A Tale of Two Doctors. Meet Sr. Mary Elizabeth and Sr. Stephen Patrick. Episode 30.

Sisters Mary Elizabeth and Stephen Patrick are embarking on an exciting collaboration with Father Nicanor to create a high school level curriculum teaching evolution to students through the Catholic perspective. The goal is to bring together faith and science into an approach that gives due glory to God as the Creator and teaches students how He is the Creator of everything, not simply a piece in the puzzle.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

I have two guests back today, Sisters Mary Elizabeth and Stephen Patrick. Their stories are fascinating in how God led them deeper into our beautiful Catholic faith, gave them so many gifts, in the field of science. Sister Mary Elizabeth has a PhD in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan down the street from us. Sister Stephen Patrick has a PhD degree in cellular biology from Catholic University of America. Today, Sisters, you are both here to share a new project that, in God’s eternal providence, He has you both working on together. Sisters, would you tell us how you got involved in this ongoing research?

Sr. Stephen Patrick:

We were blessed to know our Dominican friars. As I said earlier, I got to know Father Nicanor Austriaco when I was working on my PhD. We both work in a yeast lab, and so we had a background together.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

This was at CUI?

Sr. Stephen Patrick:

I was studying at the Catholic University, but Father teaches at Providence College. We both do the same type of research in yeast, and he wants to collaborate with our community. He loves our community very much. When he was given a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to create a high school curriculum for teaching Thomistic evolution, he thought, “I want these Sisters to help me translate the friar’s knowledge down into a simpler high school level.”

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

That’s fascinating. As Dominicans, to teach anything to high school students or anyone else in the Thomistic method and the great depth of philosophy and theology is exciting. What a great privilege to have a grant for that. Sister Stephen Patrick knew Father Nicanor from working with him in her other research fields. What about you, Sister Mary Elizabeth?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth:

I had the privilege of meeting Father Nicanor for the first time this summer, and he’s a true Dominican. He loves his vocation. He loves our Lady. He loves the Church. It was a gift to work with him and the other friars on this project and to know that this is an ongoing collaboration and that we’ll have the opportunity to continue it over the next several years. I’m so grateful.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

How did he choose our Sisters?

Sr. Stephen Patrick receives here Doctorate in cellular biology from Catholic University of America in Washington DC

Sr. Stephen Patrick:

From working with me, he got to know our community. It’s also a great blessing because several the friars we were working with I got to know as student brothers when I was studying at the Catholic University.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

We’re referring now to the Eastern Province, or were they spread out among the Dominican?

Sr. Stephen Patrick:

The Eastern. He was the Province of Saint Joseph. There are five friars on the team and two Dominican sisters. All of us have doctorates from a variety of fields.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Did he approach the community with this interest?

Sr. Stephen Patrick:

He did. About a year ago, he asked Mother and our sisters if we’d be able to make this commitment, and he wants us so badly that [he would do] anything to make it possible. He’s willing to make it work so that our sisters can be part of the collaboration.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

I remember when the request was made, and the concern was: do we live our regular, contemplative, apostolic, religious life? Now, even saying that with a wonderful priest such as Father Nicanor at the head of the whole research, we already knew the answer. It’s beautiful, Sister, that you brought that up, because the community would always say, “Our religious life is number one.” The overflow of the contemplative is the apostolate. Since our community was just founded on the cusp of the new millennium in 1997, God has prepared us to go into the various academic fields today with hands-on, intellectual, and prayerful support for all of the above. Would you tell our listeners exactly what this project is?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth (far left) holds a doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan. Sisters even teach from the rooftops in Chicago if need be.

Sr. Mary Elizabeth:

Sister and I are both privileged to study and teach in the field of science, and it’s a gift to be able to do that and to bring our faith and our science together. As a high school science teacher and as a Catholic and a religious sister, I’m always thinking, “How can I help my students understand Jesus Christ more, come into a deeper relationship with him, and understand the way God works with the world?” I think it’s important to realize God transcends the world. He’s not part of His material creation, and I think this is a misconception that many people have. They think we’ve got forces of nature, and God is another force in the mix, and then there’s a competition. Either God did it, or these other forces did it. We must help students realize it’s not a competition. God’s the Creator of the whole, physical universe, and He gives the nature to things that exist. He works within His creation. He sustains His creation, and He transcends His creation. I think the first part in our own classrooms, even before this project, and now through this project, is helping students come to this realization that God is the author of creation, and it’s not a God of the gaps where we understand the science, but we’re missing this middle piece, so God must have done it. That’s an insufficient understanding of who God is.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

A God of the gaps, and this is incorrect. 

Sr. Mary Elizabeth:

It’s both incorrect science and incorrect theology. People think it’s good theology. It’s incorrect theology because it’s making God smaller. What happens is, as science understands more about the world around us, the gaps get smaller. If your idea of God is the gap filler, then God gets small. Our God is big God. We don’t want that to be an obstacle to faith for our students. We want to clear away any obstacles through explaining more clearly and helping the students to understand more deeply how God works in His creation, through sustaining it, and how He lets creation be a true cause. For this project, we’re focusing on evolution.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

The fallacy and faults dichotomy between faith and religion is ridiculous; however, many scientists abide by some of that. In any case, the fallacy of the God of the gaps is that it seems like there’s a psychological tendency to say, “Therefore, I can control. I am in control.” In other words, it’s taking the creative aspect away from God and saying, “I have a part in this too,” in regard to the control issue. It seems like a very strong weakness of man is leading into this fallacy because at some point, if we’re people of faith, we must stand and say, “Though I can’t understand everything and certainly can’t explain everything, I do believe,” and that’s where faith takes over versus understanding. That’s fascinating, and it certainly is the world of the new millennium and the world of today. What exactly is this project focused on to help relieve this problem?

Sr. Stephen Patrick:

This is such a perfect time for this project because, as we read about all the time, the nones, not the N-U-N-S, but the N-O-N-E-S, the younger generation that we teach are leaving our faith because they see this incompatibility between faith and science, and we’re already addressing that head-on. This past summer, we’ve had the privilege of studying the compatibility of faith and science. It’s convicted me to bring opportunities to ask questions in the classroom even more often and to pose those questions for our students, so that they can understand that science is seeking the truth of the natural world around us, and our faith is revealed truth, but as Catholics, we don’t have to fear at any point in time, even if we have other findings in evolution as we go forward or something that disproves a piece of it. We’re not tied to the truths of the science. We just know that faith and science and reason all go together because they come from God Who created it all.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Sister, I’m sitting here thinking, as our sisters go back into teaching apostolate, which we’re always involved in, and both of you go to separate high schools in different parts of the country to teach science to young people of the high school level at this point in your professional lives, how can you bring the time that you put in on this project already and what you’ve already learned and prayed about because everything that we do, we take to prayer. It’s all the result of our prayer life. How is this going to affect your classrooms differently?

Sr. Stephen Patrick lecturing on the beauty of life, and the connection between science and faith.

Sr. Stephen Patrick:

One of the first ways is understanding the dignity of every student, and knowing who they are, calling them by name. We’re not computer programming. We’re teaching human beings. I think that aspect is the first aspect because if your faith is about relationship, and you’re going to introduce someone to Jesus Christ, it’s going to be built on relationship. Even when we’re removing obstacles in the field of science, it’s always through this idea of relationship and the dignity of the person to the fact that God created them and gave them their beautiful soul. I’ve always been astounded by my students when they give me the end of the year feedback. They say, “I love how you—.” They feel like I’m always preaching God in chemistry. I don’t feel like I’m ever doing it. Chemistry is all that is around us, and I bring this to the point of wonder and awe of how amazing all of creation is. As you go deeper into superstring theory or whatever, you see more and more order, which doesn’t make sense. That’s the order that’s written into the design of the universe.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Which saint are we referring to that this is all based on, who was the Dominican and 14th century? St. Thomas Aquinas. His whole reference to God is a God of order. Again, in our chaotic world, if we don’t put order back into our own lives, we are going to be as chaotic as the rest of the world. God created this order, which is the theme of your research, evolution. Tell us how that theme was chosen.

Sr. Stephen Patrick:

Father Nicanor studies the field of biology, and I think this topic of evolution has been something that’s been close to his heart, realizing that it’s been an obstacle to the faith of so many. He’s already published a book called The Mystic Evolution, and he has a website online to help remove obstacles to faith. He wanted it to go deeper and reach other audiences.

Sr. Mary Elizabeth (on right) enjoying one of God’s many gifts – the great outdoors!

Sr. Mary Elizabeth:

What he’s noticed as he’s traveled the country is how there’s a very strong creationists group, even among Catholics. Our project is also being focused towards the homeschooling communities because we want them to feel secure in knowing you’re getting solid truth.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

I remember being able to teach homeschooling at the beginning of our community when I had a little bit more time. I asked the homeschooling populations in different parts of the country what, besides theology and some philosophy, would you want someone out there who knows something to teach to take the burden off of you? It was always science, which thrilled me because I would think, “That would be what I would want to teach my children because I would want to make sure they understood the faith element goes with science. That God is the creator of it all.” This is exactly the battle that you both are helping these wonderful Dominican priests with. You’re going to be producing something. Tell us more about that.

Sr. Mary Elizabeth:

Our domestic evolution project has three different teams: a theology team, a philosophy team, and a high school team. The theology and philosophy teams are producing academic papers and giving conferences around the world. Sister and I are helping head up the high school team. That’s why the Friars wanted us because we have that educational background. 

Sr. Stephen Patrick:

We’ll be creating a series of curriculum resources for high school educators, high school teachers, homeschooling groups, and parents and students. We’re excited to put something together that, through our own prayer and study and the Friars’ prayer and study, is nourishing us and will be a resource for them to use.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Sister Stephen Patrick, how does your prayer feed into all of this?

Sr. Stephen Patrick:

This summer we had the privilege to study before we met with the Friars, and I would have never thought that evolution would be something that you think, “Oh, this is so beautiful,” but when you’re studying evolution and looking at God’s providence and action and thinking about what does it mean to be human, [it is beautiful] because if all life is coming from one common ancestor, you could make that seem like it’s not important or we’re all just the same thing. It’s beautiful that we are in relationship with all of creation on one level, but the idea that human beings are purposefully willed by the Father out of love for all eternity. We’re created with these gifts of intellect and free will, and you realize our students and our culture don’t know what it means to be human. We were thinking, “Wow. How often we’re not living on that level half the time either?” That call to be the beautiful creature that’s been created by the Creator. To live on the level of the intellect and the will and honor our Creator and trust Him and give Him everything and seek what should I be doing right now as opposed to going with the flow or following your passions or impulses.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

In another way, the Dominicans are leading the charges towards intellectual honesty and bowing before the Creator and saying who I am and who I am not. You mentioned you’re gearing this towards high school at first. Is it going to eventually be expanding? We all know the battles our high school teachers fight that both of you mentioned in your vocation stories and the support that you need. I think in today’s world, it’s coming through a source that has always been a source of faith, but they’ve turned it around so many times, which is obviously a dangerous crippling to our humanity which is coming through science by their lack of understanding of the Creator. Your first goal will be high school, and then is there a continuation of this plan?

Sr. Stephen Patrick:

Honestly as we were preparing for the collaboration this summer, we sent out a survey to the high schools where our Sisters teach theology, biology, and science. What struck us, even as we were talking with the Friars and analyzing the feedback, is we’ve got to educate the educators.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

That’s what I was hoping you were going to say.

Sr. Stephen Patrick:

It’s already written at a level for the common person. Even trying to figure out our format, we want it to be accessible to the teachers, the high school students, and the homeschool students, which would also go to their parents. 

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Is there any date hoped for this when our audience might be able to get some of this research?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth:

The grant is for three years, so in three years we have to have a product of some sort.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

That’s good. That forces us to keep our noses to the grind.

Sr. Mary Elizabeth:

We’ve got great plans. We feel compelled to put on professional development so that we can better implement this. We hope to apply for further grants to receive funding to train teachers and get better feedback.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

I think you will not have any problems in doing that with the caliber of both of you and Father Nicanor and the other Dominicans working on this. It’s a need in our time, and it’s a Godsend to all of us who value truth and God the creator and His plan for every single one of us. I thank you for taking time out of your busy schedules to come here today. We have to be patient and wait to see what the product is, but we will take the prayers all along as this spreads out further from the little ripples to the entire ocean to the world that God created and trusted to the likes of us. God bless you both and thank you so very much. Many prayers for you and for us as we continue to strive in to answer God’s little requests to us that we become the people He’s made us to be and share His love with the entire world.


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