Sister Barbara Schiavoni chose the different path

Written on: June 24, 2009

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and … I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”    Robert Frost

I entered the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart at age thirty-five. This was the defining choice of my life, and now as then, it remains a mystery that God’s gentle call, grace and my sometimes half-hearted yes have made all the difference.

A “cradle Catholic,” I am the eldest of three children with roots in suburban Buffalo, NY. A significant fact about my family is that there are no priests or religious women in my family tree. During childhood, our family was not particularly religious, but my parents lived their Christian values through family, work and civic life. I was educated in Catholic schools through high school. I admired the nuns who taught me in school, but the thought of joining their ranks never entered my mind. My goal was to marry and have children.

I graduated from college with a B.A. in Psychology in the late seventies. Shortly after graduation, I moved to a southern state and began to build a career in retailing and banking. I was having fun working and supporting myself, hanging around with fellow “transplants” from the North. During theses years I was not attending Mass and had little awareness of God. After a few years, I yearned for a more settled life closer to family and friends. I returned to Western New York and continued to work in banking.

During this time I dated a Catholic gentleman of very strong faith. He had a personal relationship with God and freely shared his desire to know God and grow in holiness. Through his influence, I returned to the practice of my faith, began to develop a prayer life and began to read the Bible. I became active in my parish and found that I enjoyed being part of “Church life.”

During this time I became acquainted with a women’s religious community and occasionally spent an overnight in their Motherhouse. I found the atmosphere of silence, prayer and closeness to God to be very appealing, but had my sights set on another vocation.

The relationship with my friend was not to be forever. After we went our separate ways, I continued to pray, attend Mass and participate in parish life. I felt that my work life and spiritual life were on two different tracks, and I wanted to unite them. A vague sense of attraction to the feelings of peace and spiritual presence that I had experienced with the sisters persisted, but I dismissed any notion of joining the convent.

I acted on my desire to unite my work life and spiritual life by entering graduate school to study Social Work, figuring that a career in the helping professions would help to integrate work and faith. During this time I volunteered at a home where disabled and non-disabled adults lived together as a community of friends. This was a touchstone experience, for I found that giving of myself in service to others helped me to know God’s love for me and to share it in a tangible way. The coordinator and “heart” of the home was a Grey Nun of the Sacred Heart.

Over time, the feelings of attraction to Religious Life persisted. I couldn’t make sense of this, for no one in my family was religious, and my faith had been in the background for much of my life. I thought that all sisters were either teachers or nurses, and this wasn’t me. I decided to do some research into life as a sister so that I would know it definitely was not for me. I made contacts with several religious congregations in the Buffalo area and explored two communities which focus on ministry to the poor and vulnerable.

After a visit with Grey Nuns in Philadelphia and at Motherhouse in Yardley, PA, I knew that God was calling me to look seriously at the “little community with the big heart.” I continued to wonder if religious life could possibly be my vocation, but tried to listen and respond to God’s call. I knew that God was calling me to grow spiritually and personally. If I didn’t respond, I would be closing the door on God’s blessings. I decided to try it….

After graduation, I entered the GNSH with my newly minted MSW degree. This entailed moving to Philadelphia in order to experience GNSH community life and the initial formation process. I was blessed to find employment as a social worker in a transitional housing program for homeless families, which was founded and staffed by religious sisters. This wasn’t work, it was ministry! I loved my ministry and learned a great deal from the courageous young women who worked hard to overcome significant obstacles in their lives in order to create a better future for their children.

Life with the GNSH taught me how to live with other women in an atmosphere of caring, mutual respect and shared prayer. I continued to have doubts about my vocation, but asked God to guide me at each point of discernment. With God’s grace, I entered my novitiate after living in community for two years. The novitiate is a two-year period of focused prayer with study of religious life, the vows and congregational history. I grew personally and spiritually and learned how religious vows are lived in today’s world.

With God’s grace, I professed my first vows after completing the novitiate, then made final vows in 2001. Each step of the way, I asked God for guidance and grace for the next step. I have found that I am my best self as a vowed woman religious, living in community and ministering with God’s people. God has been with me throughout the journey, never showing the entire path, but guiding and inviting me to say “yes” in faith to each next step. This had made all the difference.

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