‘In love with God’: Sister reflects on a life of service

| June 6, 2012 | 0 Comments

School Sister of Notre Dame Stephanie Spandl is the social services program manager at MORE, a St. Paul organization that serves immigrants and refugees. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Gone are the days when all religious sisters donned habits. But make no mistake: They are still among us — running hospitals, serving the poor, and working in just about any field imaginable.

Wearing a flowery purple cardigan and khakis, Sister Stephanie Spandl greeted visitors last Wednesday at the English-language school where she is a social worker. A silver cross pinned to her sweater was about the only outward sign of her vocation. What sets her apart is the way she lives her life for God.

At MORE, a St. Paul organization that serves immigrants and refugees, the School Sister of Notre Dame generally introduces herself simply as Stephanie.

Eventually, though, her vocation comes up in conversation.

“Sometimes there are a few questions,” she said about people’s reactions. “Others just say, ‘OK.’” Either way, she sees it as an opportunity to evangelize.

Discerning the call

Sister Stephanie, 47, first heard God’s whisper as a child, she said. She still has the journals she kept in junior high where she weighed the pros and cons of married and religious life. But it wasn’t until about 10 years later that she experienced that “a-ha” moment when God’s calling crystalized.

Religious life had been on her mind, but she was afraid to tell anyone. Finally, she confided in a friend. By the end of their conversation, she said, she knew the direction her life would take.

“There are certain things that touch you so deep emotionally that they’re seared into your memory. This was one of those times,” Sister Stephanie said. “There was a peace and a sense of intimacy with God. . . .” She likened the experience to what a person might feel after a marriage proposal.

After visiting several religious communities, Sister Stephanie joined the School Sisters of Notre Dame at age 26. She said she was drawn to the order because of its international membership, its focus on education and unity, and the sisters’ apparent joy when they were together.

On the day she professed her final vows, Sister Stephanie experienced something she hadn’t thought possible, she said. “I felt in love with God like I might feel in love with a person.”

On Aug. 5, 2000, she became a bride of Christ.

Poverty, chastity, obedience

Sister Stephanie admits that the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience present both challenges and blessings.

The vow of poverty means that all of her income goes to her congregation. Every year she submits a budget to cover her living expenses.

“One of the underpinnings of the vow of poverty is really understanding that all is given to us by God, and so to live with more open hands,” she said.

As for chastity: “Sometimes I have felt it would be really nice to have a spouse, to have someone to love exclusively in that way, to share both the emotional intimacy and the physical intimacy that would come with that.”

Even more difficult, she added, becoming a sister meant consciously deciding never to have children.

“So there is a giving up of those things that are really natural to the human state and are beautiful to the human state,” she said. “I think that’s why one only can do that when one feels that call because there’s something about the passion or the depth of that call that says this is stronger, this pull is stronger than that pull.”

And then there’s obedience. While some might consider it a loss of freedom, Sister Stephanie sees it differently. “I would never say you’re giving up your freedom,” she said. “I think it depends on how you define freedom because I’ve made a free choice to be a part of this community.”

She said the vow of obedience doesn’t mean she has no say regarding decisions affecting her life, like what ministry she is involved in or who she lives with. Rather, she and her congregation engage in dialogue.

It’s similar to the give and take of marriage, she explained. “When you’re married, you’re not free completely either. As husband and wife, you need to make decisions together.”

Countercultural lifestyle

Over the years, Sister Stephanie has performed a variety of ministries, including teaching, serving as a Spanish language interpreter and family advocate at a Head Start in Worthington, and running a homeless shelter in Mankato.

Currently she is the social services program manager at MORE, where she advocates for immigrants and refugees, helps clients obtain medical services, accompanies immigrants to doctor’s appointments, works with women in abusive relationships, and counsels clients with mental health issues.

While Sister Stephanie’s lifestyle might seem countercultural, she hopes more young women will keep an open mind to religious life.

“Like everyone else, I have my ups and downs and good days and bad days,” she said. “Sisters are not exempt from experiencing depression and anxiety and those kinds of things any more than anyone else.

“But overall, . . . am I happy in this life? Do I find love in this life?”

Her answer: An unqualified “yes.”

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Category: Vocations