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Vocations recruiting goes virtual during COVID-19 pandemic

Discerners will visit monastery after restrictions end to learn more about religious life

Published: February 16, 2021   
Novice Siena Fisk, OSB
Sister Judith Timmerman, OSB, St. Scholastica Monastery’s vocation director, prepares to lead a virtual vocations retreat Jan. 23.

FORT SMITH -- Sister Judith Timmerman, OSB, combines the power of prayer and technology in her new role as St. Scholastica Monastery’s vocations director.

Sister Madeline Bariola, OSB, who made her monastic profession in 1954, described the challenge vocation directors like Sister Judith face in a recent YouTube vocation video.

“At the ripe old age of 14 I knew what I was going to do with my life … God was with me the rest of the way. We don’t do that nowadays.”

Sister Judith, who made her perpetual profession in 2019, understands how God calls contemporary women to religious life. Before entering St. Scholastica in 2012, she lived in a cloistered contemplative community for two years. Through prayer and experience, she learned that God was calling her to a life that combined prayer with active ministry.

A COVID-19 outbreak in the monastery presented an additional challenge as she tried to meet with discerners online and plan a virtual retreat in January. The sisters who remained healthy, like Sister Judith, were kept busy cooking, cleaning, sanitizing and caring for the sisters who were sick.

“As our community has grown smaller, we have begun to know and love one another in a deeper way than when we were large,” she said. “In fact, it has become our finest hour.”

Two Vietnamese-American women attended St. Scholastica’s virtual discernment retreat Jan. 23-25. A third discerner who lives in the Philippines was unable to participate because of the time difference, but she remains in contact with the sisters. Sister Judith, whose background includes teaching Spanish and working in Hispanic ministry, said the monastery is becoming a multicultural community.

During the retreat sessions, novice Faustina Nguyen, OSB, shared her vocation story and chatted with the discerners in Vietnamese. The program included Lectio Divina practice, virtual tours of the monastery and grounds, more vocation stories and a virtual social allowing the women to meet with many sisters who were gathered around Zoom stations in different offices. “Sister Kimberly (Prohaska, OSB), our prioress, prayed compline with us each night,” Sister Judith said.

Both discerners are interested in visiting the monastery when the pandemic is under control.

Sister Judith is guided by prayer and the support of the National Religious Vocation Conference and a group of Benedictine vocation directors.

“We pray for our vocation contacts every day,” she said, “and hold a holy hour each Friday afternoon to pray for vocations.”

She talks with other vocation directors online once a month to discuss what social media platforms are working best, what kinds of advertising to use and other concerns. She attended a virtual convocation with the National Religious Vocation Conference in October.

“Instagram seems to work best with younger discerners, while women in their 30s and 40s use Facebook,” she said. 

She is interested in resuming her in-person outreach and ministry in local parishes when it is possible and wants to start a WhatsApp prayer group with the Guatemalan girls who participate in St. Scholastica’s Girls’ Education Matters program.

She is adding to the list of vocation stories on the monastery YouTube channel and updates her personal Facebook page with inspirational quotes, stories of the saints and news from the monastery almost daily.

The sisters’ living out their Gospel values and their ministries of spiritual direction, solidarity with the poor, hospitality and commitment to peace is what draws new vocations, she said

"Being a vocation director in the middle of a pandemic is challenging,” she said. “But I'm so grateful that we have the technology for me to accompany these women on a sacred journey that I was on not long ago."

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