Frequently Asked Questions
A Catholic nun is a woman who lives a contemplative life in a monastery which is usually cloistered (or enclosed) or semi-cloistered. Her ministry and prayer life are centered within and around the monastery for the good of the world. She professes perpetual solemn vows, living a life according to the evangelical counsels of poverty, celibacy, and obedience.
A Catholic sister is a woman who lives, ministers, and prays within the world. A sister’s life is often called “active” or “apostolic” because she is engaged in works of mercy and other ministries that take the Gospel to others where they are. She professes perpetual simple vows, living a life according to evangelical counsels of poverty, celibacy, and obedience.
Because both nuns and sisters belong to the Church life form of Religious Life, they can also be called “women religious.”
Many communities today, but not all, recommend a college education before entering. The vocation director of a specific community can explain the expectations of that particular community. The experience of attending college often teaches invaluable lessons and helps one come to know oneself better. These years can be a very important part of the discernment process. A college education also helps to prepare oneself for future ministry.
According to Church law, an individual must be free of debt by the time she is received as a novice. Individual communities deal with the issue of debt/loans differently. Some communities require that a debt is paid off prior to entrance. Some communities allow the woman to continue employment during her time of candidacy and postulancy and put her earnings toward paying off the debt. Some communities make an arrangement with the individual to assume the debt still owed if she is ready to enter the novitiate. A vocation director can explain in more detail what a particular community’s practice involves.
Religious life is first of all a way of being, and a way of living. However, the Sisters of Notre Dame are what is known as “active apostolic religious.” We are engaged each day in ministries that reflect our charism to incarnate in the world the compassionate love of God. We do this primarily through educational forms of ministry but also through pastoral care, healthcare, and social outreach.
A charism is a specific gift given by the Holy Spirit to the Church. In religious life it is given to the founder. It is how that group of religious sisters will incarnate (or make visible in the world) an aspect of who Christ is. We can use an analogy of a diamond for Christ. Each facet or side of the diamond shows off a different aspect of the beauty of the diamond as it catches the light. The charism given to a religious congregation can be compared to one of the facets or sides of the diamond reflecting to the world an aspect of who Christ is. By the living of our charism we incarnate one aspect of the beauty of Christ and in turn the beauty of the life of the Trinity.
The charism of the Sisters of Notre Dame is a deep experience of God’s goodness and provident care. That God experience transforms us from within and enables us to trust in our loving God to whom we can abandon ourselves completely. This God experience overflows into action as we share the compassionate love of God with those in need and help others to seek to put their faith in God and find Him in all things.
Sisters make vows of consecrated chastity, evangelical poverty, and obedience.
Consecrated chastity means more than just that we will not marry. It means living out of the awareness that we belong totally to God. This awareness, and the love we experience out of this relationship, totally possesses our heart in such a way that we cannot live in an exclusive relationship with one other person. It means that we will spend our lives giving love to others and being “sister” for each person that we meet.
Evangelical Poverty means more than not owning things. It means living simply and letting Christ be “our enough” and acknowledging that possessions will never make us happy and if we’re not careful they will in time possess us. It also means shared ownership. Our paychecks, our cars, our computers, and our convent homes are not ours personally. We share them so that our sisters can benefit from them.
Obedience means more than following orders. Obedience is a commitment to listen for a lifetime for God to reveal His will and a promise to follow it. At times this comes through our superiors, through an assignment to a particular ministry, through the persons we live with or the people we serve.
The congregation of the Sisters of Notre Dame is an international congregation. In fact we are the 10th largest congregation of sisters in the world, serving in 17 different countries. While our generalate (or center of the congregation) is in Rome, Italy, we are divided into smaller units known as provinces, delegations, and missions. Each unit is still directly part of the same congregation, one religious family that can be found on many continents. The division into smaller groups makes it a bit easier to operate within the culture of the countries and states where we live.
Our directive is to dress simply according to the culture and country where we live. The sisters in each country make a decision about what the religious dress will be, according to local custom and what will enable the sisters to do ministry in that part of the world. For example, our sisters in India wear saffron-colored saris but when they serve in Tanzania, Africa they wear different attire that is more suitable to that climate and culture. Every sister wears the same congregational crucifix and silver ring.
In the Scriptures we see that God often changed a person’s name when they were called to serve in God’s name, for example Simon who became Peter. God first called us by name when we were baptized. To honor that initial call of God a sister is free to keep her baptismal name, or to choose a new one to reflect the new call of God into religious life. However, every Sister of Notre Dame adds some form of Mary to her name, unless that is already her baptismal name.
SND stands for Sisters of Notre Dame (Notre Dame is French for Our Lady.) However, in the different countries where we serve the title Sisters of Our Lady is translated into the local language. For example in Indonesia we are Susteran Santa Bunda Maria and in Nicaragua we are Hermanas de Nuestra Senora.
Being a sister is not a solitary experience. While we each experience a personal call from God to belong totally to Him, we respond by living with others sharing the same charism. It is unusual for a Sister of Notre Dame to live alone. Our vow formula highlights our love for community when we say: “…we ask for the grace, through the intercession of our Lady and the prayers and support of my sisters to live these vows faithfully.” This is as practical as cooking meals for each other, having fun together or praying together before setting out for a day of ministry or coming home to pray for the needs of all those we served. We support each other through the challenging times and we share each other’s joy.
Not every group of sisters wear a wedding band, but the Sisters of Notre Dame do. The ring is a symbol of belonging totally to Christ. In the ceremony for the final profession of vows the following is said as the ring is placed on a sister’s finger: “Receive this ring, for you are betrothed to the Eternal King; keep faith with your Bridegroom so that you may come to the wedding feast of eternal joy.”
Technically the entire Church is the Bride of Christ, but religious sisters make that aspect of the Church visible for the world.
A Sister of Notre Dame receives her ring when she makes her first profession of vows. However, just before her final profession of vows she turns in her ring and an inscription is placed inside the ring: “Toute á Jesus par Marie” which means “All for Jesus through Mary.”
You can come and visit one of our local communities. Spending time with a community will let you know if you feel at home there and perhaps share the same charism.
The congregation was founded in 1850 in Coesfeld, Germany, by Hilligonde Wolbring and Elisabeth Kuhling, young teachers who wanted to provide a loving home where neglected students could live while attending school. Due to the political climate of Germany in 1874, many sisters came to the U.S. to minister to the German immigrants who settled in the Cleveland (Chardon), OH and Covington, KY areas. The Sisters taught in parish schools, provided health care and assisted the people in establishing themselves in their new country. Vocations to religious life flourished and the sisters soon expanded their services further into Northwest Ohio (Toledo), and in 1924 west to Thousand Oaks, California. The first Sisters of Notre Dame came to the Toledo area in 1876 to begin foundations in Delphos, Ohio and in Fremont, Ohio. Because of the sisters’ reputation as excellent educators, expansion continued.
The most important aspect of discernment is growing in your relationship with Jesus. Nothing takes the place of coming to know and love Him by spending time in prayer. Participating in Mass and receiving the sacraments draw us closer to Him and helps us grow in our desire to live His will. Often individuals find having a spiritual director during their time of discernment helpful.
Discernment is rooted in opening one’s heart to know the dream God has for you. Because God’s dream is specific to each individual, it is important that you know yourself well. Spend time coming to know your gifts and talents, your dreams and desires. God wants what will help you be your best self, what will make you truly happy.
Each vocation in the Church is a beautiful and meaningful way of witnessing to God’s love in the world. It is important to know about each vocation. Talking to individuals who live each lifestyle can be very helpful in learning the blessings and challenges that a particular way of life holds. Reading and research can also expose you to various aspects of these lifestyles. Becoming familiar with the lives of the Saints can be another way to explore ways of following in the footsteps of Jesus.
Just as one learns a specific skill (music, art, sport) by practice and going to the experts in that field, it is helpful to spend time with those who actually live religious life. This can be shorter visits or live-in experiences during which you can experience more fully the charism and spirit and find if it matches the spirit living within you. Through your entire time of discernment, continue to ask God in prayer to give you a generous and listening heart, eager to do His will.
It is a good idea to contact a vocation director who can accompany you on the way and answer any questions you may have. She can make suggestions and help you sort out feelings and questions. She may also be able to connect you with others who are discerning a call to religious life so that you may learn from one another.