The Beauty of a Sincere Confession: Sister Mary Elizabeth Miriam’s Vocation Story. Episode 29

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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Full willing and joyful participation in the sacraments leads to so much more.  This is the moral we learn from Sister Mary Elizabeth Miriam’s vocation story. She grew up nominally Catholic, but she truly embraced her faith in graduate school and fell more in love with God with each passing day. As she spent time in confession and in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, she opened her mind and her heart to His call and responded beautifully.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

There is so much out there for every person who is curious about finding his or her own personal relationship with Christ because that’s certainly what our vocation is among all the people. We were created by Him, for Him, with Him, and to come home to Him in Heaven. Our role in this world is important. What we do, what is our vocation, the way that we love, to whom and how we give our hearts, ultimately to God Himself. I want to welcome Sister Mary Elizabeth Miriam. Tell us about your background and how you were raised.

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Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

I grew up in Rochester, New York, with my parents and my two brothers, Tom and Aaron. I was the oldest of the three. My mom’s Catholic, and my dad’s Protestant, so I grew up in that environment where they shared the Christian faith. I remember my mom reading us bedtime stories where some of them were the Bible stories.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Did your brothers take to it the same that you did, or was there a difference in you because you were older or because you were the only girl of the three children? 

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

I think we all loved those bedtime stories, but in terms of our religious education, we went to public schools. We went to the parish CCD program, and I was able to actually complete that program. My brothers stopped before they were confirmed.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Was Confirmation a major part of your religious development?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

I’m glad you asked about that because that was a time of my life when I was questioning the faith. Because my parents came from different religious perspectives, I felt at a loss to know where to go. I asked the Lord, “I want more of You in my life.” I knew that. I always knew that the Bible was God’s word, and I loved the Bible, but I wasn’t sure about the Catholic faith and that plan in my life. I asked, “I want more of You, and I’m going to be confirmed because I want more of You, but I’m not sure about the Catholic Church at this time.” I actually told the Lord that, and I was too hesitant to go to my parish priest or to another adult and find out more. That journey continued to college.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

How old were you when you were confirmed?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

I was in eighth or ninth grade.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Who is your confirmation saint?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

Actually, I took the virtue of Hope.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

That’s interesting, considering what you just told us about wondering about the Catholic faith. Why you would choose the virtue of hope?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

I was seeking and wondering, at the time, and I didn’t know many of the saints. My mom was hesitant to share them with us since my father was from a Protestant background. When it was time to choose something, we were told by our teacher that we could choose virtues as well. That’s why I aligned with Hope. I  appreciate the Hope of Jesus being the anchor of our soul and Scripture and to see how that’s unfolded in my life.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

You went to a public high school in Rochester. Did that influence your faith life?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

There were other Christians on campus. I think that was an encouragement. We came from many different areas. I was one of the farther students who traveled to that school, so I wasn’t in the same parish a lot of my friends were attending.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Interesting. At least you shared the faith, but it wasn’t a personal friendship as much as perhaps you might have wished for. When you graduated from high school, what did you do?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

I was deciding what field to enter. My parents encouraged something practical so that we could build a career. I’d always been attracted to the sciences. I loved math and science. I think AP Chemistry was my favorite high school class. It was not the easiest class, but the fact that you had to think very deeply about how everything came together, and in creation and how it all worked. I liked the challenge. I liked other subjects as well. I enjoyed French, but that was probably my worst subject. Math was always attractive as well. That led me to think about science and engineering. As I looked at what schools to attend, I looked at their science and engineering programs.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Let me pause right there. Your dad had other influences on you.

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

This is true. My father studied electrical engineering and was an electrical engineer. My mom has her master’s in math as well. My parents considered education very important. I’m very grateful to my parents for giving me a beautiful upbringing in terms of the values of what’s important. Family and education were certainly among the highest.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Again, I want to point out to our listeners and viewers how important it is for parents to educate the entire person in their children while they themselves are being educated. They’re doing this in a spousal manner also. It is important for children to be challenged in the intellectual realm. We say, “Educate the whole person,” the intellectual, the physical, and the spiritual realms. Your story, Sister, is reminding me of so many others. When you leave home at whatever grade level or age to go to school, you’re not running into a very spiritual environment and peers who would boost your faith life, to put it mildly. It doesn’t sound like you were out there boosting too many others either at that point in time?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

Probably not. It was more interior questioning at that time. My parents did encourage me in education. Even in high school they would look at what classes I was interested in, and we discussed that together and said, “Well, should I take French? Should I take Spanish? I have an elective slot. What should I take for my electives?” That was beautiful to have their openness and interest in my education.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

They did that for your brothers as well. That’s beautiful, hands-on parents taking part in their children’s guidance for their choices as they grow up. Where did you attend?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

I ended up going to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, RPI, in Troy, New York. It’s definitely science and engineering. I was excited to go there. I was debating between science and engineering, but I found I liked the idea of science because you got to learn all about creation.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

When you say science, you’re referring more to the physical sciences, biological sciences, all the above?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

All of the above. I was interested in all of that. I had opportunities in college to take two anatomy and physiology classes. It turned out that was a field where my mom would say, “Don’t forget about those sciences,” as I applied to grad school. I appreciate being able to study all of the sciences and how they interacted together. I wanted to do something where I could use the understanding from the sciences, and that’s why I went into engineering, to build using the understanding of the sciences. I love physics, and maybe this goes back to when my parents got us Lincoln Logs and Legos when we were little. Then I was studying the different branches of engineering, and I didn’t realize how many there were and all the details. I finally settled on electrical engineering.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Were there many women in your class?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

Oh, no sister. I think at the time the school had a ratio of one woman for every five men at the school. Many of my friends were women in engineering, so it was a great environment. I found wonderful friends who supported each other, and in the sciences and engineering disciplines I found that students are collegial and will help each other form study groups and work together.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

That’s so important. Was there any faith element in common with the other students, or was that on the side burner?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

This was when my personal faith started to take root and deepen. I got involved in the local student parish attending mass regularly there and also in university Christian fellowship. I had a group on campus, and I am so grateful for my time. I was involved every semester in a small group Bible study as well as their large group meetings where we prayed and sang together and learned more about the Lord. That deepened my love of scripture and developed a relationship with God.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

We are community and family oriented, and it does help to have that support. You graduated with an incredible degree in electrical engineering. What was next in your decision making?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

At this time, I was asking God what’s next in my life. There were so many options. I realized that I could go on for further studies or I could get a job. I did go to career fairs at that time to see what the options were, and several of my friends were going for masters or further studies. In my heart at that time, my long term goal was to be a wife and mother. I knew at that time that I had the part of a woman’s vocation that is the maternal heart. I had seen that expressed throughout my life in motherhood and marriage. I decided since at that point I wasn’t married that I should continue education. The Lord was giving me opportunities to pursue further education, so I decided to take that route and investigate different graduate school programs. I looked at Carnegie Mellon, the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, and the University of Michigan. I was going to continue electrical engineering and wanted to consider what research opportunities were available at these different institutions. Part of my big decision was meeting with different advisors, understanding where their fields were, their expertise, and what their research interests were. This is where my mom’s encouragement to keep that aspect of sciences broad came back to me, and I realized I could couple my electrical engineering background with a biomedical emphasis. This is a wonderful field of electrical engineering, and there’s so many subdivisions within it that I can do something that can help people on a level involving the biosciences. I was looking at researching and devolving hip replacements.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Each university offered a different slant on the research aspect? 

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

That was a big part of the decision. Not only the courses selection but what advisor you’re going to be working with. I decided to attend the University of Michigan.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Can you believe God’s providence? If you pray and try to figure these things out, He does prompt you.

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

It’s so true. This is a point where looking back, I can see what the Lord was doing. I had no idea at that time. If you had tried to tell me, I wouldn’t have understood. He tells us what we need at the time, and He calls us to be faithful in the moment, and He gives us the grace for the moment. I think that’s where we have to realize if we’re thinking about the future and we’re concerned, it’s because it’s not there yet. God will give us the grace when it’s time.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

A pearl of wisdom forever. God will give you the grace when it’s time for that particular grace.

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

I’m still learning that. It’s beautiful to see how that played out in my life. 

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

At what point did you get real about your prayer life, and then find your vocation as well?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

I was attending the University of Michigan. At the end of my undergrad and beginning of my graduate program, I was actually dating someone. When we realized that this wasn’t God’s will at this time, I ended that relationship and went through a period where I was deepening my faith. From the time I started my graduate degree, the Lord was speaking more deeply from my heart. I was at a new city by myself, and a time of being alone is important. It’s a time of solitude. The Lord would call people to the desert. The desert is seen through our monastic history is a time of prayer and a time of being alone for the Lord. I think that could happen in our own busy life, in our technological world, when we give the Lord space in our lives. That first year I was living by myself in an apartment, and I had a lot of time to think, pray, and listen to the Catholic radio station I discovered. I am grateful for all of those people who witness to Christ and witnessed to the Church. Listening to the radio was what made me realize this is Christ’s Church. The Catholic Church is Christ’s Church.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

How beautiful for the media to be so powerful in someone’s life. That’s exactly why we’re doing these podcasts. This is beautiful.

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

I realized this is Christ’s Church. I need to open it open-handedly, accepting everything. It’s not a little bit of this or a little bit of that, or I want this part. Growing up, my parish had some interesting practices, including communal confession services. I had not remembered going to individual confessions since maybe second grade. I was a graduate student. The Lord spoke to my heart. He gave me the grace to say I want to go to confession. This is what I need to do. I want to embrace the Church wholeheartedly, and no matter what’s happened in that intervening time, I can give it all to Him. That confession was so powerful. The priest didn’t say anything particularly moving or inspiring or consoling. It was the sacramental grace. I’m getting goosebumps telling you about it. I gave the Lord all my sins, and He gave me His life. He gave me Himself. He gave me a new beginning. He gave me everything.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

You gave all, and He gave His all, which is more than our all could ever be, but in Him, it’s the same.

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

At that time I renewed my faith life. I paid attention to when I went to confession, and eventually, I started going monthly or every three weeks, and then I learned about this thing called daily mass, so I thought I should try that out. I started going to daily mass first Sundays plus one day, Sundays plus two days, Sundays plus every day of the week. The Lord was pulling my heart. Then I heard about this thing called Eucharistic Adoration, and I realized that Jesus is really present in the Blessed Sacrament.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Was there a really strong presence of Catholicism on the U of M campus, or did you find them?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

We found each other. Actually, it was Eucharistic Adoration. I left adoration one day, and another girl followed me out and said, “I’m interested in starting this group of students,” and that’s how I found my group of Catholic students on-campus. We’re community-oriented, and we need each other, and we need to encourage each other in the faith. I remember sitting in someone’s dorm room making rosaries together and sharing the faith together on campus. It was such a joy to be able to pray together and to know others who were falling in love with Jesus. I was also spending more and more time in Eucharistic Adoration. This is when my vocation started. First, I heard on Catholic radio that one should pray about one’s vocation, and it could be the married life, which is what I had always assumed, it could be the priesthood for the men, and it could be the religious life, and I didn’t even know people still did this. I thought I should do that. I started praying. My original prayer had been, “Dear Lord, for my future spouse and future in-laws,” so I kept and I said, “Or whatever Your will is.” Pretty soon I realized I shouldn’t be telling God that marriage is what’s going to make me happy and that being a mom is what’s going to make me fulfilled. I should be asking Him, that He made me, He loves me unconditionally and fully more than I can imagine, and He knows what’s best for me. He’s loving and wants our hearts and wants to love them and fill them with His love. He drew me. I fell more and more in love with the Blessed Sacrament. I heard about several communities in the area and visited them, including ours, and came on retreats. Then I started spiritual direction and kept praying about what is God’s will. Is it physical motherhood in a marriage, or is it spiritual motherhood? He opened my heart to realize it’s not just a family of a few children, but having the whole world as your spiritual children.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

How far along in your degree was all this?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

It was paralleling my research, which was taking off as well. I was part of the Center for Wireless Integrated Microsystems. For short, we call it WIMs, Wireless Integrated Microsystems, and we worked on mechanical, electrical, electromechanical systems, microelectromechanical systems, MEMS. My original research was on cochlear implants, the next generation of cochlear. I was excited to bring that engineering mind to the needs of people who are profoundly deaf and for whom regular hearing aids wouldn’t work. It was an exciting opportunity to learn all of the science and engineering behind it and the intricacies. I enjoyed the challenge of the classes. I started doing my classwork, research and moving on in that. Then I eventually took my examinations for my Master’s degree and passed those. It was around that time that I realized the Lord was calling me to something deeper, although I was on the Ph.D. track at the time. I had to ask Him, “Lord, what’s your timing? I think you are calling me to religious life.” I’m in this program where I realized the gift I was given of having a research fellowship, where I wasn’t having to pay for my program. I was receiving a stipend, which would cover books and housing and things like that. Because I was doing the research, I was able to do this. That’s a gift from the Lord. I’m grateful for that opportunity. I realized if He was calling me now, I needed to respond now. I finished all of my coursework and examinations for my Ph.D., and I had done two years of research towards the Ph.D. research when I made that phone call home and told my parents, “I think I’m called to enter the convent.” I think that that was hard for them at first because that’s a lot to give up. You want what’s going to make your children the happiest, and they saw this beautiful opportunity for me and didn’t want me to give something up prematurely. I also know that they wanted me to be joyful. They wanted me to have the fullness that was meant for me and through my conversations with them, they wanted me to consider the gifts I had currently, but to make it the decision I felt the most comfortable with. God bless them for that willingness because that’s stepping out in faith. They were able to come and visit the community. At this point, I knew I was being called to our community, Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, and was grateful for the opportunity. I was actually attending vespers on a regular basis.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

I remember you riding your bike over to vespers from U of M. Every Sunday afternoon at five o’clock we had vespers followed by the rosary for the public. Some time if you’re going through Ann Arbor, stop in at five o’clock on Sunday and pray with us. Sister began doing that. I remember that well.

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

I had to do that for about a year or so and enjoyed meeting the community and praying with the community, and now it was time to enter the community. I shared that information on campus first with my advisor and then with other students. It was shocking for people to say, “You’re going to do what? You’re giving up what? What are you going to do? What about your education?” But also, they knew me, and they knew they could tell that this was going to make me happy. They were willing to say, “Step out in faith.” My advisor was very supportive. He said, “You’ve done great things here, but you’ll do great things there.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Sister, you entered putting your Ph.D. on complete hold in total faith. 

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

When people would ask, “What are you going to do? Are you going to finish your degree?” I said, “Well, no, I’m entering the convent. I’m going to do whatever the Lord calls me to do.”

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

The vow of obedience. You truly have the grace of obedience. That’s beautiful. How did God work this out through time?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

I was blessed with our wonderful formation program. The first four years you’re being informed of what does it mean to live a religious life, what does it mean to be a sister, and after three years we take vows, and during that time I was wholeheartedly absorbing philosophy and theology classes and choir practice and living with my sisters and being a sister and praying with the community, and that was a blessed time. After that, I was sent to get my teaching certification in high school physics and math first at Washtenaw and then at Eastern Michigan University, and I enjoyed that opportunity. I had a semester where I got to work with you in the vocations office, which was a wonderful opportunity to talk to other young women who are considering this as a vocation and help them on their journey. Then the opportunity to advise student teaching as well, which is the highlight of your education certification program where you actually get to work with students and make a difference in their lives. One day I had an interesting conversation where I was asked if I remembered that education that I had started before I entered the convent and that if there was a possibility for me to go back, what would I think about that possibility, and my mind was like, “What happened?” I actually had the opportunity to contact my advisor Dr. Ken Weiss and say, “I know it’s been some time, but would you take me back? Do you have an opening in your research? What happened to the project that I had transferred to another student?” That project was actually concluded. Another student had finished the work that I had begun on that, which was wonderful. He did have some other research opportunities that were open, so I was able to go back.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Isn’t that beautiful, sister? Our God is a God of surprises.

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

He is. I was not anticipating that at all. I had given up totally into His hands, and He gave it back, and not only did He give it back, but going back I had so much more experience. I was settled in my vocation. I knew who I was. I enjoyed my time at the University of Michigan the second time so much more than I did originally. I felt more at ease with myself and who I was and my vocation, and knowing that this was God’s will for me and that I could come back and study engineering again was a gift and to do it with more joy.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

I remember going with a huge group of sisters to listen to you defend your thesis. Tell our audience what research you got into when you went back to complete your Ph.D. in electrical engineering.

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

I thank the sisters for their support throughout. I am so grateful for the community, both at the thesis defense and my journey towards it. My thesis was a three-dimensional bidirectional interface for neural mapping studies. Scientists have used simple electrodes for a long time. Basically, it’s a wire coated in an insulator with an exposed tip to implant in the brain in order to stimulate and record brain signals to try to both better understand the brain but even more importantly to help people with Parkinson’s, deafness, or other conditions. I was able to enter this field which took some of my earlier research in a slightly different direction. I worked in particular under the Dr. Weiss, but also with an advisor from the Kresge Hearing Institute in her lab, understanding the guinea pig auditory pathways, in particular the cochlear nucleus. I developed a small device that could be implanted into the cochlear nucleus to help understand how the auditory pathways worked as part of that, which could be used both in the science perspective in understanding the brain and also in the engineering and biomedical perspective for future auditory prostheses for people who have trouble with their hearing pathways. One of the exciting things about the research is actually the small scale. You think of how small a millimeter is or a human hair, and how many human hairs you could put together to form a millimeter. A human hair is about 100 microns in diameter. The devices I was working on, the actual shanks of the probes, would be maybe 15 microns because you need to not damage the brain as you’re inserting it. We could see them, but we had to be careful not to lose them. They’re very tiny and static electricity. Be very careful opening the box. They’re going to jump out. Don’t breathe on them. I was able to design them with special computer programs, and we had some staff who did the fabrication. Once they were fabricated, I had to finish the assembly process. We also had some researchers who helped with that, but I actually did some of the hand assembly with devices that small and using vacuum picks and other tools.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Think how many people you are helping out with your research. It sounds so much more involved in a very delicate manner than the first cochlear implants. I was thinking even spiritually, it probably probed deeper into your soul in a newer dimension. To give that kind of intricacy and attention back to God for the benefit of His children, whoever it may be as time goes on.

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Miriam:

It is a collaborative field. I think that’s the beauty of it, and the fact that you’re always drawing from others, working alongside of others, and then giving to the future whoever to develop it. There’s a spiritual aspect to that. It’s such a gift. I think we all have to remember our lives can seem very ordinary. Testing probes day after day gets very ordinary because you’re doing very repetitive work. Once you’ve designed them, you have to do a lot of assembly. You do a lot of testing, and it does become ordinary. The folding of the probes. The testing of electrical signals. Realize that God’s in the ordinary and that you can glorify Him through the ordinary, and part of that’s living a life of virtue in the day-to-day.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

We all have different communities, as long as we say yes to God as He does for us. Thank you for being here today.


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