Story and photos by Beth Donze, Clarion Herald
In Sister of Charity Vicki Lichtenauer’s early school days, a classmate named Kevin was known as the “mean” kid who would pull the girls’ hair and hog the balls at recess.
So when a teacher gave Kevin the plum job of equipment manager at the beginning of Sister Vicki’s fifth-grade year, students were filled with dread, convinced that the newly empowered “class troublemaker” would make their lives miserable.
“But Kevin had a totally different year! He wasn’t mean; he wasn’t nasty, because that wonderful teacher said to him, ‘We’re starting fresh today. We’re starting fresh this whole year,’” Sister Vicki said, sharing the story with some of the 1,400 fifth graders in attendance at Mount Carmel Academy for the May 7 “Calling All Fifth Graders” vocation day.
“(Kevin’s transformation) stuck with me, so when I was growing up and I kind of messed up a few times, I would think back to my fifth-grade teacher, who said you can always have a fresh start,” Sister Vicki said. “God is like that. God will say, ‘I love you. You messed up, but you can seek my forgiveness and start fresh.’”
This early lesson, along with serving food to the poor on weekends with her family and serving in her parish’s liturgical ministry, would lead the admittedly hyperactive Sister Vicki to a joy-filled vocation in the religious sisterhood.
“All those (formative lessons) kept coming back to me: Be good to other people. Forgive others. Serve others. And that made my heart very happy,” Sister Vicki told the fifth graders. “So, long story short, I learned about the sisters and became a Sister of Charity.”
Throughout the day, the fifth graders heard additional vocational discernment stories of priests, sisters and brothers through panel discussions and interactive games, discovering that the men and women before them were just ordinary people who had answered an extraordinary calling.
No question off limits
The youngsters were encouraged to ask any question that popped into their heads. They inquired into why the ordained and consecrated wore special “uniforms, if those living in community ever felt annoyed by their housemates and if they liked attending daily Mass. Other questions probed the age restrictions of the various religious communities, the dating history of the members, if they were allowed to give presents and how they supported themselves.
The day’s speakers also rolled off a long list of hobbies, including volleyball, soccer, bike-riding, cliff rappelling and Aqua Zumba.
“I go to Jazz Fest, I eat greasy Popeye’s chicken – I do normal things,” confessed Dominican Brother Herman Johnson, who helps support his religious community as a Spanish teacher at Xavier University.
Brother Herman said his vocation first occurred to him as a fifth grader growing up in New Orleans, after his father read him the story of St. Martin de Porres. Young Herman was intrigued that people of color like himself had gone on to become canonized saints through lives spent in service to the poor.
“The moment my daddy read me the story of Martin de Porres, I knew I was going to be a Dominican brother,” Brother Herman said. “Since becoming a brother, I’ve been in deep peace – not that phony peace. I’m really, really, really happy, because I’m doing what God asks of me. If you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing, you’re very happy.”
Poor Clare Sister Julie Glaeser said her childhood parish’s launching of a guitar-backed Mass inspired her to join the music ministry, enlivened her Mass participation and nourished her faith.
“(God) called me through what I liked the best – singing – and I’ve been singing for the Lord ever since,” said Sister Julie, telling the fifth graders that she lives in a monastery with a small community established by St. Clare of Assisi, who like St. Francis embraced a life of simplicity.
“Our vocation as a Poor Clare is prayer. We pray for the church. We pray for everybody. We pray for the world,” Sister Julie said, describing her daily communal routine of Mass, household chores, cooking and gardening.
“It’s like a family,” she said, noting that while other religious communities send their members out to serve in education, health care and other occupations, the Poor Clares must get the permission of their community to appear in public venues.
“I have a talent for music, but you have a talent for something else, and God is going to be calling on you to use those talents to build up his kingdom,” Sister Julie said.
Clement Furno, a Redemptorist brother for 60 years, revealed he once worked as a stock boy at Winn-Dixie. He enjoys bringing Communion to the homebound and serves his fellow brothers in the refectory. Brother Clement drew applause when he showed the fifth graders part of his stamp collection, which numbers in the thousands.
Father Thien The Nguyen, the parochial vicar of St. Francis Xavier Church in Metairie, revealed he is proficient in sign language and likes taking long train trips and figuring out magic tricks. He said rediscovering the riches of the daily Mass helped to crystalize his vocation to the priesthood, “and now I can say Mass every day for everyone.”
Sister Gioan Linh Nguyen, a Daughter of St. Paul for 35 years, probably had the most varied resumé of the speakers. Sister Linh knows Morse Code, assisted an Associated Press photographer at Michael Jordan’s last championship game in Chicago and is a painter of landscapes and abstract art. She once shook hands with St. Pope John Paul II, met actors Mel Gibson and Samuel L. Jackson and recently saw the movie “Aquaman,” much to the thrill of her young audience.
“Jesus called and I responded,” Sister Linh said simply. “So, here I am!”
Fifth grader Angelina Forstall from St. Pius X School in New Orleans marveled after hearing one priest describe his military background and love for hunting.
“They like to do a lot of stuff that is surprising,” Angelina said. “They don’t always just pray all the time. They have hobbies that are cool.”
Calling All Fifth Graders concluded with Mass celebrated by Archbishop Gregory Aymond. The annual event, which drew fifth graders from 33 elementary schools, is coordinated by the archdiocesan offices of Vocation, Religious, Catholic Schools and by the vocation directors of local religious communities.
Beth Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.