When Elizabeth Rizzo went shopping with her mother for a wedding dress a few weeks ago, she knew she was about to embark on a journey of chit-chat never before seen in any episode of “Say Yes to the Dress.”
As the bridal shop attendant went over her lace and frill options, the conversation naturally turned to the big day and the groom. While Rizzo had prepared herself for the obvious questions, she was as nervous as, well, a blushing bride.
“How do you go into the bridal shop and explain this?” Rizzo said, smiling. “Would people be put off by it or think you’re weird?”
Rizzo explained that on Saturday, May 27 – her 36th birthday – she would be consecrated by Archbishop Gregory Aymond at Our Lady of the Rosary Church to a “Life of Virginity Lived in the World,” one of the oldest sacramental customs in the church dating back to apostolic times and restored by Vatican II.
Amazingly, the shop attendant, not a Catholic, started beaming.
“You’re Paul,” she told Rizzo, who at first was puzzled.
She then reminded Rizzo of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (7:34): “An unmarried woman or a virgin is anxious about the things of the Lord, so that she may be holy in both body and spirit. A married woman, on the other hand, is anxious about the things of the world, how she may please her husband.”
“She was so gracious and she said, ‘I totally understand,’” Rizzo said. “And then she started to cry, and she gave my mom a hug. We were trying to wipe away the tears. It was a beautiful experience.”
One of the searing images Rizzo’s mom Gayle has of her daughter came when she was a first-grader at St. Frances Cabrini School. Gayle was in the pick-up line after school and saw a kindergartner sitting off to the side, away from her classmates.
“That little child looked totally alienated from everybody else,” Gayle recalled. “I was saying a little prayer for her. Lo and behold, here comes Elizabeth’s class, and in nothing more than seconds, Elizabeth sees that child and goes over to play with her and make friends. That, to me, sums up her love for other people. She has an automatic, little radar for that. That is how she tends to live her life, caring for other people, and not in dramatic ways. It just means paying attention to other people.”
Rizzo had discerned for many years whether or not God was calling her to religious life as nun living in community. The contemplative life had resonated profoundly when she visited the Carmelite monastery in Covington for a “Come and See” day and found herself enthralled by praying the Liturgy of the Hours and “being in the quiet of what felt like the Lord’s private garden.”
But she also loved the experience of being planted in the world’s garden. As a support to a friend who was considering consecrated virginity, she attended a weekend conference of the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins in 2013 and wound up being drawn to that call.
“It was like the mold had already been made, and I just needed to pour myself into the vocation,” she said.
Since shortly after her graduation from UNO in 2003, Rizzo worked in the Orleans Parish Civil Sheriff’s Office as a real estate clerk, a challenging job that tests even the most tender of hearts because it involves interacting with distraught people faced with losing their homes through foreclosure. One of Rizzo’s duties is preparing the paperwork that deputies serve on delinquent homeowners.
“Believe me, I did not want this job,” Rizzo said. “It was just something to hold me over while I discerned religious life and discern where God wanted me. It was just a temporary thing.”
Over time, that changed. When people would call wondering about the status of their cases, Rizzo tried to answer every question lovingly.
“They would call and share a sad story, and I would just say, ‘I wish I could help, but I will say a prayer for you,’” Rizzo said. “People would call, maybe months later, and say, ‘I’m in a better situation now, and I just want to thank you for your prayers.’ I started to see fruit from that. As much as I would just love to sing to the Lord all day in prayer, I think God is actually calling me to remain in the world.”
“It’s a place where you’re taking people’s houses away from them,” said Deacon Pete Rizzo, Elizabeth’s father. “But she always treats everybody with dignity and respect. She just has this empathy for people.”
Just before Christmas a few years ago, a woman Rizzo had counseled every month on her looming foreclosure showed up at the front desk. The woman, who had wound up losing her house, handed Rizzo a Christmas card. Tucked inside was a $20 bill. It wasn’t something Rizzo could accept, but she was blown away by the woman’s sentiment.
“I was so touched – it was like the widow’s mite,” Rizzo said.
On Thursdays, when the sheriff’s office holds its property auctions, Rizzo is on the first floor as people bid. Lives are changing as hands go up.
“I pray for the people who are losing their homes,” Rizzo said. “A lot of times I feel terrible being the bearer of bad news, and, believe me, people need to vent to somebody. And they’ll yell at you. I just offer it up. I used to cry almost every day, but I prayed, ‘God, if you want me to stay here, you need to give me the grace,’ and he answered that.”
When Rizzo uses her lunch time to attend daily Mass at Immaculate Conception Church nearby, deputies will shout out to her as she leaves, “Say a prayer for me, E!”
“I feel privileged to be asked to pray for people’s intentions,” she said. “As much as I loved the cloistered Carmelites, I felt that my ministry of service needed to be more visible and direct. This world needs visible witnesses of the faith.”
A first for Abp. Aymond
There are about 4,000 consecrated virgins in 78 countries across the world and 235 in the U.S., said Sister of Mount Carmel Beth Fitzpatrick, the vicar for religious for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. This will be the first time Archbishop Aymond has consecrated a woman to live a life of virginity for the church.
“There is a simplicity in Elizabeth, a genuineness and a beauty, that is both inner and outer,” Sister Beth said. “And this has persisted. She has lived a life of fidelity for years now.”
Following her consecration, Rizzo will follow the spiritual guidance of the archbishop and pray daily the Liturgy of the Hours. She will have the special intentions of praying for priests and for women who have been raped or sexually abused. She will be responsible for making a living and taking care of her temporal needs.
On the last Saturday in May, she will walk up the aisle in her white wedding dress – “I wound up getting it from Macy’s!” – escorted by Sister Beth and her younger sister Miriam. The archbishop will call her forth and offer his solemn consecration to her intention to live a life of virginity for the sake of the church.
She will receive a wedding ring. The ring belonged to her grandmother, Marie Reynolds, for whom Rizzo helped care at home when she went into physical decline and into dementia before her death in 2003. Rizzo said as a Mount Carmel student, she volunteered at Camp Summer Tribe taking care of children with cerebral palsy and other developmental disabilities.
“I think those two summers really prepared me to take care of my grandmother,” she said. “We had to do the nitty gritty stuff of changing diapers and feeding tubes, and sometimes the kids can’t communicate with you. When you become older, you become a baby again.”
Rizzo said her grandmother’s ring will have a dual purpose, besides being a sign of her solemn state as a bride of Christ.
“I know that my grandmother is happy for me, and I pray for her soul, because she was very afraid to die,” Rizzo said. “I think she didn’t know if there was anything else next. I want to continue to pray for her soul so that we can one day be together. It will be a special thing to have her ring so that I can be reminded to pray for others who are afraid to die.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.