Religious sisters have had a continuous presence in the Diocese of Cleveland almost since its establishment in 1847. The earliest sisters travelled from Europe to minister to the poor, care for orphans, serve as nurses and more.
Sister Rochelle Guertal, OSST, diocesan delegate for religious, said about 760 sisters representing nearly three dozen religious orders now serve the diocese. They work in education, minister at parishes, serve in health care and engage in many other professions.
Over the years, their appearances have changed, also. Some congregations still wear a habit, or a modified habit. Sisters may be assigned a religious name, retain their baptismal name or a variation of their baptismal name, depending on their community’s rules.
All go through a period of discernment, postulancy, novitiate, temporary and final profession of vows. They dedicate their lives to the service of the Church and have a strong prayer life in addition to other work within their communities. Some sisters live in community in convents, while others may live in apartments or a monastery for those who are cloistered. Here is a look at a few congregations and some of their sisters.
Sisters of Notre Dame
Sister Margaret Gorman, SND, provincial superior, said the order came to Cleveland from Germany in 1874 and has had a continuous presence in the diocese. In 1960, the sisters moved to their new provincial center in Chardon on a 450-acre campus that includes Notre Dame School, Notre Dame Cathedral Latin High School, the community’s offices and a variety of housing, including apartments, assisted living and townhomes for both the sisters and others.
Education is a primary ministry of the Notre Dame Sisters, which is one reason Sister Kelley Rush was attracted to the order. Before entering religious life, she was a social worker and intervention specialist. She also taught math and social skills to children with severe behavioral issues. Sister Kelley enjoyed sports and was an athlete and coach before entering
“When I was approaching 30, I questioned what I was going to do,” she said, acknowledging she had accomplished a lot, “but I felt like something was missing.”
A summer service experience at Blessing House in Lorain with the Sisters of Notre Dame and a Mary’s Night at St. Bartholomew Parish helped nudge her towards a deeper faith life and eventually to religious life. Sister Kelley said witnessing the Sisters of Notre Dame ministering to the poor and marginalized — especially women and children — was instrumental in drawing her to the order.
She spent a year and a half in discernment, entered the order as a postulant in 2009 and made her perpetual profession in 2017. Sister Kelley is vocation director for the order, a member of the national vocation team, a spiritual director and a
“As an apostolic community, we live as contemplatives in action, living a life of prayer deeply rooted in God and carrying that presence of God in all we do. The way I live my life now, I am my truest, most authentic self in God. This is where God wants me,” she added.
Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph
On Feb. 2, Sister Juanita Shealey, CSJ celebrated her 68th year in the congregation. She credits her parents for inspiring her vocation.
“We had a very happy family life. I grew up filled with God,” Sister Juanita said, recalling family and neighborhood celebrations. The Shealey family had a deep devo- tion to the faith and were active in Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament (now St. Adalbert) Parish on Cleveland’s East Side. Sister Juanita, who attended Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament School and St. Edward High School (now closed) in Cleveland, said she knew by age 8 that she wanted to join the convent.
After a short time at Western Reserve University, she entered religious life, becoming one of the few African-American sisters in the diocese.
She said she was meant to be a Sister of St. Joseph: “My mother had a deep devotion to St. Joseph. We had a large statue of him in our house. I prayed to him and he always answered.”
Sister Juanita said the convent is a wonderful place that has helped her to have many memorable experiences, including serving as a teacher, principal, college professor, campus minister, serving on the diocesan Commission on Catholic Community Action and in communications. She recorded sign-on and sign-off spots for the three major Cleveland TV stations and has co-hosted a Sunday afternoon radio show, “God’s Saving Word,” on WERE 1490 AM for a number of years. The show is on hiatus and is expected to return after Easter. She also has traveled to places like Africa and Rome.
She shows few signs of slowing down, continuing to make public speaking appearances, visiting parishes, coordinating workshops and remaining active with many groups. In addition to sponsoring Saint Joseph Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school founded by the order in 1890, the sisters are active with social justice issues including human trafficking, anti-racism, the death penalty, fair immigration practices, sustainability and care of the earth.
“We can make the world better. It’s never too late to engage the young people.” Sister Juanita said.
Poor Clare Colettines
Sixteen members of the community live at the Monastery of the Blessed Sacrament on Rocky River Drive in Cleveland’s West Park neighborhood. The monastery, known as “a powerhouse of prayer,” is across the street from the Sisters of St. Joseph/ Saint Joseph Academy and a short distance from Our Lady of Angels Parish. Some refer to the area as the “holy triangle.”
The current monastery, located on about seven acres, was built in 1905 after the sisters, arrived in the diocese from Germany in 1877. The cloistered, contemplative nuns live a structured, simple life, spending most of their time in prayer.
Sister Rose Marie, a cloistered sister, is a native of Toledo. She is the youngest of seven children; her older brother, now deceased, was a Jesuit missionary. She attended Xavier University in Cincinnati and was one of the first women in the Reserve Officer Training Program. After graduation, she was living and working in Toledo, but felt a call to religious life.
“I kept hearing a voice say, ‘You should be a cloistered nun,’” she explained. After some searching, she found the Poor Clare Colettines and knew it was the right place for her. “As a cloistered, contemplative order, we pray for the world,” she said.
“The nighttime hours are special,” Sister Rose Marie said. “I enjoy being alone with the Lord in the middle of the night.”
Sister Faustina, a Colorado native, entered the order 12 years ago at age 19. “I wasn’t even Catholic until I was 14,” she added. After her conversion, she fell in love with the Mass and the faith and felt a call to religious life. She researched religious orders and felt the Poor Clares would be a good fit. She visited the monastery and said she felt the Lord wanted her there. Within a few months, she entered the convent. She requested — and was given — the name Faustina because of her devotion to St. Faustina.
As an extern sister, she answers the phone and door, drives sisters to appointments, shops for the monastery and represents the sisters at events.
The sisters wear a long, brown habit, black veil and have a large cord around their waist with three knots to remind them of their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The cloistered sisters have a fourth knot for the vow of enclosure.
The public is invited to attend Mass in the monastery’s public chapel at 6:45 a.m. daily except Monday, when Mass is at 7 a.m. Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament is at 7:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 2:45 p.m. on Sunday. The chapel is open for adoration 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Call 216.941.2820 for prayer requests.
Mercedarian Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament
Mother Jeanette Marie, HMSS, novice mistress, said the convent at Our Lady of Mount Carmel on Cleveland’s West Side serves as the formation house for postulants and novices of the Mercedarian sisters. About 10 women, including two postulants and three novices, live there. She said the sisters arrived in Cleveland in 1997 at the request of the OLMC pastor, Father Richard Rasch, O. de M. Mercedarian friars staff OLMC and nearby St. Rocco parishes. The sisters and friars share in their spirituality and indulgences, she said.
Second-year novice Sister Lourdes Furnells from Florida, and first-year novices Sister Raquel from California and Sister Tonia from Florida wear white veils with their cream-colored habits. Postulants wear a white jumper. Professed sisters have a black veil. The sisters also have a special medal.
The novices are continuing their studies at Saint Mary’s Graduate School of Theology. The newly professed sisters help teach Catholic doctrine to students at the adjacent Our Lady of Mount Carmel School. Sister Isabel said some of the sisters are fluent in Spanish and can help teach Spanish to the students.
Each sister has her own story about receiving her call to religious life. Sister Tonia said while attending the University of Florida she knew it was a possibility. She had a job opportunity, “but I surrendered my plans to God and finally heard him speak,” she said. After visiting the sisters, she said her misconceptions vanished. “I saw the joy. It still took a leap of faith and I had to place my trust in God.”
Sister Raquel said she was seeking a community that had a charism for devotion to Jesus and to the Blessed Sacrament, so the Mercedarians were the right choice for her.
“It’s a good feeling the way God is working in our community,” Sister Raquel added.