Supper with Sisters: Jessica Vozella – St. Joseph Worker Program – Los Angeles, CA

Jessica is one of five CVN Serving with Sisters Ambassadors – volunteers sharing the joy, energy, and fulfillment of serving alongside Catholic Sisters in CVN member programs, through creative reflection, conversation, and experience. Enjoy this post, and stay tuned to hear more from Jessica and her fellow Ambassadors over the course of their service year!

When Sister Claire and I sat down for lunch, her first comment to me was “I was thinking about this and I don’t know why you asked me about my story, I don’t really have much of one.” I was a little caught off guard because I knew that her statement was the furthest thing from the truth. After working at St. Joseph Center for 8 months, I knew that everyone has a story that is intricate and interesting, even if they don’t see it that way. I had asked Sr. Claire to share her story because I was already captivated by the person she is now and was curious about the journey that brought her here.

I also came to this lunch and interview with the new understanding that though she answered yes to a different call than I have, there is much less that separates me from Sr. Claire than originally perceived because of her vocation as a sister. This shift in perspective is exciting because it allowed my conversation with Sr. Claire and her story to have an impact and wisdom for me, even though religious life has not been part of my discernment journey.

How the Call Came

Like many of the sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet that I have met this year, Sr. Claire entered the convent right out of high school, at 18 years old. When she recalled her discernment and decision to enter religious life, Sr. Claire described the influence of the sisters who taught in her school. Listening to her describe her draw to the sisters was incredible, as she was almost in awe of how they cared for others and exuded a sense of love for God and neighbor. What was beautiful to hear was her certainty that these were the women that influenced her life trajectory. She knew she wanted to be like them. This yes to religious life sounded as if it was a given as Sr. Claire described her decision and that of some of her friends to enter the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, while other friends went off to college, business school or got married.  Career options for young women at that time were limited, including women religious. Most religious communities were involved in health care and education. This was fine for Sr. Claire who always thought she would be a teacher. Education turned out to be a lifelong career, as she served children, families and the church.    

What struck me about Sr. Claire’s call is that it didn’t present itself as a huge decision about which she had to fight back and forth with herself, or that she resented before accepting, or something she saw as particularly profound. I found comfort in the simplicity of her decision, knowing that not all vocations are found so easily, but that some are as simple as following the desires of your heart. Furthermore, the beauty with which she regarded the sisters and their vocations inspired me; it was beautiful to hear her tell me that she just wanted to be like these women who were embodying their faith and love for God by serving the world. 

Sr. Claire (seated, second from the right) and other members of the Board of the St. Joseph Worker program.
Challenges to the Call

Though the call and yes to her vocation were easily distinguishable and accepted by her, Sr. Claire’s family found her vocation a little harder to embrace. Their only daughter and one of their only two children, Sr. Claire’s parents did not completely eschew her desire to become a sister, but they were not as thrilled as she seemed to be. This was challenging for Sr. Claire, especially her father’s hesitation at her decision. However, with a strength that inspires me, she knew that what she was doing was the right thing, and pushed past the challenge this reception presented.

When I asked Sr. Claire about other challenges she was faced with, she told me of times where she had to reaffirm her “yes” to God despite frustrations and uncertainties. One of the first things that presented itself as a challenge was the change in lifestyle being a woman religious presented especially during the formation period –“ learning to become a nun.” With relatively little socializing,  especially with the outside world, was a drastic change in the way Sr. Claire lived her life. Being separated from friends was challenging, and there were some tough days on her journey, especially at the beginning. Despite these valleys, striking was the sureness Sr. Claire felt about her decision; “not once did I think about leaving.”

As Sr. Claire journeyed through life as a Sister of St Joseph, she held fast to her trust in God, enduring the tests that time and life brought to her. A relatable and very human challenge she spoke about was watching many of her friends get married and start families. She spoke of watching those on different life paths with less of a longing and more of an appreciation, yet openly noted that she wondered what her life would have been like had she chosen a different path-especially to be a wife, mom and grandmother. Yet recognizing the woman she is today is due to all the experiences, opportunities, people she has encountered as a Sister of St. Joseph.  I admired her acknowledgement of these wonderings and her vulnerability in talking about what might have been, as I can relate already to deal with the different life directions my friends and I have taken.

I asked specifically if there had been any times in Sr. Claire’s journey in religious life when her “yes” became strained and she graciously opened herself up to me in sharing a particularly hard time. She had been teaching at a school in a small farming town with three other sisters – involved with the school families, participating in parish life and active in the civic community. As she was happily living in this farming community, she unexpectedly received word that the sisters had to withdraw from the school. Alternatives they presented were not an option; the decision had been made. Sr. Claire recalls asking God why this would happen. That vulnerability and questioning before God struck me as relatable; if nothing else, I can relate to thinking you’ve got it all worked out and you are happy only for things to change. I appreciated hearing Sr. Claire speak of this disappointment and questioning, while holding steadfast to her certainty of her decision and in God.

Sisters and St. Joseph Worker at the St. Joseph Worker Program opening retreat,
featuring Sr. Claire closest to the camera!
Lessons in Discernment and Vocation

Listening to Sr. Claire was a wonderful opportunity for me to simply ask more and intently listen to the life story of someone I have had the opportunity of getting to know over the past few months. What struck me the most about this experience was the lessons and wisdom she knowingly or unknowingly imparted on me and the impact her words have on my current journey through my year of service. Sr. Claire’s discernment and yes to vocation looks differently than the discernment I find myself in, but her feelings and understanding of how God speaks to her resonates with me. Hearing the joy and desire for the sisters that Sr. Claire felt as a high school student reminds me to pay attention to the great joys in my life, where they are directed, and where they are directing. She teaches me, through her past and present, to hear God in a way that isn’t only through silent prayer and reflection, but also in the busyness and explosive aliveness of our everyday. 

Jessica, a current St. Joseph Worker, will be blogging about her service experience as part of our ongoing Serving with Sisters Ambassadors series. This series is sponsored by CVN’s From Service to Sisterhood Initiative, a project made possible thanks to the support of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

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