Religious sister’s ministry opens vocational doors
In the ancestral religion of Sister Cecilia Dimaku’s tribe, reincarnation is a major tenet of belief.
“I always say in my next world I would still be a nun,” smiled Sister Cecilia, 61, a Nigerian-born Sister of the Sacred Heart who recently concluded a two-year assignment as a live-in mentor at Magnificat House, the archdiocesan residence adjoining St. Rita Church in New Orleans for women discerning a vocation to the religious sisterhood.
Since the house’s opening in 2012, seven women have made use of its temporary lodging, three of whom are in various stages of formation at three congregations: the Dominican Sisters of Peace; the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Kentucky; and the Teresian Sisters.
“This is a wonderful ministry and a wonderful project. It is inspired by God,” said Sister Cecilia of Magnificat House, which exposes residents and non-residents alike to the lifestyles, charisms and ministries of various communities of women religious through talks, worship, retreats, spiritual direction and classes on discernment, prayer and meditation.
“There are young people still being called – God is still knocking,” Sister Cecilia said. “But there is so much noise, so much distraction. What Magnificat House provides is that opportunity to come away from that noise and listen.”
Vocation surprised her
In Sister Cecilia’s case, thoughts of entering religious life surfaced in 1978, when the then 24-year-old secretary noticed a small clutch of religious novices taking their seats inside her home church in Lagos, Nigeria.
“Something went across me – I felt a chill. I said, ‘What is happening?’” recalled Sister Cecilia, who quipped to a fellow choir member afterward that “one of these days you will be looking for me, and you will find me in the convent!”
Her joke took a serious turn that very afternoon, when Sister Cecilia’s brother, who was unaware of his sibling’s eerie experience at Mass, showed her a photo in the Catholic newspaper of a recently formed Nigerian congregation of women religious called the Sisters of the Sacred Heart.
“My brother said, ‘Every day, you go to church and you stay there after Mass (to help). If you want to go to the convent, go and join them!’” recalled Sister Cecilia, who after a short discernment period became one of her congregation’s first 10 sisters and a novice guided by its New Orleans-born co-founder, Sister of the Holy Family Sylvia Thibodeaux.
“They were so vibrant. They were so energetic,” she recalls of her new ministerial colleagues. “I liked the joy that they radiated, the exuberance that I saw in those young people. So I said, ‘That’s the way I will go.’”
Served in Nigeria first
During the ensuing 10-year formation period that culminated with her final profession of vows in 1989, Sister Cecilia earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from John Carroll University in Ohio and worked in village ministry in Nigeria, teaching kindergarten to children and catechism and life skills to their mothers.
After administrative stints on her congregation’s leadership team and eight years as superior general, a request from Sister Sylvia, who had returned to New Orleans as congregational leader of the Sisters of the Holy Family, presented Sister Cecilia with a new challenge: Louisiana.
“She said, ‘I have helped you (begin your community), now it is time for you to help us in New Orleans,’” explained Sister Cecilia, who arrived at her new assignment four days before Hurricane Katrina and assisted the Sisters of the Holy Family in the repair of their flooded motherhouse and adjacent St. Mary’s Academy.
“People were coming from everywhere to help us – young people; old people, especially (religious) sisters,” Sister Cecilia said. “The sisters would come with their associates, their students, their friends. Some of them came with their walkers, but they would still be doing something. Those who couldn’t come sent their little allowances with a note. There is evil and suffering in our world, but God is also in our world!”
Since 2006, Sister Cecilia’s primary ministry has been in the finance office at St. Mary’s Academy, overseeing payroll, human resources and insurance matters.
“I keep telling myself, what I’m also doing here is a ministry of presence,” she said. “The young women (at St. Mary’s) and their mothers, too, want to know what a nun is.”
Taste of community living
Sister Cecilia, who earned a master’s degree in pastoral studies from the Loyola Institute of Ministry and her graduate certification in spiritual direction from Creighton University, added “Magnificat House mentor” to her résumé in August 2014.
“We show (residents) what it is like to live in community,” she said. “We share house chores; we take turns cooking; we pray together. When you live in community you have personalities, and we have to learn how to live with every personality. You don’t have to like me, but you have to love me!”
The house also offers frequent access to the sacraments, being literally connected to St. Rita Church and equipped with its own adoration chapel. Weekend discernment retreats and monthly “Mmmm” Nights – short for “Magnificat, Mass, Meal and More” – welcome not only residents but any woman who might be thinking about a vocation to the religious life or who is already in formation. To date, eight such non-residential participants are in various stages of religious formation.
Succeeding Sister Cecilia at Magnificat House will be Teresian Sister Gloria Murillo. The house’s other resident mentor, Sister of St. Joseph Theresa Pitruzzello, is assigned there through January 2017.
Sister Cecilia, currently one of 120 Nigerian Sisters of the Sacred Heart, said she is leaving her Magnificat House assignment with optimism, having detected a definite uptick in interest in religion among young adult Catholics in the United States.
“They know the technology and all that they have has not given them the answers, so they are looking for more,” she said. “It is very important that we have a place like Magnificat House for young women to come and listen to God.”