Sister Anunziata Grace begins a rare vocation for the diocese of Knoxville
Story by Dan McWilliams
Photos by Dan McWilliams and Stephanie Richer
Sister Anunziata Grace has evolved from a contemplative with the Handmaids of the Precious Blood community in New Market to a hermitess with the Diocese of Knoxville.
Sister Anunziata professed her perpetual vows and consecrated herself as a hermit in a Mass on Aug. 22, the memorial of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. Bishop Richard F. Stika presided at the Mass and accepted Sister Anunziata’s vows.
Cardinal Justin Rigali attended in choir, and cathedral associate pastor Father Martin Gladysz concelebrated. Diocesan chancellor Deacon Sean Smith and Deacon Walt Otey assisted, as did seminarian Wojciech Sobczuk. In attendance were women religious, including Mother Sarah Michael, mother prioress of the Handmaids of the Precious Blood. Sister Anunziata’s sister, Nancy Tabita, of Philadelphia, Pa., sat near her during Mass.
Sister Anunziata’s life as a hermitess will be one of prayer for the pope, the bishop, and priests, perhaps not the typical image people have of the eremitic life.
“Most everyone thinks you live in a cave somewhere. I tell them I don’t live in a cave, and I do talk,” said Sister Anunziata, who is in Knoxville. “That’s something I think as the vocation is looked at through such things as interviews, that there will be a greater understanding of what it is really all about. It is an ecclesial vocation.”
Her daily life as a hermitess will be regulated by a Rule of Life, which Bishop Stika approved on Aug. 22, Sister Anunziata said.
“It has what they call a horarium, which is like a schedule. That horarium helps to govern your time and your actions, but it has a greater purpose than that, and that is to develop very healthy, good habits in your daily life so that you can have your heart free in order to be able to engage in prayer. That’s what my horarium is,” she noted.
“My horarium usually starts with what I call pre-dawn, and that’s usually 3:30 in the morning or a little bit before that. And then I have the dawn, which is Lauds, which is part of the Divine Office, the Liturgy of the Hours of the Church. Then we have morning, and morning is usually Mass, and then liturgical prayer, and then we have ministry, within the hermitage. Then it just flows, the whole day it just simply flows until I go to bed at night. Bedtime is usually pretty early. I usually will end up resting about 7:30 to 8 o’clock at night,” she added.
What she will pray for as a hermitess is simple.
“Because of my life as a Handmaid, my whole prayer is geared toward the ecclesial Church,” she said. “Consequently, I pray for the Holy Father and for our bishop in particular, for the sanctification of the priesthood, also the holiness of the Church, and also praying for all of those who at this time need special prayers, who are either feeling lost or in grief or in sorrow, and for the dying.”
Coming to life as a hermitess has been a “very long, long journey,” Sister Anunziata said. “My journey began actually when I entered the Handmaids of the Precious Blood. I started to really feel the drawings toward a greater solitude, even within my cenebitical life as a Handmaid. That’s a life of community, but I kept feeling this drawing. And so I worked with my superiors at the time, and I worked with my spiritual directors. We actually began the process in the late 1980s. It intensified in 2000. It started to come into its transition then in 2016, and then here I am in 2020 finally getting into its fruition.”
She left the Handmaids in a process called exclaustration, “which separates me just from the community, living with the community, in order to discern this vocation.”
The Handmaids of the Precious Blood is a contemplative community of nuns whose vocation is to pray for all priests, especially those in spiritual need. The community’s monastery, Cor Jesu, is located in Jefferson County. The community relocated to the Diocese of Knoxville from New Mexico in 2013.
The service with Bishop Stika on Aug. 22 left a profound impression on Sister Anunziata.
She described what happened at the Mass with the bishop.
“What took place was that as a consecrated religious, you make the evangelical counsels, which are vows [of chastity, poverty, and obedience], into the hands of the person who is acting as your superior, which happens to be the bishop now,” Sister Anunziata said. “So, whereas in 1986 I made my vows with the Handmaids, and with their love and permission and support, they supported me through this discernment into the eremitical life. Now, being released from the Handmaids, I was able to pronounce my vows to God through the bishop. This puts me into whereas my Handmaid life was a life lived in community with the Handmaids, now my community and my parish is my family, my community family.”
Sister Anunziata’s smiling face is seen at the Chancery, where she substitutes for front-desk receptionist Dorothy Curtis on occasion. She still can work there as a hermitess.
“It depends upon the bishop on how many hours. It’s actually part of my life, because I see my life as a life of prayer lived with Christ, living in solitude with Christ, but it is with His heart of hospitality,” she said. “This is where, in the eremitical life, the whole concept that it is not an isolation, rather it is an encounter with relationship. So that is part of my life in a very limited manner.”
Sister Anunziata is a native of Akron, Ohio, who had a “great love for animals” as a child.
“I had animals everywhere,” she said. “In my teenage years, when I was in high school, I had my own horse. I had him out of the stable. I also trained dogs with a trainer. I apprenticed under a trainer, who was at that time the consultant and trainer for the Akron Police Department.”
Choosing religious life arose out of that animal setting.
“It’s been quite a journey. Our Lord called me. It’s the mystery of vocation,” Sister Anunziata said. “I was living out there in Arizona, and I’ve been in Utah, and I’ve been in the West a lot, and I had a little ranch. Everything was wonderful. I had pretty much everything that I dreamt about as a child. And the longing in my heart — it was just empty. It was total emptiness. And I knew it. God called, and I said, ‘OK, here I am,’ and I left everything behind.”
In his opening remarks at the Aug. 22 Mass, Bishop Stika professed his love of contemplative communities.
“Seems like many years ago, I received a letter, along with many other bishops, probably, from a community in New Mexico called the Handmaids of the Precious Blood, who were looking to relocate,” he said. “I’ve always had a great love and affection for contemplative communities, dating back to my time in St. Louis, where there are nine communities of contemplative life. So I said, sure, I’d be happy to talk to you. And the sisters moved.
“But the first sister I had contact with was Sister Anunziata. And I thought that was an act of God because prior to my time in Knoxville, I was the pastor of the Church of the Annunziata in St. Louis. Even though Sister spells it differently. I don’t know if it’s the parish that spells it right or Sister. But we’ll leave that to God. At some point, in talking to Sister, she spoke about this vocation within a vocation, and here we are today, on the feast of the Queenship of Mary, who was a woman who said, ‘Let it be done to me, according to your word.’”
Before the homily, Deacon Smith called forth Sister Anunziata, who answered, “Present.”
The bishop in his homily referred to Canon 603 in Church law, which states, “In addition to the institutes of consecrated life, the Church recognizes the eremitic or anchoritic life by which the Christian faithful devote their life to the praise of God and the salvation of the world through a stricter withdrawal from the world, the silence of solitude, and assiduous prayer and penance. A hermit is recognized by [Church] law as one dedicated to God in consecrated life if he or she publicly professes in the hands of the diocesan bishop the three evangelical counsels, confirmed by vow or other sacred bond, and observes a proper program of living under his direction.”
“This is the first time we’ve done this in the Diocese of Knoxville, receive a woman into Canon 603,” Bishop Stika said. “When Sister Anunziata first came to me about 603, all she ever talked about was ‘Canon 603, 603, 603,’ and I had to look it up. The person who wanted to make an intention, a statement of faith, to be a hermit, in its own unique way, to pray for the Church and the bishop, which I need all the prayers I can get.”
The bishop reiterated his love for contemplative communities.
“In St. Louis, I was very close and still am to the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters, also known as the Pink Sisters, since way before I entered the seminary in 1979,” he said. “Later in my life, I served for 10 years as the chaplain to the cloistered Carmelite Sisters. For a number of years, I said Mass at my parish as pastor at 7, and then every day I would travel about 3 minutes to the monastery to say Mass for them at 7:30, or, depending on how long I preached at the previous Mass, maybe 7:40.”
The bishop mentioned a special friend, Sister Paula Marie, who passed away in the days before Sister Anunziata’s Mass.
“She was the extern sister in Carmel for over 50 years, and at one time, my predecessor, Father Kevin Horrigan, who also taught me philosophy at Cardinal Glennon College, or he tried to teach me philosophy — he was an old curmudgeon, and so was Sister Paula Marie, and they had been together for 18 years in their roles. You know, an extern sister in a contemplative community is a very difficult vocation, because you live both in the inside of the cloister but also deal with the outside world. They were having a dinner together, and they had kind of this love-hate relationship. By then, Sister was already a religious for over 50 years. And [Father Horrigan] said to her, and he kind of sounded like W.C. Fields, ‘Sister, I don’t think you have a vocation’ — after 50 years of being a religious. And I won’t share with you what she told me that she said to him. I think she called him “jerk,” which actually for her was a term of endearment.”
Speaking to Sister Anunziata, Bishop Stika was more complimentary than Father Horrigan.
“Sister Anunziata, I know that you have a vocation,” he said. “In your early life you worked with horses and trained dogs, and at some point you felt a call to religious life, eventually joining a beautiful community, the Handmaids of the Precious Blood, who devote their entire prayer to praying for priests, especially priests sometimes who are in great difficulty.
“But also I know from our conversations, you have this longing for what I now know is Canon 603, to be devoted to prayer throughout the day and throughout the night, but also in more of a hermit lifestyle. A lifestyle that really parallels the call to be a Handmaid of the Precious Blood, two different types of vocation, in some ways a vocation within a vocation.”
Vocation “is an interesting thing,” the bishop said.
“It’s a call of God. It’s a personal conversation between God and an individual who is nourished and nurtured, both by the community, by the person, and by God Himself,” he said. “We all know that there are thriving religious communities. Some are teachers and nurses and educators in academic life. . . but there is also this force, this force of grace that exists in the Church that many times influences the world or individuals, and they will never know where that force came from. For priests, that power of force now comes from New Market, Tenn., a land of deer and rabbits and chiggers, but also a place on the hill, like in the Scriptures, that allowed their life not to be hidden by a bushel basket, but by the prayer that emanates from that hill, a beautiful setting now with a cross, an area remembering priests. It gives light.”
There also are “other ways to give light,” Bishop Stika said.
“On a personal basis, people are attracted to prayer. People are attracted to prayer-filled people,” he said. “And sometimes it takes a person of prayer, filled with the Holy Spirit, to invite another person also to be a person of prayer. I think about the FOCUS [Fellowship of Catholic University Students] ministers, men and women who have graduated from college, who volunteer a year or two or three or more, to be missionaries on college campuses. We have them here in the diocese itself, in Chattanooga as well as in Knoxville.
“Who’s the patron saint of missionaries? St. Thérèse, a contemplative, who always wanted to be a missionary, and yet she was. Because the prayers of an individual, of a hermit, of a contemplative, of men and women whose lives are given to a particular vocation, that is that grace and that force and that energy that allows other people to be witnesses of faith.”
To Sister Anunziata, Bishop Stika said, “I am attracted to your statement of faith. As the bishop who will be nurtured by your prayers and the grace of your prayer to assist me in this beautiful area of East Tennessee, as well as to assist all my sisters and brothers who I am privileged and honored to be their servant, to be their shepherd, to work with them as we discover more and more the presence of God in our midst. What a powerful gift you now give in this particular vocation to the people of this young and yet vibrant Church in East Tennessee.
“Soon, just as you did many years ago when you made your profession to the Handmaids of the Precious Blood, you will soon — it depends on how long I preach — do the same. You will make a commitment. You will receive a ring. The validation of a religious habit. You will invite the saints during the Litany of the Saints to accompany you. You will die once again to yourself and be raised as in a life of a new vocation. And then you will live a statement of faith, of trust and love and prayer. Yes, Sister, I would never be like Father Horrigan and tell you that you have no vocation. I don’t think anyone can say that. But I can say without a doubt that you are indeed a bride of Christ, a witness of Gospel values, and the evangelical counsels. So often, now into my 12th year [as bishop], I remind people to be the face, and the voice, and the hands of Jesus, but especially to be the heart of Jesus. And so in this Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, on the feast of the Queenship of Mary, I say to you from my heart to your heart, thank you for the gift that you now give.”
Sister Anunziata underwent a questioning after the homily. The bishop asked her if she is “resolved to unite herself more closely to God by the bonds of poverty, chastity, and obedience in the eremitic tradition”; if she is “resolved to strive steadfastly for perfection in the love of God and of your neighbor by living the Gospel with all your heart and keeping the Rule of Life, which you have espoused and to which I have given my blessing”; and if she is “resolved to give yourself to God alone, in solitude and silence, in persevering prayer and willing penance, in humble labor and holiness of life.”
Sister Anunziata answered, “I am” to all three questions.
Sister Anunziata lay prostrate during the Litany of the Saints, after which she placed her hand on a Bible and made her profession of perpetual vows. Bishop Stika said, “I receive your vows made to God,” then prayed the prayer of consecration over Sister Anunziata. He then presented symbols of that consecration: a ring and a prayer garment.
Sister Anunziata joined at the altar the bishop and witnesses — Cardinal Rigali, Father Gladysz, and Deacon Smith — in signing the profession of vows and degree of profession.
At the end of Mass, the bishop expressed his gratitude toward Sister Anunziata.
“I want to thank in a very special way, from the depths of my heart, Sister Anunziata, for taking this step,” he said. “As I said, I need all the prayers I can get. Sister, I’m so glad that I heard about Canon 603. I also want to thank Mother Sarah Michael, the superior general of the Handmaids of the Precious Blood, who is here, who has now parted one of her sisters from the community with support and prayers for her.”
The diocese is blessed “with many religious communities, men and women, for that I am so grateful,” the bishop said. “And now we have a hermitess, and we sing praise to almighty God for that.”