Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


To Care, To Love, To Serve: Three Sisters’ Lives

By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published April 10, 2008

As a high school student Sister Edwin Sheil was taught by nuns in her native Cleveland. She had no desire to follow her teachers, but she was interested in life as a sister.

“I couldn’t see myself doing that. Correcting papers all night long was not for me,” said Sister Edwin, a member of the Hawthorne Dominicans.

It took Sister Mary Ann Foggin a few dead ends and a period of doubt before she found her niche to serve God as a sister.

“Every vocation is as individual as the individual,” said Sister Mary Ann, of the Servants of God’s Love.

Mary-Anne Plaskon put herself through graduate school at the oldest seminary in the United States to pursue a master’s degree in theology. Now, she serves the poor in Alabama as a medical social worker as a vowed member of the Sisters of Mercy.

“My vow of service compels me to use my eyes, hands, ears and feet for compassionate ways to be Jesus’ instrument of healing to the sick,” she said.

The term vocation is rooted in Latin. It means to call. Yet, it is one thing to know that one is called to service in the church and it’s another to know what to do with it and where to go with it.

For women, there are many opportunities as a member of a religious community. A Catholic News Service book has eight pages filled in small print of the names of religious orders for women.

And yet with all these options, the number of vocations to religious life for women has fallen. There has been a decline of nearly 64 percent between 1965 and 2007, the most recent figures from Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Some 110 sisters work in the Atlanta Archdiocese, according to the 2007 Official Catholic Directory.

There are similarities between all the orders of religious women, whether rooted with a long history in Europe or founded in snowy Michigan. Women for any religious order recite three vows: poverty, chastity, and obedience. Some congregations take a fourth vow to emphasize a special part of its life: Benedictines vow a life of stability; Sisters of Good Shepherd for zeal; Missionaries of Charity, service to the poorest of the poor.

The fourth vow, along with what’s called a charism, a gift given to the church by the religious order, and apostolate, or their special ministry, make each congregation different.

These three women shared their vocation stories, reflecting on the vows and how their life’s work intersect.

Her Love For Nursing

Sister Edwin, who is 61, grew up in Cleveland in a devout Catholic family. She attended parochial grade school and high school, where she was taught by the Sisters of the Humility of Mary.

Sister Edwin said she knew in high school that religious life was for her. She described a “crisis” when as a sophomore she announced that she didn’t want to teach. Closing that door cut out one of the main career choices for women in the 1950s and 1960s. She was uncertain about other choices open to women. But her mother introduced her to a friend who worked as a nurse and Sister Edwin found a possible career. Crisis averted.

The nursing interest was kept alive by a high school job at a local hospital. Meanwhile, graduation approached and Sister Edwin talked with vocation directors at congregations, asking about prayer and community life. In the 1960s, many congregations were going through a period of renewal in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.

Still uncertain, Sister Edwin’s brother introduced her to a nursing home served by the Hawthorne Dominicans, a religious order based in New York founded by the daughter of American author Nathaniel Hawthorne. That was it.

“Nobody measured up to what we were doing. I felt so called to this type (of work),” she said.

The 107-year-old congregation’s apostolate is to provide free care for the poor with incurable cancer. Its charism is to “contemplate and give to others the fruits of our contemplation.” In Atlanta, their work is done at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home.

Right out of high school, Sister Edwin entered the Hawthorne Dominicans. She later became a registered nurse. More than 40 years later, she has moved up and down the East Coast, from Massachusetts to Georgia.

“I’m licensed to drive and nurse in six states,” she said.

Today, women have more options than nursing and education like Sister Edwin faced.

“There are so many options. There’s a lot out there. There’s a whole lot of social work, caring for the poor and seniors,” she said.

Women should treat this issue seriously, she said. Talk to congregations, learn about the lives of the sisters.

“It’s most important to intensify your prayer life,” she said.

Searching For Shared Spirituality

Sister Mary Ann Foggin felt she had a vocation. But finding the place to serve out her life was proving difficult. She seemed to be running into dead ends during her 18-month search. None of the communities she visited moved her heart. She felt discouraged after quitting her marketing job in response to what she believed was God’s invitation to trust him.

Then a member of her Cathedral of Christ the King charismatic prayer group, Father Tim Hepburn, “my hero” is how Sister Mary Ann put it, suggested she examine deeply her own heart to find what was significant to her.

Questions were answered once she did that. She wanted a religious congregation that embraced her spirituality.

In 1998 at the age of 40, the former Atlanta advertising executive joined the Servants of God’s Love, a small community of Catholic charismatic women in the Diocese of Lansing, Mich.

The Servants of God’s Love is a new diocesan community, just 32 years old. It is still building the traditions that shape the women. Like all women who serve the church as sisters and nuns, they take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Sister Mary Ann and her fellow sisters take a fourth vow, to community.

The fourth vow means she drives an hour to work as the director of vocation services for the Lansing Diocese because she lives with fellow sisters.

“I’m home. We eat dinner. We pray together three times a day. We are one another’s paths to holiness. If you are going to be this radical, do it together,” she said.

The Servants of God’s Love sisters live their charism as love. Its apostolate is with working in areas of life.

Sister Mary Ann said the charism means that sisters “bring God’s love wherever he wants us.” The apostolate is lived by community members caring for foster children, service to the elderly and in Catholic evangelism.

Looking back, Sister Mary Ann said a woman should keep an open mind and pay attention to what they find attractive in a community. Perhaps it is as simple as a Scripture passage on the community’s Web site or maybe a woman likes a congregation’s orthodoxy or that a community works with the poor.

“God works in so many different ways. You must be open,” she said. “The only other thing I can tell them is pray, pray, pray. You want to make sure the Lord is confirming your choice.”

A woman can tap the Internet to investigate communities without talking with anyone. When a woman is ready to ask serious questions, don’t be timid, she said. Get to know the women. Talk with someone who lives the life. And have conversations with a couple of communities. “You want to have some level of comparison to be sure. We’ve all been there.”

Said Sister Mary Ann: “We are young, our charism is love. So many good things are happening right now.”

A Vow To Serve Others

Sister Mary-Anne Plaskon was drawn to the Sisters of Mercy by women being “most ordinary, doing God’s work.”

“They were bright, prayerful, energetic and lots of fun to be with,” said Sister Mary-Anne about working elbow to elbow with the sisters at Our Lady of the Assumption Church, Atlanta.

Now, Sister Mary-Anne works as a medical social worker at Mercy Medical in Mobile, Ala., fulfilling the congregation’s fourth vow of service.

The Sisters of Mercy were founded in 1831 in the slums of Dublin, Ireland. Founder Sister Catherine McAuley reacted to the poverty by providing food, clothing and education for women and children. Its apostolate remains the same, just on a broader scale. Today, the congregation touches all parts of the globe, continuing to fight and advocate for the economically poor of the world and women seeking “fullness of life” in church and society.

“Each of our ministries, whether it is education, health care, social action, housing, creative arts, law, political involvement or simply the ministry of prayer by our retired sisters, is a commitment to work for (justice),” she said in an e-mail.

The Sisters of Mercy was not the first congregation Sister Mary-Anne explored. She considered the Maryknoll Sisters, along with a contemplative Dominican order.

She put herself through St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore and earned a master’s degree in theology. She worked as a Catholic youth minister.

In 1986, she became a lay associate of the Sisters of Mercy. Last September, she professed their perpetual vows in the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, Regional Community of Baltimore.

Sister Mary-Anne said the Sisters of Mercy’s concern for immediate needs as well as global issues touched her. The congregation, which numbers 10,000 spread around the world, fulfills its charism by serving the poor, the sick and uneducated with compassion.

Its members take a fourth vow to be of service.

“Service is a vow that I think is incredibly important today. We are committing our lives and resources as Sisters of Mercy to act in solidarity with the economically poor, especially women and children,” said Sister Mary-Anne.

The community’s door of hospitality is open, along with their prayer life. Communal prayer takes different shapes from each community’s circumstance, she said. Some houses pray together daily, others weekly.

“There is an ebb and flow to this, again based on the fact that we are adult women,” she said.

As for a woman looking at religious life, Sister Mary-Anne said developing relationships with sisters is key. A woman should learn about communities carefully, she said.

“I do think it is very important to bring oneself to the community with openness to growth,” she said.

As is the custom, when Sisters of Mercy profess their final vows, they receive a silver ring with a motto inscribed. It expresses the sister’s spirituality. Sister Mary-Anne chose from Scripture: “My grace is sufficient for you.”