By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published September 1, 2011
This year Sister Susan celebrates 50 years of religious life, her first 15 years as a Felician Franciscan sister and the last 35 years as a Cenacle sister. She has been in Atlanta for nearly 20 years, serving as a spiritual director, retreat leader, teacher and parish mission leader, among many other roles.
Sister Susan’s story begins in Waterbury, Conn., where she was born to Jerome and Natalie Arcaro in 1943. Exposed to religious life in school at an early age, Sister Susan was first taught by the Daughters of the Holy Spirit and then by the Felician Franciscans.
“I was enamored by their life and thought they were so blessed,” said Sister Susan, adding that two elements of the Felician spirituality really stuck with her: the spirit of reparation and the love of the Eucharist.
Sister Susan’s mother, who passed away almost four years ago, used to remind Sister Susan that she answered a call to religious life at a very young age. Her mother would often tell her the story of when she came home from kindergarten one day and said, “Mom, you gave half of your heart to God and half to Dad, but I’m going to give my whole heart to God and be a nun.”
But it wasn’t until a few weeks after graduating from high school in the early 1960s that Sister Susan took the initiative and entered the novitiate of the Felician Franciscan sisters in Enfield, Conn.
After several years of formation, Sister Susan began to sense that God was calling her to a different community, but she wasn’t sure what to make of the new feeling. Her superior advised her to live her Felician life as best she could, and if God was truly calling her to another community, he would open that door when the time was right.
“It wasn’t long after I began the second year of formation in the community that I realized God was calling me elsewhere, but where I didn’t know,” she said. “It took me 15 years to discern God’s call. In the meantime, I lived my life fully in community and as an educator and musician.”
She began teaching elementary school children before earning a degree from Montessori International and teaching younger children, ages 2 to 6.
“I so enjoyed teaching these littlest among God’s people, and I admit, I still miss being with them, especially around the holidays,” she said.
As she neared her 15th year as a Felician, Sister Susan began to feel called toward a more contemplative life and again began to discern if she was being called to another community.
“There was restlessness in my heart that I couldn’t really understand,” Sister Susan recalled. “But I came to discern that it was a call for me to live a deeper contemplative life in the midst of ministry.”
But even though she eventually left to join the Cenacle sisters, she still holds a special place in her heart for the Felician Franciscans.
“I love Franciscan spirituality,” she said. “It is still part of me, and I think it enriches my own Cenacle spirituality.”
In 1978, Sister Susan took her final vows with the Cenacle sisters and in a way returned to the congregation that taught her as a young girl in Connecticut. While her Felician vows “transferred” to the new congregation, she still had to learn Cenacle spirituality and then slowly became involved with their ministry, which focuses on spiritual direction, retreats and adult faith formation.
Sister Susan quickly learned that her experience as a teacher with the Felician sisters would be a great asset in her newfound ministries with the Cenacles. She explained the Cenacle spirituality as based on three main tenets: community, prayer and ministry.
“Our ministry feeds our prayer, and our prayer feeds our ministry,” she said.
Sister Susan, who holds a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in spirituality and spiritual direction, came to Atlanta with another Cenacle sister in 1992 in hopes of spreading their ministry in the archdiocese. And over the last nearly 20 years, Sister Susan, who now lives in community with Cenacle Sister Barbara Young, has become an integral part of the lives of many Catholics and parishes in North Georgia.
While most active at Prince of Peace Church in Flowery Branch, which hosted a Mass to celebrate her anniversary, Sister Susan also leads retreats at Ignatius House Jesuit Retreat Center in Atlanta and has provided spiritual direction and led parish missions in Georgia from Jasper to Savannah and many places in between.
She was also instrumental in forming a two-year program with Spring Hill College Atlanta that focuses on training people interested in becoming spiritual directors.
It has been a unique faith journey for the ever-smiling nun, who feels genuinely appreciative of the opportunities she has been given to serve God and his church.
“I just love what I do. I am so grateful for my religious vocation,” Sister Susan said. “God called me through the Felicians to the Cenacle sisters. I was happy as a Felician but happy to the fullest as a Cenacle.”
“I have been a Cenacle sister for 35 years, nearly 20 of them right here in Georgia,” she said. “My life is Cenacle and the Cenacle is my life. I am not 5 years old anymore, but I still continue to desire ‘to give my whole heart to God.’ I work on it day after day.”