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Kansas farm girl, teacher follows calling to become a nun

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, March 31, 2012, at 9:53 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, March 31, 2012, at 11:11 p.m.

Last year at this time, 22-year-old Annie Stuhlsatz and the older siblings in her family were planning to dye Easter eggs and hide them in baskets of grass and green wheat gathered from the fields around their small farm in the shadow of St. Mary Aleppo Church.

On Easter morning, the younger of the 10 Stuhlsatz children would scatter, looking for the colorful eggs before the tight-knit family went to Mass together at St. Mary’s.

Annie was also hiding a secret in her heart as she followed the family traditions. This would be the last Easter she would spend on the farm outside the tiny hamlet of Aleppo in western Sedgwick County.

She was in the final stretch of her first year of teaching science at Heights High School in Wichita, a job she’d taken after graduating from Pittsburg State University the year before. But during the 40 days of Lent leading up to Easter, after years of fear and faulty assumptions and traveling down side roads, a realization had hit her. Not only was she called to be a nun, an idea that had hung only free-form around her since she was in high school herself, but she was called to be a nun in Wichita. She’d always figured, once she’d found out nuns were real, that she’d have to go someplace far away to become one.

In August, sad to leave her family but with a peace she hadn’t experienced before, Annie Stuhlsatz joined the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Wichita, becoming one of fewer than 100 women who enter convents and monasteries each year in the United States to be nuns (living a contemplative, cloistered life of prayer for others in a monastery) or sisters (who also go outside the convent to serve others).

It was the culmination of a slow, countercultural but steady journey for someone who, like many people, had only known nuns from “The Sound of Music” and “Sister Act.” After a peak in 1965 of 180,000 religious sisters in the United States, the number had plummeted to 56,000 last year. Even many Catholic schools do not have nuns as teachers. In Annie’s life, the only sister she’d known was one who taught her religion for a year or two in high school. But there have been signs of increased inquiries into religious life since 2000, said Brother Paul Bednarczyk, director of the National Religious Vocation Conference in Chicago.

“I was waiting for something to really jump out at me, but that’s not usually the way it works. God whispers, he doesn’t yell,” Annie said. Instead, on her visits to the Immaculate Heart of Mary convent at 145 S. Millwood, in the old rectory next door to St. Joseph’s Church in Delano, “it was: ‘This feels natural. I like it here.’ ”

Annie joined 20 other sisters who spend their lives praying and teaching in a mixture of a contemplative and active life in the Catholic Church. Bishop Carroll High School is one of the schools where they teach. Five months after entering the convent, on Feb. 11, Annie became a novice, losing her long dark hair and receiving a long white veil and a new name – Sister Mary Lucia (pronounced loo-SEE-uh), for one of the three children to whom the Virgin Mary appeared in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. Her life now revolves around prayer, taking theology classes and being formed in the religious life. She also helps out with cooking and sets the table for meals. Once she takes her vows, she’ll teach again.

According to her mother, Janet, Annie has always been caring and giving, a magnet for children – and a prankster. “She seems quiet and serious to people who don’t know her very well. But ... she’ll pull jokes on you and make a lot of wisecracks. She likes to have fun."

She also probably was the most helpful of the Stuhlsatz children at home, her mother said. “She would always help her dad with the farm work. That was maybe not her favorite thing to do, but she would always offer to help. She’s very patient, too. With a farm there’s a lot of standing around and waiting. She’d always pitch in with the machinery. She would always grab a wrench and start working on something."

Anne Stuhlsatz was born in 1988, the third oldest in a family of two boys and eight girls, the youngest of whom is now 3. Known as Annie, she went to grade school and high school in Garden Plain, a tall girl who played JV basketball and attended church not only on Sundays but other times during the week with her family at nearby St. Mary’s. But Annie basically took her Catholicism for granted. It was the backdrop of her life, like the steeple of St. Mary’s. That was until she attended a retreat in Denver during the summer between her junior and senior years in high school. There, a realization hit her: God is real.

At one point during the retreat a priest asked the participants to come forward if they were interested in being priests or nuns. Annie felt strongly that she should go forward, “but I was terrified.” The pull was unexpected, and she was unprepared for it. “I didn’t move.” One reason was that “I hadn’t had any personal experience of sisters, that they were even real. All I knew was ‘Sister Act’ and ‘The Sound of Music.’ ”

She went forward, instead, with her plan to attend Pittsburg State and become a science teacher. She dated a fellow student for two years before they broke up, and the idea to become a nun returned. She started praying more, and when a friend of a friend decided to enter a cloistered monastery in New Jersey, Annie and a group of other students drove her out there on spring break. Along the way they stayed at convents and monasteries. “I found out that sisters are real, and they’re kind of fun.” It was then that the memory of her experience in Denver came back to Annie. “I was pretty sure it was what I was supposed to do, and I was drawn to it.”

But none of the convents she visited – all out of state – was the right one, and a scholarship she’d received stipulated that she had to teach school for one year. So Annie took the first job she was offered after graduation, at Heights. “It was a real learning experience. It was hard, but I liked it.” A turning point came as she approached the time for renewing her teaching contract. It was then, during Lent last year, that she visited the Immaculate Heart of Mary convent and, in the chapel, thought, “Why not here?”

“The sisters are joyful. Their charism is to spread the faith. I like science, and it’s important, but I wanted to teach something that really makes a difference.”

The fact that Annie didn’t follow her initial hunch that she had to go far away to do something worthwhile is a relief to her family, her mother said. They get to visit her one Sunday a month, and more often if they attend Mass at St. Joseph’s on the first Saturday of the month, when the sisters throw a reception afterward.

There are two other novices in the convent – one from Hoxie and one from Olathe. The women are novices for two years before they take their first vows and start wearing the full habit. It’s three more years until they take final vows and receive a wedding ring.

“We have had a novice for the last 15 years at least,” the novice mistress, Sister Marie Bernadette, said. “Not all have persevered. Even in large orders, about half stay.”

“There’s a lot of interest, a lot of openness” on the part of young women to entering the convent, the superior, Mother Mary Magdalene, said. “Sometimes they discern after they’re here” that it’s not for them. It doesn’t seem that Sister Mary Lucia will be one of them, she said.

“It’s beautiful to see how the Lord calls all types,” another sister, Sister Mary Agnes, said. “We become a family, and Sister Mary Lucia fits in.”

When the novice mentions that she played basketball in high school, Mother Mary Magdalene says to a visitor, “I didn’t know that. I thought she would be easy to beat. Oh well.”

“I didn’t say I was good,” Sister Mary Lucia responds. But a couple of weeks ago, when a couple of the middle-school girls at St. Joseph’s challenged them to a pick-up game, the novices creamed them, the sisters say.

When asked if she’s changed since she entered the convent, Sister Mary Lucia pauses then says: “I’m still me. To a certain extent you always keep your mannerisms and your likes and dislikes and things like that, but at the same time the biggest difference is that beforehand I was always just kind of searching and to a certain extent just kind of lost. But now I still am searching a little bit but there’s a certain amount of joy and contentment – peace really is the best word. Because this is where God wants me to be. And so it’s the same – you still have to get over you-have-to-do-this-even-when-you-don’t-want-to – but you can do it while having that deeper peace and being happy about it.”

Her family back home has gone through a similar change. Her siblings’ reactions to her news after Easter last year depended on their age and personalities. The younger ones wanted to know if she’d be home for their birthdays. Then if she’d be home for her birthday. One of the older ones offered to kidnap her if needed.

Now, back on the small farm, “it always feels like somebody’s missing," Janet Stuhlsatz said. “It was really hard at first. It’s a lot better now. I’ve seen the change in her. At first she was so homesick, but now she’s so happy, so beaming, so much at peace. And we’re more at peace, too. We’re very proud of her.”

Reach Annie Calovich at 316-268-6596 or acalovich@wichitaeagle.com.

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