November 3, 2023

2023 Vocations Awareness Supplement

Oldenburg Franciscans discover vocations at a later age

Maureen Pisani, left, Franciscan Sister Kathleen Branham, Franciscan Sister Janette Marie Pruitt and Franciscan Sister Susan Marie Pliess pose by a statue of St. Francis of Assisi on Oct. 4, the feast of St. Francis, on the grounds of the Oldenburg Franciscan sisters in Oldenburg. Pisani is a postulant for the religious community. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Maureen Pisani, left, Franciscan Sister Kathleen Branham, Franciscan Sister Janette Marie Pruitt and Franciscan Sister Susan Marie Pliess pose by a statue of St. Francis of Assisi on Oct. 4, the feast of St. Francis, on the grounds of the Oldenburg Franciscan sisters in Oldenburg. Pisani is a postulant for the religious community. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

OLDENBURG—Franciscans have always done things a bit differently. It’s in their history. In the story of their founder, St. Francis of Assisi himself.

As the son of a rich cloth merchant in early 13th-century Italy, Francis had the destiny of raising his family’s glory to greater heights by becoming a chivalrous knight. It was a dream he fully embraced.

But that dream turned into a nightmare when, in a battle against neighboring Perugia, he was taken as a prisoner of war. While in captivity, Francis experienced a conversion and threw away his dreams of knightly glory.

But he went further, turning his back on his family’s material riches to become “the poor man of Assisi.” Although he has been beloved for centuries since by Catholics and

non-Catholics alike, Francis’ vocational choice shocked the townspeople of Assisi at the time. That’s not what the son of a rich cloth merchant was supposed to do.

Today, members of the community of Franciscan sisters in Oldenburg are following in their founders’ footsteps. Some of them have walked away from wealth like Francis did.

But four of them have broken the mold of vocational discernment in another way by embracing a call to religious life at an older age—when they were in their 40s or 50s.

Their newest postulant, Maureen Pisani, is 55. A native of Malta and a naturalized U.S. citizen, Pisani moved to Oldenburg earlier this year after selling a comfortable home in Santa Fe, N.M., and giving away many of her possessions to friends.

A successful hypnotherapist, Pisani had been driven to succeed, describing herself as a “typical type A personality.”

“I would set a goal, strive to achieve it and then go on to the next,” she said.

After earning a doctorate in her field in 2021, however, she was no longer satisfied making plans for the future.

“There was absolutely nothing inside,” she recalled. “Every time I thought of what was next, I would get this question, ‘So, are you going to say “Yes” to me now?’

“It stopped me in my tracks. Every step I took, it was, ‘Is this because Maureen wants it? Or is it because God is asking?’ ”

Once she opened herself to a possible religious vocation, Pisani embraced it much like she had driven herself to succeed in worldly pursuits. After meeting Franciscan Sister Kathleen Branham, the Oldenburg Franciscans’ vocations director, she visited the motherhouse in May 2022.

“I fell in love with the community,” Pisani said. “The sisters are tremendous.”

Among those sisters, she met three women who, like herself, joined the community at an older age.

One of them is the vocations director.

Sister Kathleen joined the Oldenburg Franciscans when she was 43, walking away from a successful career in the transportation industry, selling a big home, a lake house and a boat.

“All of my friends and family were saying I was crazy for giving everything up that I had worked my life for,” she said. “That’s when I was realizing that St. Francis was about living the vow of poverty and that everything was a gift given by God.

“Once I gained that insight, I realized that it was very easy to give up [my possessions] because they were only gifts given to me by God to begin with to enjoy. Now it was time for me to pass them on to others.”

While embracing a life of poverty after living a life of wealth as an adult was relatively easy for Sister Kathleen, living the vow of obedience was more of a challenge.

“I am a very independent woman,” she said. “The vow of obedience—I’m not going to lie—has been kind of tough for me off and on through my 23 years of religious life.

“But once I got it ingrained that it’s not about me, but it’s about we and what’s the common good of all of us, then I learned to let go of my independence and learned to become interdependent.”

Franciscan Sister Susan Marie Pliess, who oversees Pisani’s formation in the community, had already given up a career as an engineer long before becoming a Franciscan. Raised as a Catholic, she became an evangelical Christian as a young adult. That led her to serve as a missionary in China.

Eventually making her way back to the U.S. and the Catholic Church, Sister Susan Marie ultimately discerned in her 50s that God was calling her to religious life.

Coming to religious life after living an independent adult life for decades made some parts of her transition easier.

“You’ve been through lots in your life already,” Sister Susan Marie said. “You’ve had lots of challenges. Things are not as traumatic and dramatic. You can put your nose to the grindstone and get through the formation period seemingly at times just because of your life experience.

“That might be harder for a young person who’s maybe just starting to make their way.”

But, like Sister Kathleen, embracing the will of the community was challenging for Sister Susan Marie after being so used to following her own will alone for so many years.

“I had more freedom to act, especially in the area of social justice that you can’t necessarily do when you’re part of a community,” she said. “Your voice is now the voice of the community and not your own voice as an individual Catholic.”

When Franciscan Sister Janette Marie Pruitt entered the Oldenburg community in 2000, she was 51, a mother and grandmother.

Raised in Bay St. Louis, Miss., she had a desire as a child to become a religious sister, but saw racial barriers to that dream.

“Being an African-American, no one invited us to be sisters,” she said. “We were not allowed to be sisters in my time.”

She eventually married and was divorced, raising her children as a single mother. After her children were living on their own and she had received a declaration of nullity (annulment) regarding her previous marriage, the possibility of religious life re-emerged in her life.

“God handled me with a long-handled spoon,” Sister Janette Marie said.

Entering religious life at a later age has helped her be open to new possibilities, said Sister Janette Marie, who now makes Mass vestments.

“I’m still discovering what God has for me to do next,” she said. “There’s always something evolving.”

In her work in promoting vocations for her community, Sister Kathleen is seeing a growing interest among middle-aged adults in religious life.

“God calls people at different times in life, not just when you’re young,” she said. “The Franciscan way of life is open to all of God’s people. It’s a radical availability. Age really doesn’t have anything to do with it.”

(For more information on the Franciscan Sisters of Oldenburg, visit

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