It wasn’t the traditional path toward solemn vows she expected, but her latest milepost marked a permanent victory.
Sr. Sarah Cieplinski professed solemn vows as a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur. Her family was there to share in it all during both the vow ceremony Dec. 29, 2018 and a Phoenix-area reception Jan. 20 following the newly-professed sister’s annual Giving Voice retreat at Our Lady of Guadalupe Monastery in Phoenix. The retreat gathers sisters in their 20s and 30s at various stages of discernment with any community nationwide.
Sr. Sarah remembers the idea of religious life coming up while preparing for the sacrament of Confirmation at St. Timothy Parish in Mesa. The then-high school junior, who received previous sacraments at two other East Valley parishes, never really had contact with religious sisters growing up, but found herself clicking into the religious vocation section of her parish website, attending diocesan-wide mornings of discernment and meeting sisters serving in the Phoenix area — all of this despite feeling a call to teaching since kindergarten.
“I loved sharing knowledge, working with peers and other people and learning,” reflected Sr. Sarah, who just turned 35, nine days before professing her final vows. “I was just open to, ‘God, where are you calling me?’”
She began communicating with the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur before finishing high school. Sr. Sarah began a “pre-affiliate” stage of discernment in 2004 — her sophomore year of college — which afforded a short live-in experience and an unofficial history course of the community. She ended up spending four years, double the normal time, as a pre-affiliate.
“The sisters wanted me to get life experience as an independent woman,” Sr. Sarah said. “I had kind of been waiting and waiting and waiting. That’s been my life — waiting on God’s time.”
She officially entered the community in 2008, lived independently with the sisters for a year, took a study year mid-way between a two-year novitiate and finally professed first vows in 2013. By the tail end of 2018, Sr. Sarah became an eternal part of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.
“I’m not the normal path of formation,” she admitted.
Looking back, Sr. Sarah’s indirect vowed journey was providential. It invariably positioned her to better empower those she serves: students who, because of cognitive challenges, could easily remain in high school well into early adulthood.
Sr. Sarah’s background is in special education, particularly those with learning disabilities. The private Los Angeles-area school where she serves accepts students in kindergarten through age 22, although it’s largely third grade and older. Sr. Sarah hones in on reading and math skills.
“I’m creating new opportunities for the students to learn new things and really support where the students are at,” said Sr. Sarah, adding that she is “giving the students the love that they need and being the presence of God.” That’s vital because the students often have a negative self-impression.
“I just don’t want students to fail or drop out of school.”
Apparently, God wanted the same perseverance with Sr. Sarah regarding final vows. She was the only one in her vow class, but always had a sister discerning a year or two on either side of her. Sr. Sarah is the youngest U.S. sister in her community. Most in discernment are in their 40s. The next youngest vowed sister is nearly 60.
“They’re so active in teaching students and whatever they’re doing for their ministry, I don’t notice the age gap,” Sr. Sarah said. Most interaction is with the three other sisters serving in Los Angeles.
The initial call to religious life was a surprise to her parents, but by final vows, her dad, Stan Cieplinski, said, “It was exciting to be a witness to it. It’s like having one of your children getting married, except her bridegroom is Jesus.”
He didn’t feel worthy of the call to be the father of a sister, however; he didn’t feel that he did anything special in raising his children. But he did what he could to provide a Catholic education. That included a short time in Catholic school and family-based faith formation at Queen of Peace in Mesa, which had them bringing it along on summer vacation.
Cieplisnki identified his daughter’s ability to remain calm since she was young, self-control to avoid anger, determination to stay focused and natural contentment in silence as good traits for her religious vocation. He has seen her become more outgoing throughout formation and complimented her skill in working with adult students.
Sr. Ruth Bedinghaus, SNDdeN, who has known of Sr. Sarah since her novitiate, but more intimately the last few years, also admired her preference to serve the poor or most needy. When on summer break from helping students struggling in school, Sr. Sarah has happily spent the last few summers supporting the sisters’ retirement center. The average age of the sisters is 85 with the majority over 70.
“One of our big phrases is, ‘How good is the good God?’” said Sr. Ruth, herself a girls high school teacher. “I see that in Sarah because she is so generous.”
The sister of 45 years described Sr. Sarah as gentle and kind, “but she will be assertive on behalf of others. I know she will advocate on behalf of her students to get them what they need.”