Sisters in the Diocese of Knoxville profess their vows as the RSM, FSGM communities grow
By Bill Brewer
The Catholic community of women religious is growing by two Sisters who have connections to the Diocese of Knoxville.
Sister Maria Juan Anderson professed her perpetual vows with the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., on Aug. 16 at the Cathedral of Mary of the Assumption in Saginaw, Mich. And on Aug. 2, Sister M. Elizabeth Grace Donahue made her first profession of vows with the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George at St. Mary Church in Alton, Ill.
Sister Maria Juan has served as the executive secretary to Bishop Richard F. Stika since January, when she transitioned from serving as director of Christian Formation for the diocese.
Sister Elizabeth Grace is a member of a Diocese of Knoxville family known for its vocations to religious life. Sister Elizabeth Grace’s brother, Matthew Donahue, was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Stika on Aug. 7 at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Bishop Stika was a concelebrant at the Mass in Saginaw during which Sister Maria Juan and four other Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma made their final vows. Cardinal Justin Rigali attended the Mass in choir and Diocese of Knoxville chancellor Deacon Sean Smith served as deacon of the Word and Eucharist.
The principal celebrant and homilist was Bishop James D. Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb.
The other four professing vows were Sister Miriam Fidelis Reed, RSM, Sister Maria Crucis Garcia, RSM, Sister Andrea Marie Lee, RSM, and Sister Brigid Mary Meeks, RSM.
Sister Maria Juan first entered the Religious Sisters of Mercy as Amanda Rose Anderson on Aug. 1, 2012. She said taking her final vows nine years later was “so profound.”
“When you realize what you were created for by God and then you make that permanent. It was a consecration – set apart for one purpose – to be holy for God alone. It is the greatest privilege of my life that He would choose me to belong to Him in this way and to be a living sign of His presence in the world,” Sister Maria Juan said.
She said she was blessed to have her family in attendance at the Mass. Born in Boise, Idaho, Sister Maria Juan described herself as a cradle Catholic who attended public school. But she can point to one inspirational moment when the Holy Spirit came alive within her.
“I was confirmed when I was 15. That sacrament was the pivotal point in my faith journey. The graces of the sacrament of confirmation lit a fire in my soul. From that point forward my faith has continued to grow,” she said.
After high school graduation, Sister Maria Juan attended Benedictine College, a private Catholic school in Kansas.
While working in Cincinnati and discerning her vocation, she met a priest who advised her to visit the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma. She knew a number of different religious communities but felt they weren’t right for her.
“I knew immediately during my visit when they explained the significance of the cross they wear. When I heard that, I knew that’s where I wanted to go,” Sister Maria Juan said.
Like all the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Sister Maria Juan wears a black mercy cross with a white cross inlay. She explained that the black outer cross represents the misery of mankind while the white cross inlay is the mercy of God. This mercy cross was part of the original habit of the community from 1831. It is worn around the neck and has no corpus because the Sister wearing it is to be the corpus.
“Each Sister of Mercy is called to stand at the point where those two meet, where the mercy of God meets the misery of mankind,” she said.
She noted that that intersection aligns with the RSM’s charisms: mercy, union, and charity.
Sister Maria Juan felt her profession of final vows was especially poignant because she and the other four Sisters took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience at a time when the world is “so oversexualized and focused on money and doing whatever you want.”
“What our lives show by God’s grace is that true happiness is only found through Jesus Christ,” she said.
Bishop John Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., was the main celebrant at the Mass and first profession of vows for Sister Elizabeth Grace and the initiation into the novitiate for novices Stacy Butler, Claire Callahan, JinYu Burnham, and Amber Robinson at St. Mary Church in Alton, Ill.
Alton is where the American Province of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George is based. The order was founded in Germany in 1869 and has had a presence in the United States since 1923.
As part of the special Mass, Bishop Paprocki blessed the black veil, the crucifix, the rosary, the habits, and the white veils for the novices and for Sister Elizabeth Grace.
Mother M. Mediatrix Bexten, the provincial superior for the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George’s St. Elizabeth Province, questioned the postulants and led prayer. The community then welcomed the postulants.
Bishop Paprocki then questioned Sister Elizabeth Grace, intoning, “My dear daughter, what do you ask of God and of His Church?” To which Sister Elizabeth Grace responded, “I ask for God’s merciful love, and a share in the life of this religious community of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George.”
Sister Elizabeth Grace said growing up she always had a desire to be a Sister. She comes from a family with vocations to religious life.
“I think this was God’s gift to me, to draw me in a very clear way to religious life. As I got older, reading about religious life, Franciscan life specifically, made the desire burn more,” she explained.
She originally believed she was called to a Poor Clare community before she knew of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George. After returning from entering postulancy as a Poor Clare and attending a retreat for young women discerning their vocation in life, she began discerning a vocation with the Franciscan Sisters.
She had been told about the Illinois religious order by Sister M. Clara Auer, FSGM, who serves in the Diocese of Knoxville as Cardinal Justin Rigali’s secretary.
“Little by little, the Lord worked to bring my heart to joyfully surrender to His will! It really was providence,” she said. “My thoughts at taking vows were, ‘Lord, this is really happening! I am laying down my life into Your Hands.’ I had been asking Mary to help prepare me, and I felt much confidence in her maternal presence.”
Sister Clara said the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George are excited, grateful, and humbled that five young women are entering the community, including one from the Diocese of Knoxville.
“Every time a woman enters our congregation it is a joy. Having someone enter from Knoxville is a particular joy for me as I think of home and numerous sayings that come to mind, such as, ‘Home is where the heart is’; ‘There is no place like home’; ‘I left my heart in…,’” Sister Clara said. “Coming from St. Louis, Mo., as I do, St. Louis is my home. Yet Thuine, Germany, where our congregation was founded and where our motherhouse is located, is also my home. And, too, Alton, Ill., our motherhouse in America, so to speak, where our provincial house is located and where both me and Sister Elizabeth Grace entered our community, is also my home.”
Sister Clara said each location where she has lived and served is home, from Philadelphia to Knoxville, to Alton, as well as other places.
“None of them have I ever left. They all remain home to me because my heart is always expanding. My heart is able to expand because it is beating in the Body of Christ—the Church, of which Jesus is the head. With the most sacred heart of Jesus being in the center of all life, His heart is our true home, and the opening in His heart is the threshold through which we are able to enter eternal life—heaven, our eternal home,” Sister Clara added. “Being ‘Sisters’—coming from, living within, and returning to that same heart each day—is a joy of my heart.”
Sister Elizabeth Grace professed her first vows the same week her brother, Matthew, was ordained a priest in the Diocese of Knoxville.
“Taking first vows in the same week as my brother was ordained is still sinking in. What a grace from God that we could be united in laying down our lives for the Church. Watching his ordination, after just having taken vows to the Triune God, was like being renewed all over again in the joy of giving everything over to the Lord and finding that He is all that we desire, and more,” she said.
Sister Elizabeth Grace now is ready to continue her service to God, His Church, and her religious community. She is teaching religion in grades second through fifth at St. Mary Elementary School in Alton.
As she continues her walk of faith toward her profession of perpetual vows, Sister Elizabeth Grace understands that like her students, she also still has much to learn.
But she is confident and joyful in knowing she is walking hand in hand with God.
“Now I love to think about the fact that I am His Bride. Everything I do is a witness, and I pray that others will be drawn to Him through my prayers and work. And I know that there is still so much to learn, even having finished postulancy and the novitiate, so I pray for patience for myself, and the others with me,” she said.
Sister Elizabeth Grace also will have many prayers as she moves forward in her vocation. Sister Clara is among those praying for her, especially as she relates to answering God’s call.
“United as we all are, in Christ—as one family—I thank God for the vocation to which He has called my ‘Sister,’ and I pray for her each day that she may persevere on the way to which the Holy Spirit—the Love of God—leads her. I pray for everyone, in fact, that we all listen for the voice of God and follow His way into our eternal home,” Sister Clara said.
“Sister Elizabeth Grace entered our congregation several years ago. The formation we all experience upon entrance, throughout our novitiate, as junior professed, which is the point wherein Sister is now, will be ongoing, as it is for all of us,” Sister Clara added. “Living in union with Christ and with His merciful love, may she never sense that she has left her heart in Knoxville but that she carries it—and all who live here—with her as her heart expands and she seeks to make Christ’s merciful love visible in all her activities wherever she may be.”