Sister Alicia Torres, right, and Sister Kate O'Leary took their final vows as Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago on Oct. 4 at Our Lady of the Angels Church on Chicago's West Side. Karen Callaway/Catholic New World
When Sister Kate O’Leary and Sister Alicia Torres lay prostrate before the altar at Our Lady of the Angels Church and then promised to spend the rest of their lives in poverty, chastity and obedience, they became the first fully professed members of the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago.
Sister Alicia and Sister Kate were the first women to join the discernment community when it was formed in 2009 at the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels. It received status as a new religious community in 2010, and they were the first novices as well.
Since then, Sister Kate and Sister Alicia have moved through religious formation in stages, overcoming practical problems and spiritual challenges as they became novices and then made their first vows in 2012. Three years later, they made a permanent commitment to this public association of the Christian faithful.
“I am literally placing my life in God’s hands and asking him to take over.” Sister Kate said when asked to reflect on her vows in the days leading up to the ceremony.
“It’s all about grace and the response to grace,” Sister Alicia said. “Now I’m ready and I’m brave enough to say yes. There’s a spousal relationship to Christ, and I know no matter what challenges or what blessings come, that relationship is there.”
Father Bob Lombardo, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal who serves as the founding superior of the new congregation, said the sisters’ day-to-day life won’t change much after their permanent vows, but, in his experience, their interior life will change.
“Once you say yes totally to something, your focus changes,” he said. “In terms of the emphasis of your heart and mind, there’s more focus and you can devote all your energy to this life.”
Their formation has coincided with the growth of the Our Lady of the Angels Mission near Iowa Street and Hamlin Avenue, where the congregation was formed and which is its main apostolate. Lombardo started the mission in 2005 and soon had young volunteers who wanted to make a deeper commitment to serve.
Sisters Alicia and Kate have been joined by two sisters who have taken temporary vows, a novice and two postulants.
Formation is never over, Lombardo said. In preparing people for religious life, formation includes prayer and other spiritual practices, as well as education on theology, the nature of the church and religious life and their own congregation’s charism.
In the case of the Franciscans of the Eucharist, there is a twofold mission: caring for the poor and teaching people about the Eucharist.
They also must learn to live in community, which means expressing their ideas and needs and listening to other people.
Originally, there were plans for parallel communities of men and women, although the women’s community got off the ground sooner. That happened despite the illness of a Franciscan sister whom the group expected to help develop the women’s community.
Instead, they received help and the expertise of several religious women from different communities, said Cabrini Sister Joan McGlinchey, the archdiocese’s vicar for religious and one of several religious women who visit the community.
Sister Joan commended Lombardo and the whole community for the way they worked with Cardinal George, a religious priest himself, canonists and other experts to make sure they were doing what they needed to do.
“They are a gift to the archdiocese,” she said.
The sisters wear a very traditional brown habit with black veils and sandals, and that makes them look like nuns “from another century,” Sister Joan said, but no one should think they are oldfashioned.
“They are adult women,” she said. “Two of them run marathons. They have a very healthy sense of community.”
They also have healthy, appropriate relationships with seminarians, priests and other men, she said, adding that she has been pleased to see the friendly, respectful interaction between them and men who visit the mission.
“When I was a young sister, we weren’t allowed to even look at guys, let alone talk to them,” Sister Joan said.
The Franciscans went to University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary two days a week for classes, and at the same time, they developed relationships with many priests and seminarians who minister throughout the archdiocese.
“Our goal is to assist what is being done in the archdiocese,” Lombardo said.
That means that in addition to their work at the mission, the sisters offer confirmation retreats , visit religious education classes and help with other activities.
“It’s all built on encounter and relationship,” he said. “The encounter with God is first and foremost. That leads to building of relationships within the Body of Christ.”
Franciscan spirituality, he said, is focused very much on the person of Christ, and Franciscan prayer is Christ-centric, so the sisters can take the encounter they have with Christ as part of their daily prayer life and carry it into their relationships with people they meet as part of their work.
That prayer life is centered on the Eucharist, with daily Mass and eucharistic adoration. Lombardo says often that “if you can’t see Jesus in the Eucharist, you can’t see him in the poor.”
Sister Kate said she never thought she would have a religious vocation. She was a trauma nurse at Loyola University Medical Center when she began visiting the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels and was drawn to the sense of peace.
“I loved nursing,” Sister Kate said. “It was harder than I realized it would be to pull away from that. For me, it’s been a constant saying yes every day, and listening to what God wanted.”
Over the years, she said, that has led her to understand that people are valuable because of what they are, not what they do.
“I defined myself by what I did,” Sister Kate said. “It was, ‘My name is Kate and I’m a nurse.’ Now it’s, ‘My name is Kate and I’m a child of God.’”
Sister Alicia said she learned a similar lesson when she was a novice and she fell and suffered a head injury, leading to months of spending lots of time in bed.
“Even in that challenge, he was present to me and helping draw me closer to him,” Sister Alicia said. “If I can open my heart and let him love me, that’s where I get my energy.”
Sister Alicia was exploring a religious vocation when she was at Loyola University Chicago and after graduation, when she worked in the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Respect Life Office. But she thought she would enter a congregation whose charism is directed toward pro-life work.
Once she started volunteering and praying at the mission, she said, “The peace was so evident that I couldn’t go anywhere else.”
She also couldn’t formally join the Franciscans of the Eucharist right away, because she was carrying $94,000 in student debt that had to be repaid before she could take a vow of poverty.
Sister Alicia, who had never before been a runner, ran the Chicago Half-Marathon in 2009 to raise money to pay off her debts and enter the convent, and her efforts got national publicity. After several more runs and the help of the Laboure Society brought down her debt, an anonymous donor cleared her way by paying the last $12,000.
“That’s a sign not just for me, but for the community,” Sister Alicia said.
Sister Kate said she was attracted to the Franciscan way of life because of its simplicity and its emphasis on being with the poor.
“The neighbors aren’t Catholic,” she said. “And for the most part, their pastors come in from other neighborhoods and then go home. The neighbors have a deep respect for us because we live here, we know what they live with.”
Being present to the neighbors, inviting them in for Bible study and running Bible camps for kids and hosting block parties, has already led to a couple of people coming into communion with the Catholic Church, Lombardo said.
“We don’t impose, we propose,” he said. “We explain the treasures of our faith in a very simple way.”