Transfer of vows from one religious order to another
Marianites of Holy Cross Sister Kathleen Nealon is living her calling to work with the destitute and the young as a clinical social worker in Haiti with the Sisters of Holy Cross’ Mary Gate of Heaven Orphanage.
“It is a privilege to serve and encounter people who in many ways have been excluded in society,” she said. “For me the call to direct service as well as attempting to live in a way that promotes equality and social justice is essential to living the message of the Gospel.”
This is a new ministry for the 40-year-old nun. In September, she transferred her vows to the Marianites of Holy Cross in New Orleans after almost a decade with another religious order – the Sisters of the Holy Redeemer in Pennsylvania.
Had missionary spirit
With a bachelor’s degree in elementary and special education in hand, Kathleen Nealon explored living in community with the Sisters of Holy Redeemer in Pennsylvania and worked at their Redeemer Ministry Corps lay volunteer program for two years out of college. She gained an attraction to religious life.
“While living with the Sisters of the Holy Redeemer as a lay volunteer, I clearly felt called to religious life and was certainly attracted to their charism,” Sister Kathleen said. “The lifestyle, commitment to service, prayer and community resonated with me. While working with families experiencing homelessness, I remembering thinking that service to those who are in need is what I am called to do with my life.”
She entered the novitiate and began the process to become a nun. Loving the missionary spirit of a Passionist sister she knew as a child at St. Mary Star of the Sea in Narragansett, Rhode Island, Sister Kathleen inquired about Holy Redeemer’s ministry opportunities outside of Pennsylvania. Her novitiate director, Holy Redeemer Sister Anne Marie Haas, sent Sister Nealon as a temporary professed sister to New Orleans for seven months to use her recently earned master’s degree in social work during the rebuild effort. She helped the homeless at Unity of Greater New Orleans while living with the Marianites of Holy Cross in Bywater.
“The needs were very acute and resources quite limited,” she discovered in New Orleans. “It was really an experience being on the front lines and with those experiencing poverty at a different level. While living with the Marianites, somehow I felt that I was more myself, more the person God created me to be than when I was with my own congregation. ... My experience in New Orleans had opened up the possibility that maybe I was not in the place that was the best fit for me.”
She said she spent much time in discernment before committing to profess final vows with the Holy Redeemer sisters.
“She loves our charism and thought it was for her, and we prayed back and forth, and I felt it was, too,” said Sister of the Holy Redeemer Ellen Marvel, a leadership team member who worked with Sister Kathleen during formation with the order.
Sister Kathleen said she visited Sisters of the Holy Redeemer in Tanzania, Africa, and, after final vows, worked in Haiti after the earthquake for 14 months.
“The earthquake had just happened and we were all praying for Haiti and those affected and could not think of a place at that moment where the needs were greater.”
But doubts lingered, and, in October 2011 – after spending nine years with the Sisters of Holy Redeemer – she began the paperwork to transfer to the Marianites. Providentially, she met a Sister of Holy Cross on retreat while trying to decide if she should transfer.
“This providential encounter provided the exact clarity I had been waiting for,” Sister Kathleen said. “Since that time I have been confident that God called me to transfer.”
Not an easy decision
When someone decides to transfer vows from one order to another, both congregations have to be in agreement and work with the person to accomplish it over a process of three years.
During her transfer period, Sister Kathleen discerned with Holy Redeemer Sister Anne Marie and former Marianite congregational leader Sister Suellen Tennyson.
The process culminated Sept. 14 with a transfer of vows ceremony at the Holy Angels Congregational Center, which Sister Ellen attended.
“It was difficult,” Sister Ellen said about losing Kathleen as a fellow Sister of the Holy Redeemer, “but we want what would satisfy her calling for religious life. It’s always hard to lose somebody since we’re very few in this country ... but we want what is best for the person – what she feels she is being called to.”
Father John Morin, a native Rhode Islander and Haiti missionary like Sister Kathleen, was the celebrant.
“She is making a commitment to God through a vow like marriage,” he said at the transfer ceremony. “She must work that commitment and put everything in God’s hands. That’s where she’ll find happiness.”
He said Sister Kathleen committed herself to Jesus and she “is going to empty herself like Jesus did, and she’s going to be the happiest nun in the world.”
Marianites of Holy Cross congregation leader Sister Ann Lacour said accepting nuns from other congregations is not unusual. Several transfers have occurred to the Marianites. A month before Sister Kathleen, Sister Stephanie D’Sousa began her transfer and professed vows on Sept. 6. She, too, had met Marianites and felt a kindred spirit.
“This is not an exception to us,” she said, mentioning transfers of Sister Naomi Duhe, and seven Daughters of the Cross from Shreveport.
Sister Stephanie, originally from India, met a Marianite nun in Dallas while on sabbatical discerning God’s path after her order – the Daughters of the Sacred Heart – was no longer needed in a parish ministry. She volunteered at the Marianites’ Prompt Succor Nursing Home in Opelousas, never thinking she would work with the elderly and fell in love with it.
“She began volunteering in the activities office at our nursing home, and at end of that volunteer time, she asked to join us. ... We were not expecting that.”
Sister Kathleen went to Haiti as a Marianite 10 days after her vows, providing services not available to children there. She said the openness of the Marianites to mission work attracted her. She would recommend that others exploring religious life visit as many religious orders as they can to find the best fit. She thinks she is where God wants her to be.
“I believe that God has been walking with me throughout this journey and that God will continue to walk with me,” she said. “As a religious, I pray every day that I can learn to love as God loves. I desire to be a healing presence, to stand with those who are excluded, to be mindful of the needs in our world that are being unmet and in some way contribute to meeting those needs, as God calls me to as well as I can and in collaboration with others.”
The Marianites embrace their new sisters.
“Our founder Basil Moreau said, ‘Death, life and resurrection are always happening,’” Sister Ann said.” That’s what these people coming in our life is all about. God gives us the people we need to do the mission he is calling us to do.”
Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarion herald.org.