WASHINGTON — When Liz Dodd was formally welcomed as a candidate for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace last November, she took part in the ceremony from her bedroom in London, with her housemates alongside her, while family members, friends and dozens of sisters from around the world joined virtually.
“Normally this ritual would be in person — but are we not blessed that despite COVID-19 and the large distances between us” so many can “take part in this step Liz is taking,” said Sister Coralie Muzzy, the congregation’s formation director at the start of the Nov. 5 ceremony, speaking from her congregation’s office in Bellevue, Washington.
After a sister said a prayer of blessing for Dodd as the sisters joined by raising their hands toward their computer screens, they individually unmuted themselves and warmly welcomed their new candidate.
Dodd, a 34-year-old writer and editor at The Tablet, an international Catholic news weekly based in London, formally stated her wish to discern joining the order, or to be an inquirer, on March 22 of last year, the day before England went into lockdown because of the pandemic.
Since that day, her interaction with the sisters, except for one weekend visit last summer, has been all online with weekly and biweekly Zoom gatherings for discussion or prayer and one for formation, which her housemates call “nun school.”
She hopes to enter the novitiate at the end of the summer where she will move in with a community for a two-year period.
Sister Josephine Garrett, who professed her final vows as a Sister of the Holy Family of Nazareth last November, said that just three weeks before her final vows ceremony, she had to find another venue for it because the college campus where the ceremony was going to take place suddenly closed due to the pandemic.
The sisters helped her find a new spot, St. Joseph Vietnamese Catholic Church in Grand Prairie, Texas.
Sister Garrett, who grew up Baptist and became a Catholic in 2005, is a school and community counselor and also works with her congregation’s vocation ministry. After graduating from the University of Dallas, she worked in the banking industry before switching gears and pursuing a vocation in 2011.
Looking back to her final vows ceremony, where the guest list was limited, everyone was masked and there couldn’t be a reception afterward, Sister Garrett had no complaints. “God gave me the graces,” she said.
“In the midst of all this craziness,” she added: “God was the same God; that’s my memory.”
Before the pandemic, Felician Sister Desiré Findlay’s calendar was completely full.
But when the vocation outreach minister came home from a retreat last March, all the scheduled conferences, college visits and other events she was planning to attend were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
She has used social media to show that women religious are not just one-dimensional, as well as to speak out on justice issues as a young Black woman, particularly last summer amid protests against racial inequities.
Encouraged by one of the young women she had been talking to about vocation discernment, Sister Desiré started regular video calls for the group where they could learn about what the sisters do, meet one another, pray and get resources to help think about what it would mean to be a woman religious.
“I feel hopeful because of the creativity we’ve been forced to find,” she said. But she also views the online chats as a stopgap until those discerning a vocation meet the sisters in person, which she said they need to do.
Other sisters also have found that women are still interested in vocations even in the midst of the pandemic.
Benedictine Brother Zachary Wilberding, vocation director at St. Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, Indiana, said he also switched to online work when the pandemic started by interviewing potential candidates virtually.
He said he was “kind of scratching my head for a while,” thinking about how men could visit the abbey safely during the pandemic until abbey officials worked out a plan for visitors to stay in another building, not even the usual guest house, and join the monks for prayer, some meals in silence and work periods with the novices.
“We couldn’t do it all digitally. They have to have contact with the monastery. They have to see the place. They have to have some contact with community members. They have to see what we’re like,” he said.
Ideally, Brother Zachary thinks those who feel they have a calling should really visit for several days.
“I tell people, I want there to be a point in this, where you maybe start to feel a little bored or like this is getting a little monotonous, because it does. That’s a reality. … Really part of what’s forming us as monks and as Christians is dealing with that. “
‘“We like it to be a little challenging for them,” he added, which might not always come through virtually.