God Calls us in Many Ways. Episode 27 an Interview with Sr. Maria Canisius.

The article below is an excerpt taken from “And The Truth Shall Set You Free,” a weekly podcast series hosted by Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, OP. The producer of the series was GoLEDigital, a digital community created by the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.

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Growing up Catholic, Sister Maria Canisius was always aware of the religious life as a potential vocation, but it wasn’t until college when she began to seriously discern it. With the support of many people, including spiritual guidance of priests and the Catholic presence at her state university, Sister Maria Canisius remained open to God’s will in her life and discerned her religious vocation with the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.  Her vocation story inspires families to remain open to religious vocations for their children, and reminds all of us to keep our priests in our prayers as they are often the guiding light in discernment.

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Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Tell us a little bit about your background, how you were raised, and your family.

Sr. Maria Canisius:

I’m the youngest of four, and we grew up Catholic. We also grew up moving around a little bit, so I got a taste of what different people were like and how the faith was lived in different places, including Germany when I was really little for two and a half years. I owe a lot to my older siblings and my parents for filling in those memories for me.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Did you speak English or German when you were there?

Sr. Maria Canisius:

The funny thing is that they told me that I could very fluently handle the bakery because I’d go with my mom to the bakery and she wanted something as close to American bread as she could find. She had to give specific instructions. Because I went with her, I learned it so well that when my aunt came to take care of us while my parents were back in the States house hunting that I was able to say what kind of bread and how we needed it sliced. I spent most of my life in the Midwest and loved it. There are virtuous people there. I had a lot of great examples to grow up around. I got involved in a great high school youth group which introduced me to both the devotional and intellectual aspects of faith.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Where in the Midwest were you?

Sr. Maria Canisius:

In high school, I was in St. Louis. Most of my life I’ve bounced back and forth between St. Louis and various small parts of Iowa.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Was this a Catholic high school?

Sr. Maria Canisius:

It was not. It’s funny. I remember my mom asking me one day, “Do you want to go to a Catholic high school?” I didn’t know what that meant. I thought that would be an all-girls school, and I was not interested in that. I was getting interested in boys and thought I needed balance in my life. 

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

That’s beautiful. Let me point out to our audience that we want young women to enter our community who are very balanced. To have liked guys and to still continue to like them, even though you know that is not your vocation to marry any one of them, is a beautiful balance since we, again, work with so many children and their parents all the time.

Sr. Maria Canisius:

Absolutely. During high school, I was discerning where to go to college, and I wanted God to be a part of the decision.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Were you raised in a strongly religious Catholic family?

Sr. Maria Canisius:

Not really. We definitely practiced, and we did everything that the church asked us. I remember my mom taking me to Stations of the Cross when I was little. That was a spark, even though at the time I went reluctantly. By high school, I’m thinking, “Give me the entirety. I love this.” I wanted God to be part of the college decision. As soon as I walked on the campus of the University of Northern Iowa, I knew that this was it. It had a beautiful Catholic student center, and I practically lived there. When I wasn’t in my dorm or in class, I was probably over there and made wonderful friends.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

I was going to ask you about your friendships in a Catholic environment in a state university. How did that work into your life?

Sr. Maria Canisius:

It was beautiful to be part of a community that was a little bit smaller, and you felt you had so much in common, but we still were very much our own individual people. We were all different majors, and most of us didn’t have class with each other, but we still felt like we had a home with each other. A lot of beautiful things were happening. Some of my friends who knew a little bit more than I do were saying, “Hey, can we fix some of these liturgical abuses? Can we have more Eucharistic Adoration? Can we start a rosary group?” A lot of that was happening, and vocations were a result of that. 

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

You have mentioned something that’s very common for our vocations, no matter how the young woman, to a certain extent, is raised. Hopefully, there’s always going to be a strong religious influence there, and of course, it’s nice if it’s Catholic; however, when they get to college, I have found that it is common to have an excellent Catholic presence on campus. So many young people in college are looking for God, and I think that’s an essential part of college today. College experiences are across the board if we’re not careful. What keeps us balanced for the good, the true, the beautiful, the virtuous life, is relying on so many wonderful priests and people who run these institutions and draw [students] in. 

Sr. Maria Canisius:

One of the beautiful things is the availability. Whenever college students are around, we’ll have our doors open. There were so many times after class, especially if I had a hard day, when I would walk across the street and park myself in front of the Blessed Sacrament and spend time with Him. “I need Jesus right now.” Through the normal ups and downs of life, somehow that became a draw for me. I typically went by myself.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

That’s grace, for sure. Was it run by Diocesan priests?

Sr. Maria Canisius:

There was a wonderful diocesan priest in charge at the time. He was the first priest I talked to about my discernment, and he seemed very insightful. He said, “I can tell you’re excited, and you’re scared for your life.”

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

That’s a beautiful balance for reality. You were serious about this. What degree were you pursuing?

Sr. Maria Canisius:

At the undergraduate level, I obtained a Bachelor’s in German and History and a minor in Creative Writing. Towards the end of my college experience, I had to admit to myself that I was discerning as opposed to deciding to discern. It’s happened so naturally that this is something that I needed to consider with the draw of the Lord again. I think it’s part of parking myself in front of the Blessed Sacrament. I was there; He was there, and He says, “Do you want to do this forever?” “Yes, I do.” However, I’d barely begun visiting religious orders, and I thought that’s beautiful but and that’s beautiful but. I didn’t find anything that clicked yet, so I went back to St. Louis where my parents were living to pursue a graduate degree in early modern history. Down there, I met Father David Meconi, S.J. who was a wonderful friend and spiritual director. He ran a group called Campion Society, which I heard about even before I started going. This is actually how I met him for the first time. It was God’s providence through not just a friend but a friend of a friend that said, “You’ve got to do this.” Before I was even officially going to Saint Louis University, I went to the first meeting, and I was hooked because there was that intellectual life completely led into the life of faith. 

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Is that Dominican by the way?

Sr. Maria Canisius:

Yes, it’s contemplation and giving to others the fruits of contemplation. That’s something that’s been deep in my heart for a long time. I was searching for a home for that, and I found it here. You were at the second Campion meeting I ever went to with three postulants, who are in their first year of formation. They do not wear the habit yet; they wear blue, but at that time they’re fully living the life of the community and asking whether this is the place where God wants them.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

What happened when we arrived on the scene?

Sr. Maria Canisius:

The funny thing is that God was preparing all of this because there weren’t very many people who knew I was discerning. One dear friend of mine who I’d known for a long time had slid me this direct mailing envelope from the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. I didn’t think she knew I was discerning at the time, and I got mad at her kids who told her. Also, my best friend who had entered the Jesuits heard through the grapevine about our community said I needed to check them out. I’d already been on the website, and I’d been looking especially at the schedule because people had been telling me there are contemplative orders and there are active orders. In my mind, I’d built up this image of it’s either/or, which isn’t entirely true. In my ignorance at the time, I thought I have to be either/or, but I couldn’t choose. I loved the contemplative life, but I loved being able to do something for God’s people. I’m looking at the schedule of the Dominicans, and the first thing is holy hour contemplation, mass, and then after a quick breakfast, you go out into the Apostolate. I thought, “Oh my goodness, they do have both.” It’s a full monastic life with a deep spirituality, but then it goes out and serves the people. That was one of the things that began to click, and then God dropped you into my backyard. I thought I can take a hint. I’m going. I’m going to meet them.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Did you come up and speak to us?

Sr. Maria Canisius:

I remember speaking a lot to the postulants at the time because it was too real to talk to the one in the habit. I’m going to talk to the ones who aren’t in the habit yet. Those three postulants are now fully professed sisters, and we’re still very close. They all introduced themselves, “Hi. I’m Sister so-in-so. I’m sister so-in-so.” I say, “I’m sister.” Then I’m like, “But, I’m not, I’m sorry. I’m not a sister.”  They started laughing. There was a connection, a sense of kinship that I didn’t have when visiting other beautiful religious orders.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

What degree did you obtain from SLU?

Sr. Maria Canisius:

I completed a master’s in history, focusing on medieval and early modern history. The department there was beautiful. There were a lot of faith-filled people. It wasn’t a competitive atmosphere like some grad schools. It was very supportive, and even those who weren’t Catholic were very excited about my vocation. They studied medieval history, and I was about to go live a medieval life. That was exciting to them.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

If it’s art, literature, music, or medieval, it’s got you all over it. I remember that, and I thought being out there, we were afraid, in the 13th century. I think the Dominicans are quite medieval too, even though we are thriving 800 years later. Sister, tell us about your first vocational discernment retreat because I remember it very well.

Sr. Maria Canisius:

I remember being terrified because I knew at that point if I’m going to go on a retreat to Michigan, now I have to tell my parents. Reality’s getting close. I went the November after I met the sisters. It was a very beautiful experience because my natural instinct is to be shy and wait-to-be-approached-to be-spoken-to, which is something I’m always working on, but I felt so comfortable in this environment. There were all these other young women who were looking for the same thing I was looking for – a vocation in life. There was this comfort level there of we’re all here for the same reason. That immediately put me at ease. Everything I was finding out about the Dominican life, both contemplation and action, check. I love studying. That’s part of how I grow closer to God, ever since I was 16 and I first read Mere Christianityby C.S. Lewis. The faith life and the intellectual life go together. They teach, and I already wanted to teach. Everything was coming together. Actually, I went on two retreats. One of them, it was a friend of a friend of a friend who was also going — God uses everybody. The second time, I went with Father Meconi and a whole bunch of girls from SLU, which was a really fun experience. We had a big van and went through the snow. 

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

I think that’s beautiful. It shows you what priests can do. I would say the vast majority of our vocations come through some holy priest who gets it, wants more blessings for himself and for his sheep, and brings them self-sacrificially. I think that’s a heroic thing for a priest to do. Did we have a one-on-one?

Sr. Maria Canisius:

We did both in November and in February. By February, I was pretty sure it was just determining when and that’s a difficult decision. Now that I’ve lived the religious life for so long, I definitely see the wisdom in not snatching at the chance to just go. In my particular case, God wanted me to finish that Master’s degree. I see now entering with the people that I entered with, being able to already have my Master’s degree to start teaching after making my first vows, was a huge grace for me in giving my life to the Lord, and the Lord says, “Okay, go on your first mission and teach.”

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

I would get Father Jacob, a good friend of ours, to go ask you what you were really thinking and to steer you towards action.

Sr. Maria Canisius:

I had plenty of people around me that kept me on the straight and narrow.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

He did a beautiful job as well. I can’t extoll the beauty of the priesthood enough, especially those who love Mary. They’re going to understand women’s religious life. They’re going to see an image in us of the Blessed Mother, that spiritual motherhood, just as we see in them, the priesthood, the alter Christus, that he is another Christ on earth today. It’s that complementarity that St. John Paul the Great always spoke about that is so important. If you are wondering what retreats we are referring to in Sister’s vocation story, they are vocation discernment retreats that take place three times a year. Young women can come and find God’s will. Don’t take a guess. We’re talking about your eternal soul, and everybody that you are supposed to influence in life to come closer to God. Don’t take a guess at your eternal salvation. Sister bravo [on following your discernment], even though you moved with a bit of hesitancy, which is very natural. That’s good because that purifies your motives and makes sure that you are prudently weighing all the possible options.

Sr. Maria Canisius:

There are. Coming to our discernment retreat was refreshing, especially having visited other religious orders where the Vocation Director would try to suck me in, because all that everyone cares about here is finding God’s will.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

God has the perfect timing, and you can’t rush it. We don’t want to be slow. He’s asking you to be a spouse, not us. You graduated with a Master of Arts in History, and then you became a postulant and novice. How did you get your religious name?

Sr. Maria Canisius:

It’s interesting. That also relates back to the intellectual life. When I was in college, I had a wonderful mentor who mentioned a thesis topic to me. “No one’s written about St. Peter Canisius in a really long time.” It’s true. When I started researching, it was difficult to find things on him. What started out as a research project turned into a beautiful, spiritual friendship. I’m reading about his life, and you can say the bare details: he’s one of the early Jesuits; he traveled everywhere; he founded schools; he worked hard to keep people Catholic in a time when everything was just kind of falling apart. There’s that aspect of it, which is heroic and beautiful, and he wrote a Catechism. When you read his letters, it’s also beautiful. On the one hand, if you see his picture, he looks like this very stern Dutchman, which he is, but he had this beautiful heart for spiritual friendship. He only had one home visit ever and spent most of his time away even from the Jesuits that he was closest to, yet he wrote about how we’re united together because we’re living a life for God. Because of that, we’re going to enjoy that happy place where death is dead, heaven. We’re going to enjoy that together. He is poetic, and you wouldn’t expect it.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

You write a lot of poetry too, so I can see that strong connection there. That’s beautiful, Sister. After you entered the Convent, what education have you received through the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist?

Sr. Maria Canisius:

First of all, even in the novitiate, we’re privileged to take classes. It’s beautiful because there’s very little pressure. The tests that we take are important, but that’s not in every class. For the most part, we get to sit back and absorb, which is wonderful. I love classes on Scripture, various spiritual topics, Dominican spirituality, and history. It’s wonderful. We’ve got this really strong foundation. I got to start teaching, and the beautiful thing is I can ask any of my Sisters who are also teachers for advice. I’ve learned a lot from them.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Where did you teach?

Sr. Maria Canisius:

I taught at Peoria Notre Dame High School. After that, I had the great privilege to go to the Catholic University of America to continue formal education and got a Masters of Education there.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

That’s a good education. You have been a lot of places, and you’ve used your opportunities well. That’s beautiful. Your parents are proud of you. Didn’t they just celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary?

Sr. Maria Canisius:

They did. It was beautiful. All 14 of us in my family got to come together.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

I think that’s a beautiful thing too, Sister, for the listeners to remember that our family is always a part of who we are. One thing I remember being very struck with when I entered the Dominicans was how much we pray for our families. I thought I prayed a good amount for them before, but we have to, and we don’t miss those prayers. It is scheduled out in a beautiful way, whereby I can do so much praying. As you mentioned, we’re contemplative first and then apostolic, so we bring Christ who fills us out into the world. To help God set people free through His truth is why the Dominicans value education so highly. God is so good. In the middle of the Jesuits’ universities, here are our vocations also. Through your beautiful witness, I want to thank the priests who help young women find God’s will for them whether it’s marriage, consecrated virginity, or religious life. Father actually got in the car with all those gabby girls, came nine hours, was a part of it, heard confessions, helped give the retreat, got back in the car, and went back nine hours, and then went to his classes on Monday morning. God blesses that gift of self. I know that when Father came to your final vows one year ago, he said, “I have to get a picture with her because God used me to help her find him in this vocation.”

Sister, thank you so much. Your witness is beautiful. You always glow and have a constant smile. Thank you for coming today. Again, in particular to the families, it is important that you’re witnesses to your faith and your love of God. The love of your own marriage is essential as well as the love of you and your spouse for the priesthood and religious life. That frees the child. That’s exactly how I knew my vocation. I had the freedom to look at all the beautiful things, and say, “Which one is God’s will for me?” Sister, that’s exactly what you did, and we’re so grateful to God. 


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