A free spirit finds her niche

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Image: Sister Maria Cristina Caballero, R.S.M. with her students.

WHEN I TELL my students how I became a nun, I always begin this way: “My story is not about saying rosaries and feeling holy; my call was from God to one wild child.”

I was privileged to attend Catholic school because of the faith and determination of my dear mother. She wanted her children to have a good, Catholic education, and she washed laundry and crocheted baby items to pay our tuition. Our home parish was St. Aloysius in Los Angeles, and most of our teachers were Sisters of Mercy.

I remember my first day of school as if it were yesterday. Sixty of us sat before Sister Mary Lucy in our crisp, new uniforms, our school supplies in tow. I had my cousin Lupe in my class, and that made it special.

Almost every day Sister Lucy would ask all her students if they believed they had a vocation to be a priest, brother, or sister. She was ahead of her time as a vocation minister. And every time she asked if I would like to be a Sister of Mercy, I would tell her, “No.” I planned to be an artist and live by the ocean. I would be rich and famous and live alone because I didn’t want to share with anyone. Sister would look at me and smile, as if to say she knew that God had a better plan for me.

My cousin, Lupe, on the other hand, wanted to be a Sister of Mercy and was very happy when Sister would ask her that question. She would go out of her way to help, not only in the classroom but at the convent as well. She would ask me to go and help her clean the convent chapel and attend daily Mass with her. And every time I would say no; I had better things to do with my time.

This pattern continued throughout our elementary school years together and then into high school. The sisters were relentless in asking if I could see myself as a Sister of Mercy, and my answer was always the same. Not only did I not want to be a Sister of Mercy, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be Catholic.

“I have not only taught children, they have taught me a thing or two about life, faith, and the God who is our companion on this wild journey."
“I have not only taught children, they have taught me a thing or two about life, faith, and the God who is our companion on this wild journey."
Teenage truth search
I told my parents that I wasn’t free to choose my own religion because I had been baptized and confirmed as a baby and then went to Catholic school all my life. My father threw his hands up in the air and told my mother that she had to deal with “her wild daughter!” My mother burst into tears and began a special novena, votive candles and all.

During my eighth grade year I began exploring a variety of religious expressions. I participated in Jewish Sabbath services, attended a Baptist revival, worked with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and went to a Bible study with Lutherans. I was determined to find my own way to religion. I spent six months trying out various faith traditions and realized that, in fact, my Catholic upbringing and teachers, especially the Sisters of Mercy, had indeed aided in my formation as a Catholic Christian.

I remember the intense conversations I would have with various friends I had made in these spiritual encounters. I would share my newfound information and fervor with none other than the principal at my elementary school. Sister Mary Timothea would listen with great patience and affirm my quest to find inner peace and discover what God was calling me to embrace in my life. I can still hear her words to me when I finally returned to the roots of my faith. “We got you now!” she proclaimed. Little did she know what the future held in store. I returned to the church and became quite active in my Catholic faith community. As I began college I returned to my elementary school and volunteered as an aide, working with the students and helping the teachers on campus. The students and teachers would perform service projects around the community, and this became one of my favorite activities. We would attend meetings at the senior center in our neighborhood and provide companionship and hot meals to the elderly.

God speaks up
One day the principal of our elementary school called to ask for my help on a junior-high retreat. A retreat counselor was ill, and they were about to start a weekend experience. I agreed to help out, even though it was not something that interested me.

I was given the task of leading a small group of students in prayer and faith sharing. It reminded me of my own faith quest, as they had so many wonderful questions and insights. It was a blessed time for all of us and a turning point for me. From that weekend retreat experience I truly heard the call from God to come and see what life in the Sisters of Mercy might be like. A few months later I met with the vocation minister and began the process of inquiry and entrance.

These past 30 years have been filled with continued questions, peaks, and valleys as I minister in education with young people. I have not only taught children, they have taught me a thing or two about life, faith, and the God who is our companion on this wild journey. We have shared ourselves in the laughter and tears of life choices. I would not be who I am today had I not been attentive to the callings from my family, my community, and my God. It has been a wild ride for a headstrong child over these past 30 years—one I would not have missed for the world.
Sister Maria Cristina CaballeroSister Maria Cristina Caballero is a Sister of Mercy. She teaches at St. Francis Parish School in Bakersfield, California.




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