By Sister Nancy Gilchriest, S.S.N.D.
“BECAUSE GOD first loved us, we respond in love, freely choosing to follow Christ.” And so begins the section on vowed life in You Are Sent, the constitution of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
I first read that sentence when I was an S.S.N.D. novice, but in reflecting on my vocation journey, I discover that my heart knew those words long before entering the convent.
Loved First by God
I grew up as the youngest of three girls in a very loving family in Brooklyn. Faith was a very important part of our family life. We attended Sunday Mass together, and our parents taught us to pray at different times of each day. More importantly, our parents taught us that God first loved us, and they modeled for us how we should respond in love.
Educated by the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) at St. Saviour elementary and high schools in Park Slope, I was always impressed by our SSND teachers and how they responded in love. I thought of entering the convent, but as I would tell people with a smile, “People don’t do that anymore.”
College brought me to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood, L.I., another group of remarkable women religious. There I discovered that “people still do that,” i.e., enter the convent, but I decided that I could love God by being the best teacher I could be.
An Intangible Grace
So after college, I became a high school math teacher, which I absolutely loved. Somehow, there was something missing. I began to pray more seriously about the possibility of becoming a nun. The more I prayed about it, the more I felt that this was the life choice that would make me happiest. I describe it as an intangible grace to know how I wanted to respond to God’s love.
Supported by the love of family and friends, I entered the SSNDs two years after I graduated from college.
Because God continues to love me, my teaching ministry continues to be a blessing, first in high school math classrooms and now in college teacher education classrooms. I have had the privilege to teach in schools in Massachusetts, Missouri, Maryland and New York, and to live in community with wonderful SSNDs.
Each teaching assignment has been amazing, teaching and learning from young people as they endeavor to reach the fullest of their potential. Interestingly enough, I am involved in that same endeavor. Perhaps what makes my teaching so fulfilling is because of the loving support I have received from the sisters with whom I have lived in community.
Covenant of Fidelity
The last line of that first paragraph about vowed life sums up my experience of religious life: “It is with a faithful God that we make our covenant of fidelity. Simultaneously, we bind ourselves to the members of the community, trusting in their faithfulness to support us.”
Most recently, I have been engaged in vocation work for the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Here again, our loving God has graced me with the privilege of journeying with young people as they discern their call to religious life.
Do people still do that?
Oh, how I smile when I respond, “Yes, people still do that,” because God is Love and we are blessed in our response!
Sister Nancy Gilchriest, Ed.D. is the director of the North American Vocation Team of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, and an associate professor of education at St. Joseph’s College.