A change in habit: Sister reflects on 60 years of religious life

| July 17, 2015 | 0 Comments
Sister Phyllis Tousignant, a Congregation of St. Joseph sister, is celebrating 60 years as a religious sister. She entered a St. Joseph community in 1955 at age 16 and took her final vows at 23. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Sister Phyllis Tousignant, a Congregation of St. Joseph sister, is celebrating 60 years as a religious sister. She entered a St. Joseph community in 1955 at age 16 and took her final vows at 23. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

A young woman walked down the aisle on her wedding day wondering if she was making the right decision. Getting closer to the altar, she saw a statue of the Infant of Prague, its message inviting her to choose her destiny: “If you love me, come follow me.” In a silent response she prayed, “I’m going to go ahead with this, but give me a daughter who’ll be a nun.” Before saying “I do,” she amended her request: “No, make it two.”

That woman who had thought of becoming a nun, even up until marriage, ultimately became the mother of two religious sisters of the Congregation of St. Joseph — Sister Shirley Tousignant and Sister Phyllis Tousignant, who’s celebrating her 60th jubilee this year.

When both decided to join a religious community — Sister Shirley entering in 1948, nearly seven years before Sister Phyllis — their mother, although supportive, bemoaned the fact that she was less likely to have grandchildren.

“But then my brother got married and had nine [children],” Sister Phyllis said.

The sisters have lived together in a St. Paul apartment for nearly 15 years. Both attended the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul and earned a degree in education. Sister Phyllis taught elementary school for 20 years and then transitioned to pastoral ministry in parishes, spending 14 years at her parish, St. Pascal Baylon in St. Paul. There, she welcomed newcomers, planned funerals and ministered to the sick and dying.

Sister Phyllis Tousignant (left), who took the name Sister Miriam Therese, and her sister, Sister Shirley Tousignant, who took the name Sister Elizabeth Marie, are pictured in the late 1950s, after Sister Phyllis took her first vows as a Sister of St. Joseph. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Sister Phyllis Tousignant (left), who took the name Sister Miriam Therese, and her sister, Sister Shirley Tousignant, who took the name Sister Elizabeth Marie, are pictured in the late 1950s, after Sister Phyllis took her first vows as a Sister of St. Joseph. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Sister Phyllis (left) and Sister Shirley reminisce about their vocation on the balcony of the St. Paul apartment they share. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Sister Phyllis (left) and Sister Shirley reminisce about their vocation on the balcony of the St. Paul apartment they share. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Sister Phyllis, 77, has been retired for eight years. In her 60 years as a religious sister, she said she has seen “drastic” changes for the good, such as how society views and treats women. Sister Shirley, 83, who’s been a religious sister for 67 years, said because education for women has been stressed since the 1950s, they’ve come to see religious life differently.

“You’ve got all these educated women — and I mean educated — coming together and really uniting in thought,” said Sister Shirley, who affectionately calls her sister “Phil.” “It’s just an amazing formation that’s taking place there. It’s energizing. You feel like you’re a little old lady, but you’re not dead. You still have your education, your mind. So, we’re very involved, but not as directly as we used to be” in the traditional sense.

“It hasn’t been boring,” Sister Phyllis said. “And then you had Vatican II in there.”

Sister Phyllis entered the community, a “cousin” to the larger, better known Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, at age 16 and took the name Sister Miriam Therese. The sisters wore a habit until the late 1960s.

“Not that I didn’t like the habit, but I never realized that it made some people uncomfortable. For some people, it made them comfortable. It depends,” Sister Phyllis said, adding that she feels like she can better relate to and be with people because she no longer wears the habit. “I’m a community person. I don’t stand out.”

Inspired by the sisters who taught them as youth near Detroit, Michigan, and their mother, a “woman of great faith,” Sister Phyllis and Sister Shirley trust they’ve spent all these years where they needed to be. Initially, Sister Shirley was attracted to the simple lifestyle of the Sisters of St. Joseph.

When Sister Phyllis felt the same call to religious life, she entered the community in Crookston to be with her older sister. Following her order’s charism of “love of neighbor,” “presence and availability” has been Sister Phyllis’ theme.

“I like to get up in the morning and say, ‘Let me go where I’m needed. Let me be of service to the people around me, no matter what that means,’” she said.

Being open to God’s will in her day means she can volunteer in the community when she’s asked to help, or learn more about becoming involved in efforts to combat human trafficking.

“When I look back on some of this, we had the choice time to be religious sisters because we know the old and the structured, and we’re very embedded in that,” said Sister Shirley.

“But we’ve come so far. The changes have pulled [us] into a more natural setting to relate to people.”

Sister Phyllis said she’s humbled by how people she serves are so comfortable with her and welcome her into their families.

“I look back and I think, I’m so grateful for all these years.”

Sister Phyllis has this advice for women discerning a religious vocation: “Take your time, pray about it and trust in God. Have faith that he’s there with you,” she said. “It’s his call, not yours.”

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Category: Featured, Jubilees