|Sister Mary Andrew Hession, O.P., originally from south Louisiana, displays a photo and tells a story about the offshore oil rig platform where she worked for eight years before entering the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville. Photo by Theresa Laurence
During the eight years that Patty Hession worked on an offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, she got used to long days of hard work, getting dirty, not seeing land for seven days at a time.
Her 12-hour workdays were busy, but her nights were usually free. It was then that she could sit near the edge of the production platform and fish, staring up at the stars, stretched out against an infinite black sky. “Being offshore, that was the most contemplative atmosphere I’ve ever worked in,” said Sister Mary Andrew Hession, O.P.
Patty Hession, before discovering her vocation and making a vow to live as a Dominican Sister as Sister Mary Andrew, grew up in a Catholic family in south Louisiana, and worked as a school band director and then an offshore oil rig operator. She is one of many Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation who had unique life experiences before entering the convent. As part of the Tennessee Register’s on-going coverage of The Year of Consecrated Life, and in conjunction with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Vocation Awareness Week Nov. 1-7, several Dominican sisters recently opened up about life before the convent and shared their vocation stories.
‘The hand of God will lead you’
Sister Mary Andrew loved being a school band director, but the pay was so lousy that she decided to find a job offshore, a risky opportunity that has long beckoned hearty souls out to sea with the promise of high pay and good job security. She worked as a roustabout, a clerk, and finally an operator, one of very few women doing that type of work.
“I loved the work and in my mind I thought I’d be doing it the rest of my life,” she said.
That changed in early 1987 when a friend told her about the Marian visions that six children were reporting halfway around the world, in Medjugorje. “That was an instant conversion,” said Sister Mary Andrew. While she had never fallen away from the Catholic faith, “I hadn’t been using my Bible. … I wasn’t a good practicing Catholic.” Hearing about Medjugorje was the beginning of her conversion to a deeper life of faith.
She bought a new rosary, began reading her Bible again, and attending daily Mass during her seven days home from the rig. She planned a trip to Medjugorje for that spring and considered becoming a tour guide there. A priest from her tour group told her he thought she had a religious vocation, but when she began bouncing the idea off friends, they mostly brushed it off.
Then, that fall, out of the blue, a friend of a friend called to encourage her to explore a religious vocation, and told her to consider the Dominican Sisters in Nashville.
“It’s interesting how the hand of God will lead you and direct you,” said Sister Mary Andrew, still marveling, nearly three decades later, at the path that led her to the Nashville Dominicans.
“Once I visited I knew God was calling me,” said Sister Mary Andrew, who currently works in the Motherhouse development office in Nashville. Everything she was looking for in a religious order, she said, the Nashville Dominicans had it, including a devotion to the Eucharist and the Blessed Mother, as well as a commitment to wearing the habit.
Sister Mary Andrew points out that she “wasn’t running away from anything” when she decided to join the Dominicans. “I truly believed God was calling me,” to be a sister, she said. “I wanted to do something more in line with my faith. … I felt there was something missing.”
While offshore work was satisfying, “I’m much happier in the convent,” she said.
Looking back on her time on the rig, Sister Mary Andrew says it prepared her well for life in the convent. As a sister, she lives in close quarters with others, wakes up at 5 a.m. and follows a set schedule, marked by the sound of bells. As an oil rig operator, she lived in a confined environment, was expected to get promptly to work after the 5:30 a.m. wake-up call, and fix a problem whenever the horn sounded.
“There are definitely some similarities,” Sister Mary Andrew said. The biggest one is “living with people you haven’t chosen to live with. I love my sisters and I loved the guys I worked with,” she said. “We were a family.”
Finding an ‘authentic joy’
|Sister Anna Grace Neenan, O.P., the novice mistress of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation, was a professional ballet dancer before she discovered her religious vocation.
By the time Sister Anna Grace Neenan, O.P. was 8 years old, she knew she wanted to be a ballet dancer. “I had a really strong passion for it, and I just knew it’s what I would do,” she said, reflecting on her life before the convent. She danced her way through her young life, and as she worked her way up the ladder of dance companies in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, she felt that she was fulfilling a dream. Yet, she was still unsatisfied.
When she was sidetracked by an injury in 1995 at age 26, “it caused me to take time off and reflect, ask some tougher questions about life and myself. … I began to open myself up to God, that he may have a different plan than my plan.”
She began to think about her sister, Sister Mary Angelica, O.P., who had joined the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia congregation a decade earlier. “I wondered what were the odds that the two of us were called to the same community,” Sister Anna Grace said. As she reflected on her visits to the Motherhouse to see her sister, what stood out was “how very joyful and very much themselves” the sisters were. “That intrigued me. I wanted that for myself.”
As she began to seriously contemplate a vocation, she was overwhelmed by the idea of leaving everything else in the world behind to be a nun. However, she saw many parallels between her life as a dancer and her possible future as a Dominican sister. “An artist wants to give all, and I was prepared to give all for my art. That prepared me to hand over my life to God,” said Sister Anna Grace.
Additionally, the discipline and focus required of a professional ballet dancer was good training for life in the convent, said Sister Anna Grace, who made her final vows in 2003 and is now the novice mistress at the Motherhouse. “I think the dancer and the artist is always searching for the spiritual,” she said. “That openness is an indication of our desire for God.”
Sister Anna Grace said she will “always have such a strong love for the art” of ballet, classical and contemporary, and “will always be an appreciator of it.” She enjoys going to performances of the Nashville Ballet when she can. “I love every minute of it.”
But, she says, she does not ever regret leaving her ballet career behind to become a Dominican sister. Now she has found “the authentic joy that comes from striving to do God’s will,” and there’s nowhere else she’d rather be.
A providential choice
|Sister Jane Michael
Like Sister Anna Grace, Sister Jane Michael Stehly, O.P., followed her passion as far as she could before realizing her own vocation to religious life.
Originally from southern California, Sister Jane Michael wanted to attend college on the East Coast and play Division I field hockey. “I had a dream of making it big. I wanted to be on the national team,” she said.
Recruited by Providence College in Rhode Island, she played four years on the Friars women’s field hockey team, and served as captain for two years. During her time as a student athlete, she met some members of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation, who were serving at a nearby Catholic elementary school.
“A vocation was not in my mind when I went to college,” said Sister Jane Michael, but “I wanted to follow God’s will.”
As she began attending daily Mass, adoration and spending time in silent prayer, she began to feel more certain that she was called to religious life. She and her family often joke that her college choice was “providential” since it led her to the Dominicans. “When I met our sisters, I knew, ‘That’s me,’” she said, and she never considered joining another order.
“The Lord had to use field hockey to get me to himself,” said Sister Jane Michael, who graduated from Providence in 2013 and professed her first vows with the Dominican Sisters last June. She now teaches fourth grade at Overbrook School in Nashville.
Raised in a large, tight-knit Catholic farming family near San Diego, Sister Jane Michael learned early on the value of hard work and a strong faith in God. Her father helped manage the family farm, 900 acres of citrus and avocado trees. Growing up in that environment and witnessing her parents’ example “really formed me in the faith,” Sister Jane Michael said. “What faith my parents had; their whole life was based on the crop from that year, but it all worked out,” she said.
In addition to farming, the Stehly family also cared for a host of exotic animals on the property. “We had zebras, pygmy hippos, a 15-foot python,” in addition to emus, camels and ostriches, said Sister Jane Michael. Her classes would take field trips to the farm to see the animals, and her family was once featured on the Disney Channel.
Sister Jane Michael, one of seven children, was often surrounded by numerous cousins and aunts and uncles. She said growing up in a large family prepared her for living in community as a Dominican sister. Within her family and within the Motherhouse, “there’s so many of us, but we’re all unique individuals.”
While Sister Jane Michael misses her family, “I feel that our relationship has grown deeper and more substantive” since she joined the Dominican order. “I’m so happy here. I love all my sisters. My family just got way bigger.”