By Sean Puzzo – Dominican Volunteers USA
Picture this: ten years from now a group of friends is getting back together for a reunion. They begin to share stories of what they did right after college. Some talk about their first “grown-up” jobs while others talk about moving back in with their parents, and still others talk about changing careers or the different paths their lives took. I say, “Well, I lived in a convent and ministered with sisters for two years.” All drop their drinks and look wide eyed. My friend blurts out, “You what?” I then begin to tell them of two of the most transformative years of my life.
As a kindergarten through college Catholic school graduate, religious sisters have never been strangers in my life; they have been mentors, educators, spiritual directors, and as of most recently housemates and co-workers. It was the last two that I never imagined were possible, however through Dominican Volunteers USA. (2017-2019) I have been living in community and ministering with Dominican sisters. From 2017-2018, I served with the Dominican Youth Movement and lived in the St. Hugh of Lincoln community in Huntington Station, NY. For the 2018-2019 service year, I am serving at the St. Francis Center of Redwood City California and live in the Casa Alianza community. Discerning what volunteer program you may want to take part in can be a daunting task. There are so many things to consider: the type of work you will be doing, living and financial situations, short/long term benefits, etc. There was one thing about Dominican Volunteers that set itself apart from many other programs I was looking at. Volunteers in the program live in “…diverse, intergenerational communities [who] live out the Dominican mission of preaching the Gospel through the four pillars of Dominican Life: ministry, community, prayer and study.” That seemed like an amazing opportunity for me to dig deeper into my faith and discern my future path in life.
My first ministry site was the Dominican Youth Movement USA, a organization that connects today’s youth and young adults to the Dominican Tradition of Preaching in ways in which they can become preachers with their lives and talents. It was exciting to work on programs that had a huge impact on my desire to think about participating in a service year.
I was blessed as our office was in the Dominican Sisters of Amityville’s Motherhouse. Each day I was able to spend time with the wonderful sisters and hear their incredible stories of service, leadership, and compassion. They were truly warriors of their days. I learned more from them and their courage to just say yes as “itinerant” preachers, responding to the signs of the times, than I ever could have in four years of college. My work had me interacting and collaborating with sisters and communities all across the United States who were involved with the formation of youth and young adults. It was truly amazing to see so many sisters who had a vested interest in the youth of the church and saw us as future torchbearers of their Dominican Charism.
One particularly touching moment was when one of the elderly sisters came to our office and expressed great concern for the future of the Order as there had been less and less vocations to become sisters, nuns, brothers, and friars. She expressed with great joy that she had come to realize that the youth were indeed part of the future of the Order and able to spread the Good News in ways never imagined before, something St. Dominic tasked us with many years ago. St. Dominic was said to have had these last words when he died in 1221, “Have charity for one another, hold fast to humility, and make your treasure out of voluntary poverty.” These words were an unspoken mission statement for the four Dominican Sisters I lived with in my first service year.
It may come as no surprise that I began my service year with preconceived notions about what living with four catholic sisters would be like. These notions came from my positive, but limited interactions with sisters outside of an academic setting. Safe to say, all of those ideas were thrown out the window within the first week. I quickly learned that sisters are just like regular people; they joke, they cook, they cry, they work, they may drink, and on the rarest of occasions – they may say a cuss word! Sisters are educators, chaplains, counselors, social justice activists, and so much more. In my case they became a second family who I was challenged to live out Dominican Charism and the four pillars (prayer, study, community, and ministry) with.
I decided to serve for a second year as a Dominican Volunteer. I enjoyed the work I was doing in my first year, but there was something missing. I wasn’t sure what it was though. As the year moved on I figured it out – I was called to direct service. It was the times in my ministry in which I was working directly with students and members of the Dominican family that I found the greatest joy and fulfillment.
Soon, I found myself embarking on an incredible new journey across the United States to serve in a ministry that would capture my entire mind, body, and spirit and quite perhaps change my future plans, once again. Despite my excitement, that first cross country flight had be rethinking my decision every minute!
I currently minister at the St. Francis Center in Redwood City, CA. It’s hard to describe just what the Center is as it does so much good, in so many areas. The Center is committed to serving the community and whole person in ever-changing ways (including education, housing, and direct services) through their motto of “compassion, not judgment.”
At the Center, I work as an ESL Tutor & 5th Grade Religion Teacher at Holy Family School. We aim to “reduce and help break the cycle of poverty by providing a solid value-based education to economically impoverished client family cohorts.” I have the unbelievable honor to share my faith and mold disciples who are the future of our beautifully diverse Church. My hope is that through this year they become models of Christ’s servant leadership.
All of the amazing work at the Center would not be possible without the tireless vision and leadership of Sr. Christina Heltsley, OP who I have the pleasure of living with at our community, Casa Alianza. Casa Alianza is a quiet and peaceful oasis away from the hustle and bustle of the St. Francis Center. Living with Sr. Christina and my fellow DVUSA volunteer, Elizabeth, has been an enormous blessing in my life. God is truly present here in our house. Everyday, Sr. Christina models the words Jesus gave us – that we “come not to be served, but to serve.” Sr. Christina has allowed me, without judgement, to explore my Catholic faith and better understand what it means to be a 21st Century disciple.
In ten years, I will be able to tell the stories of how living and working with sisters made me the person I am today and changed the way I lived, what I want to do in life, and became some of the best mentors and friends I have. They are the sisters I never had and never knew I wanted!
Be sure to follow CVN’s Blog on Thursdays to hear more from Sean and his fellow Serving with Sisters Contributors!
Sean Puzzo is a volunteer with Dominican Volunteers USA and a CVN Serving with Sisters Contributor. This blog series is sponsored by our VOCARE Initiative, thanks to the support of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.