Volunteer program helps girls discern vocation

BOSTON -- For Emily and Johanna Holmquist, a new volunteer program provides a great opportunity to learn what life is really like inside a convent.

They spend Saturday mornings cooking and cleaning at St. Ann’s House, a community of the Sisters of St. Benedict Center in Still River.

“I think it’s a wonderful place to be when you’re a teenage girl, said their mother, Susan Holmquist. “They learn that the sisters are real, normal people, and it doesn’t make a vocation seem so far away.”

Sister Margaret Mary Baravella, MICM, directs the new volunteer project at St. Ann’s House. She said the young help is greatly appreciated, and she also looks at the program with a long-term view of spurring vocations. The current volunteers range in age from 10 to 16.

“They’re helping us out,” she said. “It’s just in its infancy,” she said of the volunteer program.

Emily, 13, and Johanna, 11, live in Sterling. They are part of a larger team of girls who give of their time at the convent. Many of these girls already know one another, either because they attend Mass at St. Ann’s House or they belong to a local homeschool group.

“Working with them, they (the girls) see that they laugh and have fun, and they still have this rich spiritual life as well,” said Holmquist. “A rich spiritual life doesn’t have to be boring or dour.”

One sister spoke with the girls about her own life and what it was like growing up with many siblings, said Holmquist. Another sister played a card game with the girls, she added.

Holmquist arranges the schedule so that each girl visits the convent every few weeks. “I switched people around so they could be with their friends,” she explained.

Sterling resident Mariana Shnaider, 16, and some of her friends work together. “I think it’s important for her to be in touch with nuns,” said Mariana’s mother, Patricia Shnaider.

Shnaider wants her daughter to learn about convent life, even if she decides it’s not for her. “For me, that’s part of the reason for sending her,” she explained.

Emily Kuefler, 12, lives in Stow. She periodically cleans and bakes at St. Ann’s House. “I just liked it,” she said of her time at the convent.

The girls help out doing “the basic things you’d do around any house on a Saturday,” said Sister Margaret Mary. She said she expects they’ll help in the large vegetable garden once the weather warms and “in the summer we’ll be doing a lot of outdoor things.”

Sister Margaret Mary, 49, the convent’s youngest member, joined 26 years ago. Lately, she said, the Sisters of St. Benedict Center have become more pro-active in vocation recruitment.

For this reason, they sponsor days of recollection for high school age and older girls. Some of these events are held at the convent, which sits on 63 hillside acres with a sweeping view of Mt. Wachusett to the west.

The sisters have also recently constructed a Web site www.sistersofstbenedictcenter.org with the similar aim of attracting potential postulants.

The Web site’s home page shows a picture of a sister in a black habit praying in the convent chapel, where each day a Tridentine Mass is offered.

Also, on the Web site are numerous pictures of girls attending days of recollection. Other community events, such as a May procession and crowning of Our Blessed Mother, give a glimpse into a more traditional Catholic life maintained at the convent.

The order, founded 50 years ago, is a canonically recognized religious congregation in communion with Rome. Its primary mission is to teach, and to write and publish books and materials on Catholic doctrine. The sisters frequently fly to other states on book-selling trips.

“I’m hoping to find vocations who would like to help out with publishing,” said Sister Margaret Mary, who added that convent life is a mix of prayer, teaching, writing and farming.

It was this very formula that attracted her to St. Ann’s House. She started searching for a religious order while she was in her early 20s. But, nearly all of them, she found, were promoting only “the social gospel.”

“For me, the social gospel was fine, but it wasn’t deep enough,” she explained. What was missing, she said, was the preservation of the Catholic faith, and a commitment to spreading it.

“Out of truth flows charity,” she said. “This order has done a good job of preserving Catholic doctrine.

“We do publish and sell our books,” she said, “but we live a monastic life as well.”

Sister Margaret Mary said her call to religious life was strong and clear. At age eight, the Boston native pledged herself to God, after her father told her, one day leaving Mass, that “the best thing you can give God is yourself.”

So she offered herself to God, although “not even really comprehending” the implications, she said.

It was this early promise, she believes, that led her to the convent. “He does take you at your word, and he will give you the graces to pursue and persevere in your vocation,” she explained.

Sister Margaret Mary knows that most of the young ladies she meets will not enter the convent. “There are plenty of girls who are going to have vocations to the married life,” she said.

But, she said, for the ones who might have a vocation, the volunteer work and the days of recollection, can help them discern.

Growing up, Holmquist, now a married mother of six, also spent Saturday mornings cleaning a convent for another group of sisters. Consequently, she considered religious life.

“The time that I spent with the sisters did make me think about a vocation,” she stated. “I considered that prayerfully and I spoke to some nuns about it.”

Now, she wants her own daughters to have the same opportunity. “Without exposure, the girls don’t know what a vocation is,” said Holmquist.