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October 6, 2015

Running for the love of the Lord and the mission

By Michelle Martin

Staff writer

Sister Stephanie Baliga runs in the 2014 Chicago Marathon. Photo provided.

Photo Gallery

Updated 10/14/2015

Sister Stephanie Baliga didn't make her goal of qualifying for the Olympic marathon trials, but she ran good race at the Oct. 11 Bank of America Chicago Marathon and finished in 2:56 -- 84th out of all the women who ran that day. And her religious community’s marathon team — Team Mission Our Lady of the Angels — raised $70,000 for the poor on the West Side of Chicago.

Sister Stephanie said she was also pleased that all but one of the team’s runners completed the 26.2 mile race. The Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist of Chicago minister at the mission, 3808 W. Iowa St. The community formed its first Chicago Marathon charity team in 2011 and has raised an estimated $200,000 with the team, growing each year.

Sister Stephanie, 27, was running in her fifth Chicago Marathon, and knew that it would be difficult to achieve the 2:43 time she would need to qualify for the Olympic trials.

“I kept the pace up for qualifying time until about mile 15, and then it fell off,” she said, noting that the warm and windy weather made for tough racing. “But I kept it together enough to finish in under three hours.”

Sister Stephanie was a long-distance runner in college, competing on both the varsity cross-country and track teams at the University of Illinois, but she knew that any post-collegiate running success she had would likely be at the marathon distance.

“The shorter the event, the worse I do,” she explained.

For distance runners, qualifying for the Olympic Trials is a mark of success, even for those who know they won’t actually make the Olympic team.

Sister Stephanie joined the Franciscans of the Eucharist, which was just starting out, immediately after graduation. That was also when she started running marathons.

The Franciscans of the Eucharist were born at and continue to minister at the mission, which was the site of the historic tragic school fire in 1958 that killed 92 students and three BVM teaching sisters. It offers everything from food, clothing and household goods to after-school and senior citizen programming in its poverty-stricken neighborhood, along with Bible study, eucharistic adoration and evangelization. Its running team raises both money and awareness, Sister Stephanie said.

Fifty-three members of Team OLA were set to run the Chicago Marathon this year, and 35 members ran the Chicago Half-Marathon in September. Many people join the teams to raise money and run, and then become dedicated volunteers at the mission, Sister Stephanie said.

Sister Stephanie herself raises awareness of the mission as a “running nun.” Her hopes of making the Olympic Trials led a Wall Street Journal story on the trials on Oct. 2, and she was recently featured in Runner’s World.

At the same time, she said, running helps her own spiritual life. While her life as a Franciscan of the Eucharist does not leave much time for running — “I do almost all of my training between 4 and 6 a.m., but it’s really not a big sacrifice because I’m such a morning person,” she said — she gets in at least one long run and one moderately long run every week. Doing so helps her stay mentally and physically healthy, something that’s important in the Franciscan way of life, she said.

“I have a lot of energy,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to sit still and pray. The running helps use up that energy. Personally, I find running to be very prayerful, very peaceful.”

Donations are still being accepted for the Mission OLA marathon team at www.missionola.org.