October 31, 2014

Religious Vocations Supplement

Franciscan sister travels to China and back to arrive at her calling

By Jennifer Lindberg (Special to The Criterion)

Oldenburg Franciscan Sister Susan PleissHer desire to be a religious sister was almost an unrealized hope for Oldenburg Franciscan Sister Susan Pleiss.

She had left the Catholic faith of her family, moved to China, and then when she was getting closer to retirement age, she decided it was time to enter religious life.

The door was slammed firmly in her face. The reason: she was past 50 years of age, and she had cancer.

There wasn’t a religious order that truly thought she had a vocation—especially, since most religious orders won’t take women past the age of 40.

At one point, Sister Susan might have agreed with them.

Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, in a strong Catholic family, Sister Susan left her Catholic faith for 16 years, after attending college at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., where she graduated with a degree in civil engineering.

“Ohio is a more Catholic state, and this was the first time I was faced with questions about my faith which I couldn’t answer,” Sister Susan said. “It led me away from my faith to evangelical work, and it led me to China.”

In China, she taught English with a group of Christian teachers. She ended up being a supervisor and facing a heavy workload that was leading to burnout. It was also in this communist and atheistic country that God started getting her attention in a different way.

“God used China,” Sister Susan said. “I was a cradle Catholic, and the Chinese are very family oriented. I started to ask myself why I was doing this to my family, and why can’t I return to the faith of my family?” she said.

“In China, I could hear God asking me why I was not Catholic,” Sister Susan said. “It was distressing to my family, and I decided I can’t do this to them.”

Once she returned to America, she fell in love with the Catholic Church. She said she was raised in an era of confusion about the Church.

“My faith formation was not complete,” Sister Susan said. “My early years were the Baltimore Catechism, and then we went through the hippy Jesus and ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ It was confusing.”

There was one thing she was certain about.

“I was going to reclaim my call” to the religious life, said Sister Susan.

The call had been there all along, she said, “and I answered it in various ways.”

She had felt it when she was an engineer living in Seymour. She felt it in China. But at those times, she was an evangelical Christian, and religious life does not exist in that faith tradition.

After leaving China, she did not want a job with a lot of responsibility and was not looking to return to engineering.

“Someone asked me what I wanted to do and I said, ‘manual labor,’ ” Sister Susan said.

And that’s what she did, various jobs in horticulture or anything in the outdoors.

She ended up moving to Richmond, Va., because an evangelical friend lived there. Curiously, her evangelical friend had a lot of Catholic friends that led Sister Susan to a vibrant Catholic parish.

Sister Susan tried to discern with Benedictine communities. They all turned her down because of her age and a cancer diagnosis.

She almost gave up, and “decided to work out my call as a lay person,” she said, but then she got a huge surprise that literally came through a road sign announcing that the Sisters of St. Francis of Oldenburg, Ind., were nearby.

On her way to a Benedictine Monastery in Wisconsin, for a retreat, Sister Susan stopped in Batesville, Ind., for the night. She was still living in Richmond and traveling down the highway when she saw the sign about the Franciscan community close by.

She curiously asked the front desk clerk about the sisters, but was told nothing. The desk clerk was new, and was not Catholic. So Sister Susan looked them up on her computer once she got back to her room. She saw they had a “Come and See” weekend for women interested in religious life taking place on the dates she was to return from Wisconsin.

Sister Susan at first dismissed it, stating that she planned to continue onto another retreat in Chicago. It ended up being cancelled, and Sister Susan found herself going to Oldenburg for the discernment retreat.

“I asked to be a sister in discernment.” Sister Susan said. “But I was initially rejected because of my cancer diagnosis.”

It was another “no,” a common answer to her prayers.

When then-vocation director Franciscan Sister Joan Miller called to give the bad news, Sister Susan said, “I pushed back.”

She later learned that Sister Joan asked the community’s council to reconsider.

Sister Joan, now the parish life coordinator of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Shelby County, remembers the conversation with-then laywoman Pleiss well.

“What she said to me is that I didn’t know what is was like to feel a call and have everyone deny it,” Sister Joan said. “I thought about that.

“I will fight for something I think should be, and I really felt she had a vocation. The circumstances that she found us—it was God really sending her to us for a reason. I felt the council had made a mistake.”

Sister Joan went to the community’s leader and asked for the council to meet again, and they reconsidered.

“She is a gift to us,” said Sister Joan.

Sister Susan found out she was accepted on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 2009. She is also cancer free, stating she has few problems with it anymore. Sister Joan believes she was healed.

Now, Sister Susan ministers in Campton, Ky., to the poor in the Appalachian Mountains. She mainly helps with sacramental assistance and the administrative end of a food pantry the sisters operate there.

She finds that her main ministry, though, is being a witness to love and helping bring about reconciliation.

She ministers in a place where the people still have a “firm sense of place,” she said, and where roadside family cemeteries are cared for by succeeding generations.

Still, drug abuse and extreme poverty run rampant though the beauty of the Kentucky hills that sit near the Red River Gorge and Natural Bridge. It’s a place where pioneer history had come alive as Daniel Boone made his way through, and now the national forest there boasts his name.

It is here that people keep up family feuds and have a lot of Catholic prejudice about Mary and the saints, Sister Susan said. When the Oldenburg Franciscans first came to eastern Kentucky almost 25 years ago, no one would even rent to them because they were Catholic nuns, she said.

Yet, like Sister Susan, who found reconciliation with the Catholic Church and now has her vocation as a religious sister realized, she feels her main job is to help the people of Kentucky with their own kind of reconciliation.

“There are deep roots here,” she said. “There is a ministry for reconciliation here to help people let go and move on.

“I think that there is power in the religious life. People here watch how you live, and you have a powerful witness.”

(Jennifer Lindberg is a freelance writer for The Criterion. She lives in Shelby County. For more information about the Sisters of St. Francis in Oldenburg, log on to www.oldenburgfranciscans.org.)

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