By STEPHEN O’KANE, Staff Writer | Published March 19, 2009
Vocations to the religious life have fascinated Katie Press for years, even if she doesn’t exactly remember telling her mom she wanted to be a nun when she was in the fourth grade.
“I . . . am pretty sure I didn’t even know who/what a nun was at that age,” Press exclaimed after sharing that her mom still remembers that moment.
Some might say Press was in tune with God’s plan for her at that young age. Especially because now, over a decade later, she is preparing to enter a formation program with the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a group of religious whose motherhouse is in Hamden, Conn., with sisters in the United States, Italy and Brazil.
Her interest in religious life really surfaced when she was attending high school at St. Pius X in Atlanta. She discovered the vastness of the Internet, used it to research all sorts of religious sects, and found religious life to be exciting, even if for the wrong reasons, she said.
“There was an aura of intrigue and mystery,” Press said.
“And, best of all, I saw it as the ultimate escape. I pursued the idea of religious life in high school for all the wrong reasons. Instead of facing the world head on, attempting to find a place for me to flourish, I wanted to run away,” she said.
This led Press to consider entering a convent right after high school, but she said her parents could see right through her ruse and “politely demanded” that she attend college.
She ended up venturing to Indiana where she attended Saint Mary’s College and continued to study all things spiritual.
While pursuing theology, psychology and anthropology, Press showed a knack for strong relationships with people, as well as with God. This is something her friends realized right away.
“Katie’s kind demeanor, combined with such strong spirituality, always struck me as how I would hope a nun would be,” said friend Sarah Vabulas. The two met at Saint Mary’s when they shared several religion classes. Press was majoring in the subject while Vabulas was earning a minor.
Press described her vocation discernment during college as an “on again, off again” pursuit. Initially in college she attempted to ignore the idea and push it away. However, during her junior and senior years, Press said it stopped lurking and began nagging.
She visited a community of sisters nearby, but despite seeing the “beauty of the witness of their life,” she felt strongly that this was not the place for her.
“Still, while I didn’t know any of the particulars of how it would all work out, it just seemed to make sense to say that one day I would be a sister,” she said.
“But, you see, I’d told God my list of non-negotiables,” she continued. “My community had to have x, y and z. Unintentionally, I had painted God into a box. So every community that I visited, I crossed off my list prematurely. I had to expand my horizons and feel safe enough to let myself be led to the right community for me.”
In the meantime, Press began pursuing a master of divinity degree at the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis. There she met Sister Virginia, a member of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus who shared a class with Press. They spent nearly a year in class together before it dawned on Press that maybe she should look a little more closely at the sister’s community.
“And one day, truly out of the blue, I thought to just e-mail the vocation director (who happened to be living in St. Louis) and we met for coffee,” Press recalled. “She invited me to their motherhouse in Connecticut.”
What Press found when she visited the community was very encouraging.
“There were sisters of every age and they all seemed to know each other,” Press said. “They valued higher education and seemed to be pleased that I was pursuing a master’s. They told jokes. They seemed to really value both their ministry-apostolate and their time at prayer. Eventually, I realized that I could see myself there and happy, like for the rest of my life! I wanted to hang out with them all the time.”
So when Press returned to St. Louis after the visit, that’s exactly what she did.
“I was their groupie,” Press said jokingly.
Sister Susan Marie Krupp, vocation director, said she was happy that Press had such a personal experience when being introduced to the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She quickly found that Press had what the order was looking for.
“Katie is a very spiritual person,” Sister Susan said. “She has a desire to serve others and a desire to deepen her relationship with God.”
The Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, founded by Clelia Merloni in Italy in 1894, strive “to attain a perfect love for God by making the Heart of Jesus known and loved, by living the law of charity among all people, and by embracing the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience.”
The order has a strong educational ministry, serving as teachers and administrators at all levels of education, from preschools to universities. They also participate in health, pastoral and social services ministries, where they care for the sick, the elderly and youth.
“I was very happy when I found out that Katie had decided to ask to enter the Apostles,” said Stephanie To, who has been friends with Press for about four years.
“Katie is a young woman who is deeply in love with Jesus and desires to share God’s love with the world,” she continued. “I believe her cheerful, down-to-earth attitude is one of the many reasons why she will draw many closer to the Lord. Katie is also wonderful with children and has much experience through baby-sitting and teaching Sunday school. I am very excited for Katie that she will be able to begin her formation with the Apostles, God willing, this fall.”
In order to learn more about the community, Press began to work in St. Louis at one of the order’s preschools, where she currently teaches. She is also involved with a monthly discernment group with the sisters, where they meet for prayer, dinner and discussions about religious life.
“I love every minute that I spend with the sisters and I can’t get enough of their stories—whether it’s about how they never imagined that they’d be a missionary in Taiwan, or about the sister who became famous for making pasta in her retirement, to celebrating with a sister at her third 100th birthday party, to meeting women my age in formation and asking them about having Facebook withdrawal,” Press said.
Emotional and spiritual support is something that many discerning a religious vocation say is necessary. For Press it was no exception. After becoming frustrated with God while struggling with finding that one community, Press needed the support of those close to her.
“I never would have made my way without the help of a spiritual director and the support of my friends,” she said. “My friends never judged me for wanting to visit convents on spring break or go on ‘nun dates’ (vocation retreats). They, like my family, wanted to see me happy.”
While a certain feeling of relief has rushed over Press after her initial acceptance into the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus formation program, she still has one significant obstacle to overcome.
“In my acceptance letter, the sisters have asked that I try to rid myself of as much of my debt, which is only academic in my case, as possible before I move there in August,” Press said. “Additionally, I have to have enough money saved up for my first year of room and board. Thereafter, the sisters will cover all of my expenses. So I have approximately $20,000 to raise by August—at least $5,000 will come from the jobs I have now.”
Press has begun her fundraising efforts, keeping friends and family informed of her progress through her blog, with the tongue-in-cheek title, “Support Katie’s Habit.” She has also planned a bingo fundraiser in St. Louis in hopes of reaching her goal.
The road ahead promises challenges and triumphs, but Press is ready to tackle it all head on.
“Looking back over the past year of my life, I never could have imagined that this is where I’d be today,” she said. “And I’m sure I can’t even begin to dream what my life will be like a year from now. But if it’s with the Apostles (and I pray that it will be), I know it will be joy-filled.”
“Katie has always inspired me with her faith and curiosity for the church and ways of knowing God,” said Vabulas. “I know Katie’s cheerful personality will be welcomed and enjoyed by all the sisters living in community together.”
For information on the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, visit www.ascjus.org. “Support Katie’s Habit” blog can be found at http://supportkatieshabit.wordpress.com/.