, 1986.

"I'm so grateful for His mercy, for the gift of life," said Sister Mary Elizabeth, now a junior professed sister with the Carmelites in Kirkwood. The convent at St. Agnes is the house of formation for the Carmelites of the Central Province; eight perpetually professed sisters live with one postulant, three novices and two junior professed sisters including Sister Mary Elizabeth, who works in marketing and helps with vocations.

Sister Mary Elizabeth joined the community in 2009, just after graduating from Thomas More College with a theology major and Spanish minor, and she made first vows in July of last year.

Her vocation story isn't as simple as just being adopted into a loving Catholic family with an older sister. First, she had to embrace Catholicism. Despite growing up in a Catholic family and attending Catholic schools, "I did not appreciate my faith at all," she said. "I did not know Jesus was in the Eucharist. I didn't understand any of the sacraments."

But that changed at a Youth 2000 retreat in her junior year of high school. She learned of the true presence in the Eucharist, about Mary and the saints and, for the first time, met sisters wearing habits ... and playing Frisbee.

"They were normal," she said. "That retreat changed my life. Without it, I don't know what I'd be doing now."

The key moment was in a procession at eucharistic adoration. The lightning bolt hit as she kissed the humeral veil the priest had against the monstrance.

"At that moment, I loved my faith," she said, adding she then prayed for Jesus' "help because I can't do it alone anymore; I need you."

Elizabeth considered joining a convent out of high school, but her parents persuaded her to first attend college, a wise choice. "I had a huge mountaintop experience that I had to let grow," she said, "and I had some growing up to do."

Having attended an all-girls high school, Elizabeth discovered "Catholic boys who are smart" at Thomas More College, a Catholic liberal arts college of about 1,500 in Crestview Hills, Ky., near her hometown of Cincinnati. "That was challenge and beautiful at the same time."

With periods of dating intertwined with retreats and discernment, she debated whether she was called to religious life or to married life. Ultimately, a young man sat with her on her front porch and told her, "The King of the Universe is on His knee asking you to be His bride."

After a couple more discernment trips, she entered the Carmelites in Kirkwood, but not before meeting her birth mother and family, including two half-sisters. The adoption agency facilitated the meeting, which she called "beautiful" and "incredible."

She asked the key question that "adopted kids always wonder: 'Was there ever a time I wasn't wanted?'"

Overcome with emotion, her birth mother teared up and couldn't speak, but her husband was ready to answer. A friend at the time, he helped Elizabeth's birth mother through the pregnancy.

"He's walked the whole journey with her," Sister Mary Elizabeth said. "He looked at me and said, 'There was never a time you were not wanted. She wanted you; she just could not take care of you.'

"That meant a lot; it was a blessing. Your heart felt like it was full again -- no questions."

Either way, she had no qualms about embracing religious life, saying the meeting "just made the journey have a beautiful chapter."

Open house schedule

Saturday, April 25, 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Carmelite Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus, for grades 8-11, 10341 Manchester Road, Kirkwood 63122, (314) 965-7616; registration deadline has passed, but openings remain. Visit www.carmelitedcj.org/retreats.asp

Sunday, April 26, 1-4 p.m. Missionary Sisters of St. Peter Claver, 667 S. Woods Mill Road, Chesterfield 63017, (314) 469-4932

Saturday, May 2, 5-7 p.m. Poor Clares of St. Louis, 200 Marycrest Drive, St. Louis 63129, (314) 846-2618

Tuesday, May 5, 3-6 p.m. Founding Communities, 15th anniversary of Marian Middle School, 4130 Wyoming Street, St. Louis 63116

Visit www.archstl.org/ycl for an updated list of open houses and archstl.org/vocations/page/discernment-retreats for updated days of discernment. 

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