If you’re a Catholic teacher, catechist, or children’s ministry volunteer, you may be familiar with the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.
CGS is an internationally-acclaimed, highly effective method of teaching elementary school-aged children about our faith. It’s based on the principles of the Montessori Method, a child-centered approach to teaching and learning that has been implemented in schools around the world over the past century.
On March 23, the Archdiocese of Edmonton will be hosting an information session about CGS, in the hopes of making CGS training available in our diocese.
In order to learn more about this method of catechesis, I travelled to Nashville, Tenn., to visit a group of women who have gained a reputation as CGS experts: the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, also known as the Nashville Dominicans.
My visit had another purpose as well: I wanted to learn more about the sisters who form one of the largest and most youthful communities of religious sisters in North America.
It is clear that these sisters are doing something right: approximately 15 young women enter the community each year, coming to Nashville from across the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the U.K.
One of the sisters I spoke with was Sister Peter Marie, the community’s vocation director. We talked about the sisters’ history, their apostolate of teaching, and her own vocation story.
Sister Peter Marie entered the convent in 2001, but is not a Nashville native. She grew up in St. Peters, just outside of St. Louis, Mo., with her parents and three siblings.
“My parents were very committed to their faith,” she says, “So that was my experience, but even though I was surrounded by all of that, I didn’t experience a really deep personal relationship with the Lord while I was growing up.”
Sister’s childhood and teenage years centered around her passion for dance. At age eight, she began to study ballet, jazz, tap, and modern dance, and, after high school, she enrolled in the University of Kansas to pursue a degree in dance. During her first three years at university, her faith became less and less a part of her daily life.
“My faith wasn’t a priority any more,” she recalls. “When I started university, I went to Mass on Sundays because that’s what I did growing up. But the more I got involved in school, the more my faith faded away.”
That changed when a classmate invited her to a 10 p.m. Mass at the Catholic Centre on campus, which Sister was surprised to find packed with students.
“During the Consecration, when the priest was holding up our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, I had this realization that that was truly Jesus. I almost wanted to turn to the person next to me and say, ‘Do you realize that this is Jesus?!’ And then the next thought I had was, ‘Are we all going to go up, receive Jesus, and then leave the church and go back to our regular way of life?’ That didn’t make any sense to me. If you really believe that that is the Lord, your whole life should look different. That experience opened a door for the Lord to just move in.”
This spiritual awakening lead Sister to join other students from the Catholic Centre for a mission trip to Mexico, where the group’s chaplain made a comment that would change her life forever.
“He turned to me in the middle of a conversation and just said, ‘You would make such a great sister.’ And I remember thinking inside, ‘No way!’ But when I got back from that trip, because I had experienced the Lord in a very powerful way, I wanted to be with Him and get to know Him more. And as soon as I was quiet in His presence, that’s when I heard the Lord inviting me to religious life.”
She felt confident in the authenticity of her call, but uncertain where she was being called to live it out. While looking at the websites of various religious communities, the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia caught her attention because of her love for Saint Cecilia, a patron saint of fine arts. A visit to the Motherhouse in Nashville confirmed her intuition that she had found her home, and she entered as a postulant shortly afterwards.
The Nashville community is part of the Dominican Order (the Order of Preachers), founded by St. Dominic in France in 1216. The Order is made up of friars, cloistered nuns, apostolic sisters, and affiliated laity.
The St. Cecilia community was founded in Nashville in 1860. Since then, the sisters have zealously lived out their apostolate of teaching in Catholic schools from the elementary to the post-secondary level. The community now numbers about 300 sisters, and has made foundations across the U.S, in British Columbia., Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Italy, and Australia.
The number of daughter houses is an indication of how much Catholics all over the world long for the presence of young, holy sisters who are faithful to Church teaching. Each sister takes her calling to be a spouse of Christ and a spiritual mother to her students very seriously.
“We come to know the Lord in a deep way, in a life of silence and prayer and study,” Sister Peter Marie explains. “We come to know Him, and then we give Him to the students that we teach.”
Many of the sisters are trained in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. During my visit to the Motherhouse, I learned that the goal of CGS isn’t simply to teach children facts about God; it is to create an environment where children can come to know God Himself.
One of the sisters shared the story of a student who was diagnosed with terminal cancer and was terrified of death. After attending CGS classes, the child developed such an intimate and trusting relationship with Jesus, her Good Shepherd, that she passed away in complete peace.
While their mission to teach and catechize is very close to the sisters’ hearts, they hold firmly to the truth that their first obligation is live a life set apart for God alone.
“The biggest difference between my life before I entered the community and my life now would be that now, the Lord is just always in my mind,” Sister Peter Marie says.
“I’m thinking about Him all the time. I get to talk about the Lord all the time. He’s my first thought in the morning. In my previous life, the Lord was becoming more important in my day-to-day, but there would be times of thinking about the Lord and then times of doing other things. But now, no matter what I’m doing, He is there. And that’s also the thing I love most about being a sister: it’s a privilege to live a life that allows me to come to know the Lord in such an intimate way.”
Before the end of my visit, I make sure to ask Sister what advice she has for young women who are discerning their vocation.
“If God is calling, it is our part to respond to that invitation,” she says.
“Keep that simplicity ever before your eyes. The Lord does not want to make it too complicated. Do not be afraid to respond, to start talking to a vocation director, to go and visit a community. Don’t be afraid to act.”
– Rose Derksen is a pastoral assistant at the parishes of St. Alphonsus and St. Clare in Edmonton.