By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published March 18, 2004
Kelly Whittier was just 10 years old when she heard the quiet whisper of God calling her to a religious vocation for the first time.
With her father stationed in Europe with the U.S. Army, Kelly’s family would often travel, and it was in Assisi, Italy, home of St. Francis and St. Clare, that Kelly first thought about becoming a Religious.
“But it wasn’t like a lightning bolt,” she said. “It’s not like I knew that God was saying, ‘This is what you will do.’”
And indeed, it took Kelly many years before she found what God did want her to do. That whisper that touched her when she was 10 would return at different intervals in her life and eventually lead her to where she is now, at 27, beginning a new Religious order as a postulant in St. Paul, Minn.
While stationed in Berlin, Germany, where there were few Catholics in her school and circle of friends, Kelly began attending a Protestant Bible study and singing with the Protestant choir, while at the same time attending CCD classes at the Catholic church for Americans on base.
“I think I really grew in my faith through that Bible study,” she said. “I learned a lot.”
In 1991 her family moved back to the United States, settling in the Arlington, Va., area.
“I think I questioned a bit. I was asking myself ‘Why am I Catholic? What makes that different than other denominations?’” she said. “I was just searching more and more to understand why I was Catholic.”
But Kelly developed a group of close friends who were Catholic and helped her along the way. After graduating from high school, Kelly went on to attend the College of William and Mary, and it was through a group called the Women’s Apostolate for Youth that she heard God’s voice again.
The group was dedicated to the Catholic faith, and to prayer. They held each other accountable, met weekly, and journeyed together on their path with Christ.
The summer after her freshman year, she went to a young adult conference at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, and again felt that she might be called to become a woman Religious.
“They were having a vocations talk and honestly, I really didn’t want to go, but at the same time, I felt like I should go,” she said.
During that talk, the speaker emphasized that everyone has a vocation, whether it be to Religious life, married or single life.
“He told us to close our eyes and ask God to show us a picture of us in 10 years,” she said. “I thought it was kind of hokey. But I did it.”
She saw an image of herself in a nun’s habit, surrounded by many lay people.
“Just to be sure I checked with a friend and said, ‘What did you see?’” she said. “My friend said, ‘Oh, I saw a family portrait.’ I suddenly realized that this could be serious, that maybe I was called to be a nun. I think I cried for about two hours straight.”
But slowly, Kelly began to accept her possible vocation. She went back to William and Mary, feeling that she wanted to finish college before pursuing her calling.
After college, she decided to apply to graduate school at Emory University in Atlanta. Kelly, who has been playing the piano since she was 5, had just begun to play the organ and decided she needed to continue with that in graduate school, and went on to pursue her master of sacred music degree.
It was during her second year at Emory that Kelly started dating a man who was Russian Orthodox, the man who would become her fiancé.
After receiving her degree, Kelly decided to spend a year in Vienna, Austria, where she served as a sidewalk counselor outside an abortion clinic.
“It was an amazing time for me, but also a hard time,” she said.
She went on a nine-day silent retreat.
“I was on this retreat and I really felt that God was calling me to marry the Russian Orthodox I had been dating,” she said. “I was kind of like ‘wait a second. I thought you wanted me to be a nun.’”
But her boyfriend came to visit and proposed.
“I thought it must be God working, so I said yes,” she said.
After problems with her visa, Kelly moved back to Atlanta and found a job at St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonesboro as the director of music and liturgy. It was a perfect fit for her, and she was able to be close to her fiancé, who was still in graduate school at Emory.
But in planning their wedding and speaking with priests, it became obvious that the two could not marry without one of them compromising their faith.
“It turns out that the Orthodox rules are even stricter than the Catholic ones,” she said. “His bishop came to visit and said that he would be excommunicated if he got married in a Catholic church.”
So eventually the engagement was called off. Kelly again heard the whisper calling her to a religious vocation. She found a spiritual director who helped her consider her calling “step by step.”
Attending World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002, Kelly was touched by the words of Pope John Paul II. She decided that she was “not going to run away” from her vocation anymore, and would pray about it and find an order.
The day she came home, she received a newsletter with an insert in it about a new order of Religious sisters. She got in touch with the sister in charge, and also visited the Nashville Dominican order, in which she had two friends.
But it was this new order—the Sisters in Jesus the Lord in St. Paul, Minn.—which spoke the loudest to Kelly’s heart.
“A lot of things just came together. There is a pro-life office right in the convent and a Catholic adoption agency. The church was also built by Austrian builders and there is a replica of a shrine in Vienna right in the church,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
The order plans to minister in Russia, and for now, Kelly is a postulant—learning to center her life around prayer and taking classes to receive her master’s degree in Catholic studies.
She knows that she is in the place God has chosen for her.
“Before I came here, I often would go through anxious periods of ‘what am I going to do? What does God want me to do?’ I just wanted to know,” she said. “Now, I just feel peace.”