Published June 12, 2014
CONCORDIA, Kan.—Crystal Payment and Dian Hall had to travel 1,000 miles to discover they live roughly 35 miles apart.
The spiritual journey for the two Georgia women has been even longer. Yet Saturday, June 7, they were together in Concordia in one ceremony, where they both professed their vows to enter religious life—Sister Dian as a canonical Sister of St. Joseph and Sister Crystal as an agrégée Sister of St. Joseph.
Crystal, who lives in Douglasville, was born and raised in Ste. Sault Marie, Mich.
“From the time I was a young teenager, I wanted to be a sister,” she said, “but my life took a detour and that didn’t happen.”
That “detour” included marriage, a move to Georgia with her husband in 1983, two children and a 25-year career with Delta Airlines.
Throughout, she remained active in the Catholic Church, as a member of St. Theresa Church in Douglasville and as an annulment “case sponsor” for the Archdiocese of Atlanta. In that volunteer position, she works with Catholic couples seeking to have their marriages annulled, as allowed by church law.
Then, in 2007, she and her husband divorced.
With her son and daughter grown, “I thought, ‘I can do what I want, I can be what I want.’ And I knew I still wanted to be a sister,” she said.
She spent the next four years “looking for a (religious) community that would take an older sister who has a family,” the now-57-year-old said.
She talked with a number of communities and received an equal number of rejections.
“So I kept praying about it, and decided maybe God didn’t want me to go in that direction,” she recalled. “Then in 2011, there was an article in the diocesan newspaper about a Eucharistic conference, and it included a picture of (two Sisters of St. Joseph who serve in Atlanta), and they were talking about this new program in Concordia. It felt like providence.”
The providential program was agrégée membership—designed for mature, single Catholic women who feel called to religious life but who, for a variety of reasons, do not or cannot choose to become the traditional “canonically vowed” sisters.
The term agrégée comes from the French for “attached to” or “aggregated with.”
It is a form of membership in the religious congregation that dates back to its founding in 17th-century France, when Sisters of St. Joseph were either canonically vowed “principal sisters” or so-called agrégée or “country sisters.” The people with whom they served considered both groups Sisters of St. Joseph.
The Concordia congregation re-introduced agrégée membership in 2006, and today there have been 10 women who have professed their vows as agrégée sisters in the Concordia congregation and another half-dozen who are in varying stages of the process of deciding if this form of religious life fits them and their spiritual needs.
By summer 2011, Crystal had met Sisters Jodi Creten and Helen Mick—the two Concordia sisters who live in Atlanta—and that September she came to Concordia for the first time. Two months later she was officially received into the community as a candidate and began regular study and prayer sessions with Sisters Jodi and Helen.
Joining her was Dian Hall, who had become an agrégée candidate two years earlier.
Dian, a Georgia native who lives and works in Cartersville, was raised in the Methodist church and converted to Catholicism as an adult. In 1994, she met Sister Diane Brin, a Sister of St. Joseph of Concordia who lives in Rome, Georgia. Through Sister Diane, she met Sisters Jodi and Helen, and then Sister Anna Marie Broxterman, who at the time was the vocation director.
For the next two or three years, she said, “I did this little dance with Anna Marie. I felt called, and I’d come, and then I’d back out. I did that over and over.”
Finally, she stepped away and moved on with her life. As she explains, “I just said, ‘Let’s see what happens.’”
What happened first was a horrific traffic accident in 2000 that required weeks of hospitalization and several surgeries. Then she was hired as music director at Saint Meinard Seminary in Indiana. She loved the work among the Benedictine monks, she said, but she was lonely and homesick for Georgia.
She also missed her family. Dian, an only child whose parents are both deceased, had stepped in to help raise one of her students some 20 years ago when the girl’s parents were killed.
When Juana—now 36—was in her 20s, she and Dian decided they wanted to “formalize” the family feeling they had had for years, so Dian adopted her.
Juana is now a married mother of three sons and lives in Cartersville.
In 2005, Dian returned to Cartersville and went to work as a special education teacher at the public high school while also taking on the duties of music director for St. Francis of Assisi Church.
She reconnected with Sisters Jodi and Helen in Atlanta — and she learned about the new form of membership the Concordia sisters were in the process of approving.
“The big deals for me were autonomy and independence,” Dian says now. “I kept resisting the call I felt because I was afraid of losing my autonomy and independence.”
Those were less of an issue with the agrégée form of membership, she said. These sisters remain financially independent from the congregation and generally remain where they are living and working when they enter.
So in November 2009, Dian entered the Concordia congregation as an agrégée candidate, and spent more than two years working, studying and praying with her mentors, Sisters Jodi and Helen.
But then, Dian says, “I think I finally confronted what I’d been running from; I think I finally understood what I had been afraid of — and it was time to commit, to finally commit.”
She did that a year ago, when Dian, now 61, was received into the congregation as a canonical novice.
She moved to Concordia not long after that to begin her “canonical year” as required by Church law, preparing to profess her vows.
The culmination of study and prayer came Saturday morning for Crystal and Dian, in a special Mass in the Motherhouse chapel.
They will also celebrate a second vow ceremony Sunday, June 15, at Dian’s home parish, St. Francis of Assisi, in Cartersville, where she is also music director.
When they return to Georgia—Crystal to coordinate a new ministry in her parish to visit homebound parishioners and Dian to work as a special education inclusion teacher for the Cartersville schools—they will take with them their commitment to the Concordia congregation and a belief in its vibrancy.
“I am so grateful to the community for having this form of membership,” Crystal said. “It has given new life to women who thought this opportunity to respond to God’s call had passed them by. To have this yearning and not be able to fulfill it is very painful.”
“There are so many women thirsting for God, thirsting for their own spirituality and a community to belong to,” Dian added. “Like me, they may be afraid, but they don’t have to be. We can be here for them.”