Woman going from academia to religious life
SCRANTON, Pa. (AP) — Elizabeth McGill spent 13 years navigating academia, eventually earning a doctorate in human development from Marywood University in 2015.
The following year, she purchased her first home in Dunmore — a modest two-story house with blue-gray siding and a large, white-framed window overlooking the street.
She spent 4½ years at the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine as an assistant professor and regional education specialist, where she worked on the curriculum for third-year medical students and partnered with admissions to interview candidates. She traveled, helped coach the Marywood women’s soccer team, skied, played golf and worked out.
Yet, despite all her accomplishments, the 34-year-old felt her greater sense of purpose was missing.
“The only way to really describe it is you have to do what makes your heart come alive,” McGill said. “I think everyone is searching to leave their mark or to do something in this world, and for me, that something would be with the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.”
After more than a year of careful deliberation, McGill began the lengthy process of joining the Congregation of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary on March 20.
The number of women in religious life declined by around 72 percent from 1970 to 2017, dropping from nearly 161,000 to about 45,600, according to statistics gathered by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. A surge of men and women joined religious orders after World War II, with thousands joining each year in the 1940s and 1950s, said CARA senior research associate Mary Gautier, Ph.D.
Now, only about 200 people join orders each year.
“They are smaller in number but no less fervent and dedicated than the large numbers that were entering 60 years ago,” Gautier said.
To facilitate her IHM candidacy, McGill sold her home in March and left her job at the medical college.
As a candidate, she’ll learn about spirituality, prayer and what it means to live as an IHM sister, said Sister Mary Elaine Anderson, I.H.M., director of formation. After she completes her candidacy in the coming months, she will enter the two-year novitiate phase.
During that phase, she’ll spend a year strengthening her relationship with God and learning how to pray more deeply, followed by another year of determining how she will fit into the IHM community, Anderson said. Her spiritual journey will continue when she takes temporary vows, or temporary professions, of chastity, poverty and obedience.
Finally, she will make a lifelong commitment to the IHM when she takes a final profession of vows and is incorporated into the congregation, Anderson said.
The entire process could take six years or more.
“You can serve God and others without joining a congregation,” McGill said. “You don’t have to join religious life to do either of those things, but for me, that’s where I find greater purpose and meaning.”
A sister in the making
Religious life first beckoned to McGill when she was a senior at Notre Dame High School, a parochial school run by the Sisters of Mercy in her hometown of Elmira, New York.
Raised in a Catholic household, religious life played a prominent role in her upbringing. She had family and friends who joined religious orders, and she credits her parents, Richard and Helen McGill, for fostering an environment where she felt free to choose her own future.
Serving the community is a core tenet of the IHM congregation, and from a young age, McGill’s parents taught her the importance of helping others.
“My parents always found ways that they themselves and us as a family could get involved serving those in most need,” she said.
Her path toward spirituality and service began on a spring day in 2002 when she waited after math class to talk to her teacher, a member of the Sisters of Mercy.
The varsity athlete asked one simple question that put her future in religious life into perspective.
“I said, ‘Sister, I think I’m feeling a draw to religious life. Can you tell me more about it?’” McGill recalled.
The sister gave her information on the Sisters of Mercy and said, “You’re going to college in four months. If, when you’re finished with college, you’re still thinking about it, then you know it’s something true,” McGill said.
That fall, McGill started her undergraduate career at Marywood University, where the IHM sisters opened her eyes to what religious life really could be.
Finding the right congregation
Although religious life appealed to her, McGill believed living in a congregation meant a life of work and prayer. The IHM sisters at Marywood revealed to her just how wrong her assumption was.
“I found that their life is full of joy, friendship, laughter, and that they very much do live life with the same passion as any other person in the community, enjoying the same things that each of us do,” she said.
After getting to know the sisters, she realized she found her home.
“I always had an inclination to religious life . but I never felt like there was a congregation that necessarily fit,” McGill said. “Then when I met the IHM sisters. Many of them became mentors and professors and even friends. I felt a sense of belonging.”
When she graduated from Marywood with a bachelor’s degree in history, she was still mulling over religious life, but she immediately began graduate school at St. John’s University in Queens, New York.
Following her graduation from St. John’s with a master’s degree in American history, McGill worked for a year and applied to law schools and schools for her doctorate. Several schools accepted her, but something drew her back to her Scranton alma mater.
So, she enrolled at Marywood University for her doctorate and landed a job at Geisinger’s medical school.
As she worked toward her degree, she continued to think about religious life, but she wasn’t ready to make the lifetime commitment.
“It was something that would pop in my head, and I would think about it but always come up with reasons why it wouldn’t fit or wouldn’t work,” she said.
It wasn’t until she completed her degree, bought her house and started to feel settled that she realized her ambition could become reality.
“I actually took the time to listen to the desires in my heart . and I think that when I sat with it and prayed with it, I immediately felt that it was something where I was being called,” she said.
She carefully weighed the pros and cons, mentally preparing herself for what was to come.
She contacted the congregation’s director of vocations, Sister Mindy Welding, I.H.M., and when she was ready, she entered the candidacy at 33 years old. Of the Scranton IHM’s 323 sisters and two others working toward joining the order as sisters, McGill, the only candidate, is the youngest.
“When you fall in love, that’s it. You know you’ve fallen in love,” Welding said, explaining why women join religious orders. “Some people have fallen in love with a career. Some people have fallen in love with a partner, and some people have fallen in love with God.”
Becoming a sister
After becoming a candidate, McGill moved into a convent with a handful of IHM sisters. While she anticipated the changes religious life would bring, she admits nothing could prepare her for how different her life would be.
Her day begins at 6:30 a.m., when the sisters gather for a group prayer before getting ready for the day and heading out to their work or ministries. McGill volunteers at St. Joseph’s Center and the Friends of the Poor, and she works part time at Marywood as the special assistant to the vice president for enrollment services and student success, lending her services wherever the university needs her.
From adjusting to sharing a home with five women to giving up a rewarding career to devote her life to serving God and others, McGill described her new lifestyle as balancing change and gratitude. She is working to adapt to her new way of life while being gracious for the opportunity.
“Change for anyone can be challenging, and so this process has been full of many changes — life changes — changes where I’m living, changes in how I spend my time ... changes in who I know, and so I think the challenge lies in fully embracing those changes,” she said.
The sisters keep an eye on what she needs and how they can help her transition into her new lifestyle, McGill said.
“They have been so hospitable and welcoming,” she said.
By living with sisters, McGill said she witnesses first-hand how they embody the true spirit of an IHM sister by embracing the organization’s way of life.
“Candidacy has definitely been a very enriching process this far,” she said. “I’ve gotten ... to know the IHM sisters at a deeper level to understand how they live their community and vowed life and how they serve those in the community. Without living within community, you can never really fully understand it.”
When McGill prepared to enter religious life, she wondered about her hobbies — could she still golf, ski, travel?
The answer turned out to be yes, she said.
Though she can’t just pack her bags and travel the world, the IHM provides travel opportunities on missions trips, and she is still able to golf, ski, visit her Crossfit gym and do anything else she enjoys.
She even found a new golf partner with a sister in the congregation.
“I will continue to live that same full life, but with a more sense of passion and purpose, continuing to do all the same things that I’ve been doing before but in a different way,” she said.
With an aging population of religious sisters across the country, the local IHM has sisters who have dedicated their entire lives to the congregation, serving for 60, 70 and even 80 years, Anderson said.
“When you’ve given your life to something and then see someone else want to do that and carry on the whole legacy and the mission, it’s touching,” she said. “Part of our charism, which means our way of being as IHMs, is we are welcoming, we are joyful, and it’s made us even more joyful just to actually have a woman who wants to come in at this time of her life.”
Looking toward the future, McGill doesn’t know where she’ll be working, whether it’s Scranton or overseas, or what her ministry will be. She just knows she wants to carry on the legacy built by those who preceded her.
“All of the intelligent and courageous women — sisters before me — really built the foundation,” she said. “I’m honored to continue their works for peace and justice and service to all members of the community. I pray that I will be able to do that.”
Religious life ‘undergoing transformation’
Despite a 72 percent drop from 1970 to 2017 in the number of religious sisters in the nation, women are still entering religious life.
Though congregations no longer get 50 women joining at a time, the local IHM has added nine women in the past decade — six who entered as candidates and three who entered from other congregations.
“It’s back to where it was before,” said IHM Director of Vocations Sister Mindy Welding, I.H.M. “There isn’t that surge of numbers, and maybe it was never meant to be that surge of numbers that it was.”
In the first half of the 20th century, if women wanted to participate in the church, entering religious life was one of their only options, said Welding. Women also had few options when they graduated high school, she said.
Now, with significantly more alternatives, women still are entering religious life “in very good numbers,” she said, explaining what continues to draw women to religious life. “It’s like your heart has this desire, and it’s filled with a flame or fire that you can’t suppress.”
After World War II, there was a surge of men and women who entered religious life, said Mary Gautier, Ph.D., senior research associate at Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Now, those religious brothers and sisters who joined in large numbers are starting to die off. Religious brothers dropped about 66 percent, from 11,623 in 1970, to 4,007 in 2017 while religious sisters declined 72 percent from 160,931 to 45,605.
“We see it as a decline, but if you looked at the longer term trends, go back to the beginning of the 20th century and the numbers were very, very small. It was kind of a bubble there,” Gautier said.
In 2009, CARA conducted a study on the ages of those in religious life, finding that the average age for men was 43 and the average age for women was 39. However, the median age for women was around 70, according to CARA numbers.
Most notably, the 2009 study found that there were more women over 90 years old than there were under 60.
IHM candidates range in age from their early- to mid-20s up to 50 years old, Welding said.
The IHM in Scranton has 323 finally professed sisters, one temporary professed sister, one novice and one candidate, Welding said.
“Religious life isn’t dying,” she said. “It’s undergoing a transformation.”
— FRANK WILKES LESNEFSKY
Joining the IHM
When a woman decides to join the IHM, she undergoes a lengthy process to ensure she is prepared to make a lifelong commitment to serve with the congregation:
Affiliate phase: Typically lasts one to two years. Interested woman is mentored in the IHM community and has a dialogue about why she wants to join the IHM.
Candidacy phase: Takes nine months to two years. Introduction and integration into prayer life, spirituality, community life, history, customs and the mission of the IHM. Lives and prays in community with sisters.
Novitiate phase: Takes two years — one year of canonical novitiate and one year of apostolic novitiate. Canonical focuses on self-awareness, strengthening the novice’s relationship with God and learning how to pray more deeply; novice takes “sister” before her name. Apostolic looks at how a novice will fit into the congregation; often women will spend several months in a ministry.
Temporary vows or temporary profession: Takes three to six years, or up to nine years with permission. Vows of obedience, chastity and poverty. Considered a member of the IHM community after temporary vows. Time spent on missions, balancing prayer, community life, ministry and leisure.
Final profession or profession of perpetual vows: Lifelong commitment to serve in the IHM congregation. Must ensure women are ready for the serious commitment to the organization. New responsibilities include ability to vote on IHM leadership.
— FRANK WILKES LESNEFSKY
Information from: The Times-Tribune, http://thetimes-tribune.com/