Notre Dame student professes commitment to Jesus, Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma as she declares her vocation
By Bill Brewer
Erica Pereira is changing her relationship status.
And what a relationship she now is in.
On Aug. 1, the University of Notre Dame student, who has spent the past two years in the Diocese of Knoxville doing mission work, will enter the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., as a postulant.
In doing so, she fulfills a dream of committing herself to Jesus for a lifetime of ministry in service to Him.
She gushes when speaking His name, listing a number of personal encounters with Him that assured her He was the one.
“This is a love story. This is a response out of love,” Ms. Pereira shared in telling her vocation story. “Our natural desire is marriage. But is God calling you to a supernatural relationship? As a religious, you are an image of Christ’s relationship with His Church. You are his bride as the Church is His bride.
“And he makes it very clear when there is so much joy and peace. It’s like how did you know you were supposed to marry your wife or husband? There’s so much peace and joy in that. Since He’s created my heart to love Him this way, that is where my joy will be because Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.”
Ms. Pereira explained that her parents have played a big part in her Christian formation, especially her father, who was Catholic and introduced her to the faith as a very young girl. Her father, who immigrated to the United States from Nicaragua in the 1970s, died from cancer at the age of 47 when she was just 16. Her mother was born in Canada, and her maternal grandparents are from Great Britain.
“My dad’s death was a turning point for me in my faith experience. That was an own-it moment. When he passed away I encountered God’s loving care through the family and friends who supported us. I realized that wow, God wants a relationship with me. He wants to love me and I want to love him,” she said.
After high school, Ms. Pereira attended Notre Dame as an undergraduate, earning a bachelor’s degree in theology and psychology. She will receive a master’s degree in theology from Notre Dame at the end of June after completing the two-year Echo program, which forms lay leaders for service in the Church.
As part of the Echo program, she worked in the Diocese of Knoxville Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry. She was joined in the diocese by two classmates: Casey de Franceaux, who has served as a middle school religion teacher at Sacred Heart Cathedral School, and Kasey Ross, who has assisted with youth ministry and catechesis at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Lenoir City.
It was the first time Notre Dame’s Echo program has been in the Diocese of Knoxville, and Ms. Pereira believes that was another example of God at work in her life.
Although she had never been in East Tennessee, the Diocese of Knoxville piqued her interest as an Echo destination.
“Knoxville was my first choice because I had never lived in the South before, and I was looking for a new adventure. Also, I love to hike and it was near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” she said.
Her appointment to Knoxville set in motion a series of events she is confident God laid before her on her path to religious life with the Religious Sisters of Mercy.
Born in Philadelphia, the 24-year-old has lived in Brazil, spent time in Santiago, Chile, and speaks Spanish fluently. Her family now lives in Midland, Mich.
While her Midland home is 37 miles from the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma’s motherhouse, Ms. Pereira had never heard of the religious community until she first met a Religious Sister of Mercy in Knoxville, where the order has a convent and has placed a dozen or more religious sisters since coming into the diocese nearly 10 years ago.
“I couldn’t believe they were from Alma. They are 50 minutes from my home in Midland. They are two farm roads away, literally two turns,” she noted.
Once she was introduced, Ms. Pereira felt an immediate connection, which came through the crosses the sisters wear, which symbolize the light of Christ and the misery of mankind. Each sister is called to be at the conversion point of the light and the misery.
And any passing thoughts she had previously about becoming a religious began to linger.
“I want to be that light of Christ in the misery of mankind because there is so much thirsting and suffering for the love of Christ, and I want to be that light and show His love to others,” she said. “I also really admired how they earn higher-level degrees. So they strive to serve at the highest level, and I know that God has given me this gift of intelligence that I can use for His service.”
Another connection Ms. Pereira discovered with the Religious Sisters of Mercy is with the order’s foundress, Venerable Catherine McAuley, whose father died when she was very young, too.
As she looks back, Ms. Pereira realizes her vocation journey began the summer before her junior year in college when, as she served as a mentor to high school students, she “encountered the radicalness of the self-giving love of God in Christ.”
“I realized if God is calling me to give of myself completely in the way He had given Himself to me, that is where my life and joy would be found,” she recalled.
Then a more serious discernment shift happened in Knoxville six months into her two-year Echo program as she had been praying with the Religious Sisters of Mercy and attending on occasion their holy hour. At a friend’s urging, she attended a diocesan women’s retreat led by Sister Anna Marie McGuan, RSM, who is the director of Christian Formation for the diocese.
“At this retreat, it was like a light switch went off in me. I was struck by the beauty of how she had completely given herself to the Lord, and she had a peace and joy that I wanted,” Ms. Pereira recalled about Sister Anna Marie. “I knew that whatever she had I wanted.”
The morning after the retreat ended, Sister Anna Marie asked Ms. Pereira if she had ever considered religious life.
“I was dumbfounded how the Holy Spirit was moving. I had told no one about my thoughts during the retreat. I had been praying with them for seven months and I wondered why they had never said anything before. I really appreciate the freedom they gave me in this discernment,” she explained.
Sister Anna Marie simply said, “It’s a beautiful life,” prompting Ms. Pereira to simply respond, “I know.”
“That was it. I couldn’t concentrate on anything else the rest of the day. I was so excited that God was calling me to discern more deeply,” she said, adding that Sister Anna Marie told her the next step was to begin discerning with religious orders God had put in her path. And while she was familiar with some orders, “I told her I definitely wanted to discern with the RSMs because I really admire the work they do and their love for the Lord, and their joy.”
That put into place a more serious look into the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma.
Then Ms. Pereira described the third part of her discernment decision, which occurred in November when she went on a vocations visit to the Religious Sisters of Mercy motherhouse in Alma.
“My heart was really burning inside of me. I went into the chapel at the motherhouse one of the nights I was there and told Jesus how much I loved the sisters and loved their charism. He said to me, ‘You need to love Me first’ and told me I needed to make Him more of the foundation of my life because without Him religious life makes no sense,” she said.
She dived deeper into her prayer life after returning from that visit and made Jesus the foundation of her peace.
After Thanksgiving, she was in the adoration chapel at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus when Jesus placed a pink flower in her mind’s eye.
“The flower was so delicate that I didn’t know what to do with it, so I gave it to Mary to keep safe under her mantle. Right after this I was at the Religious Sisters of Mercy convent in Knoxville for holy hour and there were pink flowers at the foot of Mary in the chapel. I thought ‘I see Jesus.’ I asked Jesus to continue to purify my desires so that they align with His and to continue to make it clear to me,” Ms. Pereira said.
The following night she was writing in her journal and asked Jesus what He desires of her. Before she could finish writing the sentence she heard deep within herself Jesus say “You. I desire you.”
“So, I thought that’s it. I was filled with so much awe and gratitude. How could the Lord desire me because I am so in need of His mercy and so helpless. But that’s the mystery of His merciful love,” she said. “The only response is to give myself completely to the one who has given me everything.”
Ms. Pereira understands that a religious life will not be without challenges. But she feels she now has the wherewithal to handle any adversity because it will only strengthen her relationship with Jesus.
“There is this depth of peace, but that doesn’t mean it’s without challenges. But when I’m walking with the Lord, those challenges are a deeper invitation to trust in Him,” she said.
Ms. Pereira described the process by which she will enter the Religious Sisters of Mercy. The first step was a letter from her requesting entrance. Her letter was long and outlined how she reached her decision. She then was sent an application packet to fill out that included questions such as why do you want to enter religious life. Her answers were 25 pages long.
Letters of recommendation followed as did medical information. Once all the information was returned to Alma, she went to Alma for a psychological evaluation similar to ones seminarians receive. It was administered by sisters of the order who are psychiatrists. After returning to Knoxville, she received a call two days later informing her she had been accepted followed by a formal letter of acceptance.
That letter was accompanied by a list of what she will be able to take when she enters the community and what she will need to leave behind.
She was a little excited to know she can take more things than she first thought.
She will be trading in her favorite jeans, top, and sandals for a postulant outfit (skirt and blouse), and she will be bringing other clothes with her to Alma, too. She’ll also be bringing everyday shoes, winter boots, rain gear, and any books she will need.
She will be leaving behind her cellular phone, television, and most other personal electronic devices.
“I can bring a watch, but no jewelry and no makeup except for some cosmetic things like hair conditioner,” she said, noting that it is an eight-year process from entering as a postulant to professing final vows.
She realizes that all the trappings of single life now no longer apply. She is spoken for.
“It’s such a long process to grow in understanding of the life and to continue that discernment. The Lord really provides the grace to do this. There is a depth of peace that I haven’t experienced before. When I received my acceptance letter, it really felt like my soul was at rest. Now, because of this change, I realize my search is over.”