Sister Helene Sharp, CSC, keenly remembers the Sisters of the Holy Cross who taught at her high school in Utah in the 1960s.
“They were so happy. They were so real,” she recalls. “I remember one who worked in full habit in the garden. When transients would come by, she would give them sandwiches and something to drink.”
Her exposure to the sisters influenced Sister Helene’s eventual decision to join the order. Now, 50-some years later, as the Congregation’s United States vocation coordinator, she is helping other young women discern their calling.
“There is definitely a growing interest on the part of young women in the U.S. today,” says Sister Helene. “Young women are looking for something deeper in life—for community, prayer and spirituality, not so much the ministry part of a congregation, but how we live in community and the prayer aspect of it.”
The Congregation, for its part, seeks young Catholic women who share its Core Values of compassion, faith, prayer and community and who are open to being called and sent.
God sets the terms
On any given day, Sister Helene and her U.S. vocation team—Sister Patricia Anne Clossey, CSC, and Sister Mary Ellen Johnson, CSC—may receive questions from women who want to learn about living a consecrated life. One thing she tells them is that the consecrated life is a call from God. “God sets the terms,” she says, encouraging them to discern where and to what God is calling them.
Some inquirers are seeking a contemplative community, one devoted exclusively to prayer. “We are an apostolic community,” explains Sister Helene. “Our focus is on ministry but with a definite contemplative aspect.”
Interestingly, Sister Helene will sometimes encounter women who want to join an order that still wears the traditional habit.
Everyone has a vocation
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“I ask them, ‘How important is that to you?’ If they say it’s very important, I tell them perhaps we are not the right fit. I also explain that how we dress is our habit, which may include the silver heart with the image of Our Sorrowful Mother, our patroness, or a simple cross. The traditional habit does not define a sister. We don’t need it to tell people who we are.”
“I harass Father Moreau every day! And always thank him for sending us women who need to be here.”— Sister Helene Sharp, CSC, U.S. Vocation Coordinator
They see the vibrancy
The age range of the inquirers is wide, with most generally between 20 and 35. “There is definite interest coming from Generation Z,” she says, referring to the generation commonly defined as those born between the mid-to-late 1990s to the early 2010s. “We need the whole spectrum of generations. To have a healthy, growing community we need members of all ages who are willing to live, pray and work together. We need to share the wisdom from the elders with those aspiring to grow with us. Only then will there be continuity and life.”
As a vocation coordinator, in both the U.S. and previously in Ghana, Sister Helene sometimes encounters the misperception that “young women don’t want to live with old ladies.”
“The truth,” she says, “is that they do. They tell me, ‘I learn so much from the older sisters.’ They see the vibrancy of who we are and what we do.”
A good portion of the inquiries Sister Helene receives are from students and graduates of Saint Mary’s College and the University of Notre Dame, both in Notre Dame, Indiana. Currently, she, Sister Pat Clossey and Sister Nieves Lidia Ortiz Galván, CSC, engage in Zoom meetings with six Saint Mary’s College-affiliated women and others who have contacted the Congregation. In addition, they have been guiding regular Zoom prayer/discussion times with young women from the St. Adalbert Parish youth group in South Bend, Indiana. Sister Nieves, based in Guadalupe, Nuevo León, Mexico, had previously ministered at St. Adalbert and, when asked, was happily willing to join in on the discussions.
When a woman decides she wants to take the next step, she comes to the motherhouse as an aspirant to learn about the Congregation and the sisters. If she chooses to continue, she enters a discernment period in which she searches more deeply to see where God is calling her. Moving deeper into the process, she enters candidacy, which is the preparation time for the novitiate. After the two-year novitiate, the novice makes her initial profession, with the perpetual profession coming some years later.
Sharing in a vowed life
The National Religious Vocation Conference (NRVC) is a vibrant resource for Sister Helene. Last fall she participated in a Q&A Zoom conference on Generation Z with other NRVC members. “It was informative and life-giving!” she says. That event was followed a month later by the virtual NRVC Convocation attended by Sister Helene and five other Holy Cross sisters.
Reflecting on the energizing conference, Sister Helene recalls, “The newer members in the various communities of both women and men at the conference all talked about the richness that comes from having interactions and relationships with the older members. We came away from it with the understanding that there are women and men wanting to share in vowed, community life. There is a great need and sense of hope that we have definite roles to play in the current realities. The belief that forgiveness is a missing piece in people’s lives is a concern in the lives of many.”
Sister Helene also calls on the Congregation’s founder, Blessed Basil Anthony Moreau, to guide her in helping young women discern their call, just as he did 175 years ago. “I harass Father Moreau every day!” she laughs, “and always thank him for sending us women who need to be here.”
It is a joyful ministry for her, as she strives to help women—as she was once helped—discern the call of God in their lives.