October 30, 2020

2020 Vocations Awareness Supplement

Sister gives up her fight with God and finds the joy of seeking ‘the more’ in life

As the vocation director of the Franciscan Sisters of Oldenburg, Franciscan Sister Kathleen Branham, left, works to draw women to the wonderful life she has known as a religious sister. Here, she poses for a picture with Franciscan Sister Olga Wittekind and Franciscan Brother Joseph Bach during a Vocation Fair in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Submitted photo)

As the vocation director of the Franciscan Sisters of Oldenburg, Franciscan Sister Kathleen Branham, left, works to draw women to the wonderful life she has known as a religious sister. Here, she poses for a picture with Franciscan Sister Olga Wittekind and Franciscan Brother Joseph Bach during a Vocation Fair in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Just 5 years old at the time, Kathleen Branham was hemorrhaging so badly that a doctor told her parents to call a priest because she wouldn’t survive.

Yet as the priest anointed her forehead, the little girl had a comforting feeling deep in her heart.

“I knew—I knew—I would be OK,” she says now, 59 years later. “Whether it was the Holy Spirit, I’m not sure. I just knew I would be OK.”

She was also convinced about another future prospect for her life during that time in 1961 when she was rushed to a hospital to take out her spleen, which had become enlarged because of a blood disorder.

The religious sisters who helped her during her stay in the hospital stood out to her, partly because they had an air of mystery around them in their habits and mostly because “they were so happy and joyful.”

They left such an impression that she decided then she would become a religious sister one day. And that belief intensified during the 12 years of her Catholic education in Indianapolis under the guidance of the Franciscan sisters of Oldenburg.

“When I was in the first grade, I told my family I was going to be a sister,” she says. “But life got in the way.”

In fact, nearly 40 years passed before she finally embraced that childhood call to vocation. And the reality of Sister Kathleen’s later-in-life commitment reflects the choice made by several women who are now members of the Oldenburg Franciscan community.

“I did not want to fight God anymore,” she says.

‘It’s time to come home’

Her fight with God began shortly after she graduated from Father Thomas Scecina Memorial High School in Indianapolis in 1974, after spending the first three years of her secondary education at the former St. Mary’s Academy. also located in the city.

“When I got to be 19, 20, I put God on the back burner to figure out who I was. I moved to Evansville because I wanted my independence. Then I thought, ‘Maybe I should get married and have children.’ I was in and out of relationships, but I never made the commitment.”

She did make a lot of money during the next two decades, from the late 1970s to the late 1990s.

“I had an awesome-paying job as an operations manager in the transportation industry,” she says. “I filled my life with material possessions. I had a five-bedroom home, just for me. I had a sports car—a Mustang—and a place on the lake. And a boat.”

Yet in the midst of this time, even when she felt she was fighting God, she still believed he was talking to her. Finally, she listened.

“God said, ‘I have better plans for you.’ I knew something was missing. I was in my ‘30s when my parents died. I knew I didn’t want to miss out on the ‘What if?’ in life. I went back to church. That’s when I realized I was filling my life with material possessions instead of filling my life with God.

“God was the big part missing in my life. I felt God was saying, ‘It’s time to come home.’ ”

‘Seeking the more in life’

When she thinks of “home,” Sister Kathleen remembers her days in Catholic grade schools and high schools when students boarded a bus for Oldenburg for the funeral of a Franciscan sister who had been their teacher.

“Oldenburg has always felt like home,” she says.

She entered the Franciscan community there in 2000 at the age of 43, believing it’s where God wanted her to be, knowing it’s where she wanted and needed to be, remembering it’s where a 5-year-old girl once dreamed she would eventually be.

“The moment I drove through the gates of Oldenburg, I just felt like [I was] home. I’ve been here 20 years now, and I’m not going anywhere.

“I’m the vocations director now. Our last six women who entered our community were older—anywhere between 40 and 50 when they entered. They’re very gifted women. A lot of them felt the same thing I did. They were seeking the more in life.”

At the same time, she’s looking forward to the arrival of a young woman in her 20s who is expected to enter the community next spring.

“More and more young women are seeking religious life once again,” she says. “We welcome them with open arms. In the past year, I responded to over 30 requests regarding religious life and 90% were in their 20s.”

‘When we laugh, we laugh hard’

As vocations director, Sister Kathleen makes sure that women get the “behind-the-scenes” look at the Franciscan community when they come to Oldenburg to discern a possible calling to religious life.

“I want them to see 100 percent of us,” she says. She also shares her experience.

“The call to serve God is not always an easy one, but it is a joyful one,” she says. “These women are the most caring, most supporting group of women I’ve ever been around in my life.

“Like anything, there are times that can be challenging. Our vows of poverty, chastity and obedience call us to go outside of ourselves for what’s in the best interests of the community. When we pray, we pray hard. When we laugh, we laugh hard. When we’re challenged, we’re there for each other. Being Franciscan, we’re also the voice for a lot of voiceless people out there.”

During her time in the Franciscan community, Sister Kathleen has served as a social worker, working with children in the foster care system and with children who have been abused and neglected.

Other sisters in the community have traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border to serve people hoping to start a new life in America.

Franciscan sisters impact lives, she says. Sister Kathleen knows the impact they have on her life.

“I feel like I‘ve grown up in the community here, even coming in at 43. We’re individual, but we’re interconnected. I’ve never felt so much love, strength and support. That brings us closer to God.”
 

(For more information about the Congregation of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis in Oldenburg, visit www.oldenburgfranciscans.org.)

 

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