National Catholic Sisters Week, now in its fourth year, continues to focus on connection

The Wildflower Nursery at the Sisters of St. Joseph's eco-village in St. Louis. Each pot is seeded with a different species, and the seeds are collected locally. The eco-village will be part of one National Catholic Sisters Week event. (Courtesy of St. Joseph Sr. Amy Hereford)

It happens over and over: Young women who have never spent time with a woman religious meet a sister and almost instantly find a strong, almost inexplicable connection, despite her initial thoughts that they would have nothing in common.

It is easy to see National Catholic Sisters Week as just a way to raise awareness about women religious, said spokeswoman Christina Capecchi, but it's really about those connections.

"That surprise factor just doesn't get old. We hear it again and again and again," Capecchi said. "That's what we want National Catholic Sisters Week to be about: that 'wow' factor."

Now in its fourth year, NCSW is an annual celebration honoring women religious with an eye toward encouraging young women to consider a vocation for themselves. Each year, it starts on March 8, International Women's Day, and runs through March 14.

Capecchi said getting young women to consider a vocation is easy once they take the first step: meeting a sister.

"There's actually a fear factor among many young women when it comes to first meeting a sister. They go in with actual nerves and anxiety," Capecchi said. "Of course, that is immediately melted away with the first hug."

Why are they afraid to meet a sister?

"Many are afraid of not being proper or 'religious' enough. They think that there's this expectation of propriety and piety that they won't measure up to," she said. "They don't realize there's nuns with nose rings."

Capecchi said once they realize their fears are unfounded, something almost magical happens: They realize that not only are sisters human, but they embody all the very best aspects of being human.

"They are across-the-board great listeners and generous with their time," she said. "Some of them end up walking through real-life crises or things that can seem like it, like boyfriend crises, with these women."

Capecchi said there is a group of habited sisters in southern Minnesota that invites young women in to help sew their habits. Because many young women are interested in sewing and are often curious about sisters' traditional clothing, a door opens for that connection. And when that connection happens, she said, suddenly a vocation seems like a possibility.

"It goes from a giant leap to a step that's feasible and imaginable instead of something that was once unfathomable," Capecchi said.

Another natural connection can be made through sisters' work for the environment. A March 9 NCSW event planned in St. Louis invites people to work with St. Joseph Sisters who have created an urban eco-village, where they encourage native plants, sustainable farming and great habitat for beneficial animals and insects.

St. Joseph Sr. Amy Hereford said the event, known as Sisters Supporting Sustainability, will allow the eco-village to add a bat house and bee habitat.

"I work with our congregation's vocation team, and whenever I mention the eco-village, their faces light up," said Hereford, who is also an attorney and canon lawyer. "Community and sustainability are all messages that really resonate."

Hereford said even if the events don't lead to a vocation, young people become aware of what they can do to change the world and of the work sisters are already doing in that regard.

"It's one of those things where a lot of people, especially younger people, they know we have a crisis on our hands and we all have to do our part," she said.

Capecchi echoed that sentiment, noting that women religious are more needed than ever, and events like NCSW can showcase their abilities.

"Women religious can help heal this fractured world we live in," Capecchi said.

Last year, rather than having most events clustered at or near St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, where NCSW is based, the group began giving out mini-grants so groups could hold events nationwide. Last year, they gave out 42 mini-grants of up to $1,000; this year, they gave out 67.

Capecchi said there were also about 150 grassroots events last year, and officials hope to double that this year.

"These are events anyone can plan," she said. "It can be as simple as taking a sister out to brunch."

Events include "Vows and Visas," which will celebrate international sisters and the work they do; "Celebrating Sisters," an online panel of members of the newer generation of sisters; and "A Healing Conversation on Racism," which will include a Mass and forum to explore how faith and community can be conduits of grace to heal racial divides.

Find all the NCSW events here.

NCSW is funded by a grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which also funds Global Sisters Report.

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. His email address is dstockman@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.]

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