By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published December 6, 2007
Overnight at Piedmont Hospital, Michelle Millan helped patients back to health on the 5 South Ward. During her 12-hours shifts at the Peachtree Road hospital, groggy patients recovering from surgery found comfort.
Today, Millan intends to continue as a nurse, but with a different type of care. Her new patients approach the end of life as they succumb to cancer.
“That’s the hardest part. There are really patients that tug at your heart,” said Millan who goes by her new name of Sister Carmela Marie.
Sister Carmela is one of two novices studying at the motherhouse for the Hawthorne Dominicans. If all goes according to plan, Sister Carmela’s studies end in 2009 with “first vows.”
But first she’s got to get through studies that start at 6 a.m. when a bell rings to wake her for chapel.
A dozen years ago, she penned a letter to her parents announcing her interest in life as a religious sister. College was over and she wanted to look into a life of service to others.
It didn’t go over too well. During her next visit home, her father “pointedly ignored her,” she said.
For too long she was a self-described cultural Catholic, going through the motions but not knowing the faith. At one point in college, she considered herself agnostic.
But the desire to live as a sister returned after prompting from Christian friends to explore her faith deeply a few years ago. Time spent in prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament at Christ the King Cathedral gave her the space to reflect on her goals.
“My faith was reawakened by my friends. I really want to give something back to God. It’s a response to his call,” said Sister Carmela.
The Hawthorne Dominicans are rooted in America. Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, daughter of acclaimed author Nathaniel Hawthorne, began the order in 1900. What started at a three-room cold-water flat in New York City to nurse the poor with incurable cancer now stretches across the country and into Africa. The sisters live, eat and pray around the needs of their patients. Six homes, including Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home in Atlanta, provide the care offered by the 64-member religious congregation.
Vocation director Sister Alma Marie said the community relies on “divine providence” to cover costs.
The women in the congregation are “women religious” or “sisters.” Technically, a nun refers to women who live in cloistered communities. Hawthorne Dominicans have silent areas in their convents such as the dining area, but they do not take vows of silence.
Sister Carmela, 32, is a native of the Philippines. She came to this country to work in an Ohio nursing home. After completing her work there, she followed friends to Atlanta, where she attended Christ the King Cathedral.
She turned to the Hawthorne Dominicans when another vocation director suggested her nursing background would be useful. The peace she felt during a weeklong stay at the convent convinced her it was the right congregation.
Sister Carmela said she could still be a nurse to patients in hospitals and nursing homes. But as a sister, there is a different mindset.
“We serve Christ in them,” she said.
Sister Carmela sought out congregations where sisters still dress in a traditional habit. These congregations are seeing growth in woman applicants recently.
“It’s a visible witness. You are reminded who you belong to,” said Sister Carmela. It has a deeper meaning than just a piece of clothing, she said. In an essay she wrote upon receiving the habit, she quoted St. Paul, calling it “putting on the new man.”
Years after letting her family know of her dreams, Sister Carmela said her parents have warmed to the idea of her life as a religious sister.
“They are happy I’m happy,” she said.