by Angela Sanders
If you saw Sister Michelle Lesher, SSJ, and Sister Kathleen Brabson, SSJ, at the grocery store or perhaps a local high school sporting event, you might not even know it at first glance, but these two women answered what they believed was God’s call to be Sisters of Saint Joseph – a congregation of approximately 785 women religious inconspicuously dwelling in Chestnut Hill and Philadelphia.
It may surprise you, but you won’t see them wearing habits, the traditional black and white garb of nuns, because their order’s mission calls them to blend with and not distinguish themselves from God’s people. In order to do this, the sisters wear ordinary street clothes.
Another way that the Sisters of Saint Joseph carry out their mission is by actively contributing through ordinary, everyday jobs – all for the sake of their mission: to live and work so that “all people may be united with God and with one another.” For example, Lesher is director of vocations in Chestnut Hill, and Brabson is president of Mount Saint Joseph Academy in Flourtown.
“We’ve had sisters that are lawyers, nurse practitioners, social workers and educators, so whatever it is that’s going to advance that mission of union – that union in love, really – is in the realm of possibility,” Lesher said.
According to its website SSJphila.org, the congregation’s ministerial work includes every phase of education, social services and parish ministries.
When a woman considers entering religious life, she first discerns. According to Mariah Chuprinski, Eucharistic Minister at Penn State University’s Pasquerilla Spiritual Center, discernment is when people ask God for direction when trying to figure out what He has planned for their lives. The discernment process is the time when women consider their options for the future; prayer and contemplation often take place here. The answer, though, is not always clear.
In a recent interview, Lesher and Brabson shared their own stories of how they came to realize their vocations – their calling in life. Lesher’s family didn’t go to church very much when she was younger, yet the thought of religious life first came to her mind in the fifth grade.
Growing up in a small parish in Manayunk, Lesher was surrounded by Sisters of Saint Francis, who first instilled in her a love of service.
“They taught me, you know, if someone didn’t have what they needed, that that was my responsibility – that people are our brothers and sisters,” she said. “I would say service brought me to a desire to know God, and then I felt that God was drawing me into a deeper relationship [with Him].”
Later, Lesher encountered the Sisters of St. Joseph for the first time when she attended John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School in Philadelphia. She took part in community service corps. (CSC) events and admired how the sisters interacted with people.
“The only way that I could describe it was that these true, beautiful loving women just came at things from such a different perspective, and I was always fascinated,” she recalled.
At that time, however, she didn’t quite want anyone to know how important her faith was to her.
“She had a reputation to uphold,” said Brabson, laughing.
“In the meantime, I was an athlete,” Lesher responded. “I was a musician, I was trying to be a high school student!”
Lesher attended Chestnut Hill College. Even though she didn’t want to attend an all-girls school, the moment she stepped on campus, she said she knew she was meant to be there and continued to discover her faith.
“Even in college again, I didn’t want people to know,” she said. “But, I was praying, and I cared about deepening my prayer life, and I cared about all of that stuff as much as I cared about going to parties. It was all there and all-important.”
In 2000, she became the campus minister and a theology teacher at Mount Saint Joseph Academy in Flourtown.
“I will say that as I was trying to share this mission with the Mount’s students, I would always say, ‘Of course! I believe everything about this,’” she said. “I thought, ‘How could I not say yes to this?’ It was my experience here that helped me to know that I was called to the Sisters of Saint Joseph.”
In Aug. 2012, Lesher professed her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and she was welcomed as a Sister of Saint Joseph for the first time.
For Sister Kathleen Brabson, it crossed her mind more often than not that maybe God was calling her, too.
“Quite honestly, I did everything possible to get that thought out of my head as quickly as it came,” she said. “I don’t want to say not to be cool, but I really wasn’t surrounded by people that thought this was a good idea.”
Two years after she graduated from college, Brabson felt she was almost haunted by the idea that “this isn’t for me, just go, and get it out of your system.” So, in her 20’s at the time, Brabson decided to apply to the congregation, and she entered in September with the idea that she would leave by Halloween.
Brabson was captivated by what had happened. She started to meet people who had qualities that she admires and strives to embody.
“I met really great women,” she said. “Not famous women, great women. Great in the sense of believing in [their mission] and committing themselves to the day-to-day prayer. All of that just kept appealing to me. So, October comes and I decided that I would be home by Thanksgiving.”
Brabson stopped setting deadlines about six months in. What didn’t stop, however, was her consistent encounters with inspirational women.
“The people that I interacted with were calling me to be my best self, and that’s been something that I think a husband and wife share – that they connect enough to call the best in each other,” she said. “So, that was continuing to happen, and that’s kind of unfolded for the rest of my life.”
When asked what it means to say “yes” to religious life, Lesher responded: “Everyone is called to have God at the center of their life. That’s everyone’s call. But I think, for us, the way that I would describe it is that that’s … the primary relationship of my life. I can think about marriage and I’ve been to weddings where I know that the couple’s focus is: ‘through this person I want to be in a relationship with God united with this person in love.’”
Lesher recalled a 30-day retreat in which she had the opportunity to pray and reflect on what exactly religious life means for her. An image of the heart of God surfaced in Lesher informing her approach toward each of her relationships.
“I really desire to live my life in such a way that in every encounter it’s through the heart of God,” she said. “And in order to do that on any given day, I need to sit with God so that I can try to be in that mystery, in that presence, and be able to move out from that space. For me, that means that I need a lot of time to be able to do that.”
Lesher and Brabson advise young women discerning their own vocations to stay open. The answer, they said, comes from inside oneself because God often works through our interests and gifts.
“Pay attention to [the question] ‘How do I feel in this experience?’ as you’re trying to discern,” Lesher said. “Like, if something touches your heart at a deep place, there’s something there, so pay attention to it, In order to do that, you need to be praying and living from that space of desiring to be in deeper relationship with God.”
According to Lesher, there are two pieces to discerning religious life. First, cultivating a relationship with God – the essential piece – includes spending time praying, talking to people about your prayer life, and getting spiritual direction from a priest or a religious person you trust.
The second piece is spending time with religious communities and individuals who have already taken their religious vows.
“You wouldn’t make the decision to marry someone without spending a whole lot of time around them, and thinking about it, and noticing how you feel,” Lesher said. “[So,] visit different people in different ministries. Pray with the sisters. All those things.”
Brabson and Lesher encourage young women to ask a lot of questions, to get to know the sisters, and to experience community life: Does it give you great energy to think about living this life? Does it make you happy? Do you enjoy the encounters that you have?
Brabson added: “In every human relationship you need to go through the cycle: Is it getting deeper? Am I becoming more me? Because that ultimately is what God wants of us. God wants us to reflect His image.”
As much as a husband and wife love each other and begin a relationship, “I don’t think either of them can absolutely be sure that this is God, but you grow into that and you keep believing in it, and more things confirm it than not,” Brabson said.
Just as two spouses grow in relationship with God primarily through each other, sisters keep moving in faithfulness and love, growing in their relationship with God through everyone.