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TELL CITY—A young woman knelt in prayer in the sacred grotto in Lourdes, France.
Her older sister had become a Benedictine sister, and some had suggested that she had a religious vocation as well.
But she was convinced that God was calling her to be a wife and mother.
She told the Lord in prayer that while she didn’t want to enter religious life, any children that she might have could be his own as religious or priests.
That young woman, Kay Voges of Tell City, accompanied on the pilgrimage by her brother, the now-deceased Father Bernard Voges, married Paul Etienne a few years later in 1957.
Over the next 12 years, they were blessed with six children.
As the years passed, that prayer that Kay had prayed so long ago in Lourdes started bearing fruit.
Three of her sons would eventually be ordained priests, and one daughter entered religious life.
Benedictine Sister Mary Nicolette Etienne entered Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove in 1986.
Father Paul Etienne, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis, was ordained in 1992. Father Bernard Etienne was ordained for the Evansville Diocese a year later, and Father Zachary Etienne was ordained in 2004 for the same diocese.
The Etienne’s two other children, Rick and Angela, eventually married and started families of their own.
“I don’t think that there’s a day that goes by that we don’t say, ‘Thank you, God,’ ” Kay said.
What was it in the way that Paul and Kay Etienne raised their children that led so many of them to discern calls to the priesthood and religious life?
According to the parents, it wasn’t anything special, at least at the time.
They sought to instill in their children good values. Prayer was also commonplace in their Tell City home.
So were priests, seminarians and religious. The children had an uncle who was a priest and an aunt who was a sister.
And when Kay and Paul began teaching religious education at St. Paul Parish in Tell City, where they are still members, seminarians from the nearby Saint Meinrad School of Theology who assisted in the catechetical program frequently came by their home to visit.
“They grew up knowing what the priesthood was all about,” Paul said.
But not only did they know what the priesthood was about, they knew priests—as people.
“Our home was a place for wayward priests and religious,” said Father Bernie with a laugh. “The priests and religious sisters and seminarians knew that if they just needed a place where they could kick off their shoes and have a meal and just be themselves and unwind, they could do that at our house. You never knew who was going to show up.”
As the Etienne children grew, they also had fun and got into trouble the way that a lot of kids do from time to time. And the couple says that is still the case when they come to visit.
“When those kids come home, they are absolutely kids again,” said Paul. “There would be nobody in the world that would think that they had any connection with religious life. You’d wonder what in the devil these nuts do.”
“They tweak each other,” Kay said. “They’re constantly tweaking each other just to get each other to look foolish.”
“When we all get together, we don’t have these little halo things around us,” said Father Bernie. “We’re a great family. But we can also be a tough family. You have to fight to hold your own in our family.”
Father Paul thinks the seedbed for his and his siblings’ vocations was his parents’ strong marriage and their strong love of their children.
“I think it has told me volumes about the importance of healthy, loving family life,” he said. “Because it was out of that environment of that home that all of us discovered God’s love for us, discovered our parents’ love for us, and discovered who we are as a person, and developed a self-esteem and courage to be ourselves and know that we were accepted and loved.”
Sister Nicolette agrees.
“I distinctly remember my parents telling me that we were a blessing from God,” she said. “We never really doubted that we were children of God entrusted to our parents’ care to be raised and nurtured and cared for and brought up in the Catholic faith.”
Out of this deep love for their children, Paul and Kay respected their children’s freedom when it came to vocational discernment. As a part of that, they neither closed nor forced open any doors to the priesthood or religious life.
“I always told our kids, ‘Hey, whatever you decide to do in this life, I’m going to support you to the full extent as long as it’s something legal and above board,’ ” said Paul. “We never put any pressure on them to go into the religious life or to be an insurance agent like I was. That was their choice.”
Rick has been married for 25 years and has three children. From his own experience of married life, his memories of his parents and his time in helping to promote priestly and religious vocations for the Evansville Diocese, he knows the power of a marriage on vocations.
“[Many] healthy priestly vocations come from healthy marriages,” he said. “They are the direct result of healthy marriages. The same skills that would be good for the priesthood also make for a good married life: pastoral kindness, love, gentleness.”
As Paul and Kay’s children entered their adult years in the 1980s, their own vocations started to emerge.
But it was only after her children chose to enter the seminary or religious life that Kay told them about the prayer she made at Lourdes so long ago.
“I never heard about it until the day that I was packing to leave for the seminary,” said Father Paul.
He was a college seminarian from 1984-86 and then became a seminarian again in 1988, studying at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.
On the same day that Paul left for Rome, Father Bernie left for Our Lady of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Ill., as a seminarian for the Evansville Diocese.
In 1986, Sister Nicolette entered Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove, where her aunt, Benedictine Sister Jeanne Voges, was and continues to be a member. Sister Nicolette professed her final vows in 1991.
Father Zach’s vocation came a little later. He was ordained for the Evansville Diocese in 2004.
“When I went to the seminary, I was hoping to not become a priest,” he said. “I was hoping to get clarification so that I could tell the little ladies that said I’d be a good priest that I had discerned it, but that wasn’t the case.
“Instead, over the years at Mundelein, I became more and more open to the possibility.”
When Father Zach was considering becoming a seminarian, he put his older brothers, Father Bernie and Father Paul, in an interesting position. Both were vocations directors: the former for the Evansville Diocese, the latter for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
“There was a bidding war, and I was far more persuasive than Paul ever was and that’s why Zach ended up in Evansville,” Father Bernie said with a laugh. “I think that’s why the archbishop removed him from the job—because he couldn’t recruit his own brother.”
Actually, Father Paul continues to be involved in forming future priests as the vice-rector of Bishop Simon Bruté College Seminary in Indianapolis.
But he and Father Bernie weren’t the only vocations directors in the family. Sister Nicolette serves in that capacity for her community.
“I always joke about it, and say that I’ve joined the family business,” she said.
The three Etiennes, who have been or are currently vocations directors, offered advice for parents to help their children be open to a priestly or religious calling.
“Let the family be the priority,” said Father Paul. “I think today there are just so many other distractions and activities. And make prayer a part of the practice [of the faith] in the home. Make that regular meal as a family a priority. There is just so much that that says.”
“It seems like there are a lot of parents who just don’t support it,” said Sister Nicolette. “I would tell [them] to just really be open if their children feel like they’re being called, and to encourage them to explore it and not be afraid of it.”
“If your young child says that they’re thinking about being a priest or being a nun, don’t discourage that,” said Father Bernie. “Ask them to talk about that. Be open to the possibilities. And have them pray about it.” †