October 31, 2014

Religious Vocations Supplement

Beech Grove Benedictine sisters help each other to seek God

Benedictine sisters Mary Nicolette Etienne, left, and Heather Jean Foltz, right, pray with fellow members of Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove in the community’s chapel. Both sisters seek God in the life that they share with other Benedictine sisters living in community. (Photo by Katie Chrisman)

Benedictine sisters Mary Nicolette Etienne, left, and Heather Jean Foltz, right, pray with fellow members of Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove in the community’s chapel. Both sisters seek God in the life that they share with other Benedictine sisters living in community. (Photo by Katie Chrisman)

By Katie Chrisman (Special to The Criterion)

Religious life in a monastery is a potpourri of personalities. The young and elderly and those in between live, pray and work together.

They commit themselves to serving God and helping one another on the path of holiness. Although monastic life has changed over the centuries, one thing remains the same: God continues to call people to this way of life.

Two members of Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove answered this call to monastic life decades apart. Benedictine Sister Mary Nicolette Etienne, 52, and Benedictine Sister Heather Jean Foltz, 31, have different backgrounds. Despite their differences, God called each one just the same.

Sister Nicolette, the fourth of six children raised in a “close-knit” family in Tell City, was always close to the Church. She considered the priests and religious sisters at her home parish role models and her heroes.

“I loved them. They helped form who I am today,” she said.

God and the St. Paul Parish in Tell City were always at the heart of her family’s life. Three of her brothers ended up being ordained priests, including Bishop Paul D. Etienne of Cheyenne, Wyo.

She admits she first had thoughts of religious life in the fifth grade, and later had a profound spiritual moment on her senior retreat in 1980, but it wasn’t until she completed her master’s degree in her early 20s that she began to seriously discern her vocation.

She was frequently around Benedictine sisters. Her aunt, Benedictine Sister Jeanne Voges, is a member of Our Lady of Grace.

Sister Nicolette knew she wanted to be a teacher—married or religious. “I really didn’t care which one; whatever God wanted.”

While teaching at St. Anthony School in Clarksville, she found herself around Benedictine sisters who invited her to share meals with them.

She entered Our Lady of Grace in July 1986 as a postulant, and 28 years later she remains. She professed temporary vows in 1988 and final vows in 1991.

“I’ve gone through phases. It took me awhile to adjust.”

Sister Nicolette recalls a profound period of time in her life, many years after entering the community. “For a long time, I felt like I was on the periphery, looking in at this community.”

It wasn’t until 1997 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer that her life in the monastery began to change. She had a double mastectomy and four rounds of chemotherapy.

“My sisters treated me like a queen. They were so supportive and loving,” she explained. “It was during those six months that I went from being on the periphery looking at my sisters to being in the heart of the community. It took 11 years.”

Now, 17 years later, she says that she is now at the most peaceful point of her monastic life.

Sister Heather answered her call more recently. The middle child of three girls, she grew up in Dyer, Ind., in the Gary Diocese as a United Methodist in a heavily Catholic area. She occasionally attended Mass with friends.

“I really felt drawn to the liturgy of the Catholic Church even from a young age,” she said. “It was so different than what I was growing up with.”

She attended the University of Indianapolis, and in her final two years lived in an intentional ecumenical Christian community. There, she lived, prayed, did service projects and spent social time with her roommates. “I really felt drawn to that way of life, but I wasn’t really sure how that would all play out.”

Sister Heather first encountered the Sisters of St. Benedict while in college. Benedictine Sister Jennifer Mechtild Horner was one of the chaplains on the campus. She invited her to prayer at Our Lady of Grace, and later to go with the sisters on a Lenten service project to a women’s prison.

In her first time in prayer with the sisters, she was drawn to the chanting of the psalms, and was struck by the sisters gathered in communal prayer.

“They brought their intentions to God from their specific ministries. It was just so beautiful to see that; that their life was centered in common prayer and the ministry kind of flowed out of that.”

Sister Heather entered the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults after graduating from college. Interestingly, it was Sister Nicolette who was the community’s vocation director at the time and, as Sister Heather describes, was the one who “journeyed with me when I started seriously discerning.”

In her decision to enter Our Lady of Grace, the important things were a life of prayer and living in community. Specifically, she said she felt called to live intergenerationally.

“There’s so much we can learn from people who have lived during a different time period, who have experienced different things in life,” she said.

Sister Heather entered Our Lady of Grace Monastery as a postulant in 2009 and professed temporary vows in 2012. She admits religious life can have surprises. Now serving as the director of social services at St. Paul Hermitage in Beech Grove, she said, “I had never even dreamed of working with the elderly, but it’s through those first few years of living here that other people saw that gift within me.”

Her ministry is strengthened by the sisters in the community. “Community life and prayer is a huge support,” she said. “I think I have an added benefit because there are other sisters [who] work in ministry with me, and so we support one another in our ministry.”

Sister Nicolette echoes those sentiments. An educator for 30 years, Sister Nicolette now teaches religion at Most Holy Name of Jesus School in Beech Grove.

“I feel like my ministry as a teacher is so much better because of the wisdom and influence of my sisters here,” she said.

Both women relish their time among their fellow sisters.

“We’re all here for the exact same reason, and that’s to seek God and to obtain the ultimate goal of heaven,” Sister Nicolette said. “We all approach it in our own personalities.”

Of the younger sisters in the community, she notes how committed they are to their vocation. “They’re serious about it, they’re joyful about it. I never hear them complain,” she said.

Likewise, Sister Heather points out how much she has to learn from those in the community who have decades more experience in the monastery, whom she calls “wisdom figures.”

“There’s always someone who’s been where you’ve been,” she said.

Whether the women answered the call half a century ago or more or in the 21st century, both sisters agree that the call to religious life is the same from their oldest sister—at age 102—to their newest sister. “God calls us in the way that we’re going to hear and listen to it,” Sister Heather said.

They say it may look different in today’s modern world, but “God has not stopped calling people,” Sister Nicolette said.

“I think the call is the same—that call to seek God with everything you are,” said Sister Heather.

(Katie Chrisman is a freelance writer for The Criterion. She lives in Greenwood. For more information about Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove, log on to www.benedictine.com.)

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