Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by Ralph Freso
This article was originally posted on GCU Today and is reprinted here with permission.
Nuns are on the run, right on a mid-campus soccer field. Their brown habits flare behind them, sprinting after a soccer ball, when a student runs smack into strong Sister Kelly and crumbles to the turf.
“Are you all right?” Sister Kelly asks because, you know, she’s a good person – before charging after the ball.
After that, the flying discs appear for a game of Ultimate Frisbee and this time it’s Sister Clare flying downfield, gracefully extending to pull a tailing disc off her shoe top, flicking it ahead to a teammate … and we have a score.
“You gotta want it!” Sister Clare yells.
Cliché alert: Isn’t it cute, the sisters, these athletic versions of “Sister Act?”
Metaphor alert: “You gotta want it” can describe the spiritual journey for these college students at Grand Canyon University who come out to play, sister style, on Wednesday afternoons.
Sister Clare Marie Bailey and Sister Kelly Grace O’Ryan are of the Holy Spirit Catholic Newman Center, which serves GCU students in a purple-door spiritual gathering place just across Camelback Road at 31st Avenue. They are Catholic affiliated, but everyone is welcome, and they attract everyone from the non-denominational Christian campus.
Since their assignment here 18 months ago from their community, the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary in Miami, Florida, the Sisters have seen the souls at Sunday Mass triple.
They say they are here to share the Lord with anyone, bring them to His love. But you gotta want it.
“We have a greater mission than soccer or Frisbee,” says Sister Kelly. “We see the Lord working in souls every day, especially college students at such an amazing moment in life, this new astonishing moment, discovering themselves and the world. But they have this great capacity to love the Lord and His plan for them.”
The sisters are young-ish, athletic, so darn smiley. They take students on monthly hikes up Phoenix mountains, and one day Sister Clare sees a pull-up bar on the trail.
She jumps up and rips off some pullups, rapid-fire, says student Juan Diego, “and we’re like, ‘I guess the strength of the Holy Spirit is really in her.’”
The myths of nunnery take a beating.
“I always thought of nuns like in movies,” said student Chapman Koster. “There would be this old woman who is a stickler for the rules: ‘I’m going to heaven, but life is garbage and if you are happy you are sinning.’ But on those hikes, it’s like hot and you go up these mountains and they are in habits and I don’t know if those things are breathable.”
What he’s saying is these sisters changed his view, and not just about nun physical fitness. He saw joy and peace and hope in them, which he will describe after another sprint down the field.
‘Live life together’
Before the play is prayer. Ten students pinch rosary beads in the courtyard between Building 16 and 26. The rhythmic prayer begins, a low murmur of Hail Marys and Our Fathers and Apostles Creeds that becomes a meditation among skateboard wheels scraping on concrete.
Their fingers go from bead to bead. Some close their eyes.
“It’s just a beautiful way for our prayers to get to Jesus and Mary,” said student Anya Ibasco.
Can’t you do that in your room?
It’s community, she says. “It’s that constant looking out for each other, wanting each other to get to heaven.”
The sisters say this public display of game and prayer, as well as wearing the habits the color of the soil of the Holy Land, accented with white for purity and burgundy for sacrifice, are meant to announce that they are here, for everyone.
“The church is a family and families don’t just read together,” Sister Clare said. “So we are out here to live life together.”
Sister Kelly says students are announcing that Christ is the center of their lives, and to come out from the quiet of residence halls or chapels into the open air of campus is a gift. “To say what is most important to me right now, here I am to pray.”
Everywhere they go, the grocery store, the gas station, people come up and ask the sisters to pray for a loved one.
Or they might see Sister Clare at Home Depot the other day, carrying two propane tanks and a bag of sand. “That’s what we do,” she says.
Why they do it becomes clear.
‘For that one heart’
Sister Kelly wasn’t unlike many GCU students when she was a freshman at Illinois State University. Tall and lean, the high school volleyball player set out to join every club she could and signed up for eight. Busy always but miserable in the quiet of her room.
“What else?” she asked herself. “I become club president, then what? I get my degree and get a job, then what?”
She recalled the happiest people she had ever seen, the students over at the university’s Newman Center. She eventually joined them and went on a mission trip, where she met two sisters “who laid their life down for the Lord.”
Sister Kelly wondered if she could do the same, if she prayed hard enough, if there was a sign of one person who needed her, “if it is for that one heart, then I give it. That’s when He called to my heart, that yes, I am calling you to be a sister for that one heart.”
When Sister Kelly returned, she went to a Bible study, recalling the five-point plan (they call “five stones”) that the sisters taught her involving prayer and Scripture, a way to let go and walk toward peace and freedom, and her path became clear.
“I can’t help but smile,” she said. “That was the greatest moment of my life.”
Sister Clare was coincidentally at the same university, though they weren’t a working pair yet. She was into gymnastics and cheerleading, a shorter, no less strong sister.
She felt the same loneliness until she felt the freedom, peace and joy of living with the Lord.
“I felt like I was crawling blindfolded through life, and then it was like I was soaring,” she said. “It was like this is what we were created to live.”
When a high school friend passed away, the grace that she had received she deeply wanted to share with suffering friends.
“I wanted to give them that more than anything,” she said. “That was where the seed was planted.”
‘Their faces are different’
And now they give it to GCU students.
There are no grand parties at Newman to attract students. There are Bible study nights, Mass, prayer and the occasional cookout (see propane hauling). The sisters see students reaching out, asking the same questions.
“What is my life for? Yeah, maybe a 9-to-5 job, but even more,” Sister Clare said. “Our life is a gift and is made to be given to another. Knowing I am a gift, and it is to be given.”
When it dawns on them, it’s in their faces.
“We see a transformation. Their faces are different,” Sister Kelly said. “It’s that peace, a joy, a newfound love and passion. Living life, not walking through it daydreaming – as so much of our culture has given anesthetic to our young so they sleepwalk through life. And when the Lord comes in it’s like going from black and white to color. They come alive, they wake up and start to experience freedom, peace and joy of the Lord.”
They see the blossoming, the withering, the coming back to their faith in an ongoing process that can become a flourishing of human spirit.
It’s a lot to get and to give.
But Sister Kelly says these nuns are “beautiful artists and musicians and athletic and funny and loud and all those things you don’t think of a sister, all these talents we give to the Lord.”
They have given up marriage, children, professional accolades and material riches, taking the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
But they get a lot back. They see freshman Brianna Chavez find her way to Newman, back stronger to her faith, and “it was so powerful and unexpected,” Chavez said. “We all come from different parts of the country but all have this goal to learn more.”
Chapman, coming off the field with a light sheen of sweat on his brow, is still amazed.
He grew up Baptist in South Africa and remembers first spotting the sisters running around and thinking: “I heard they took these vows that sounded miserable – no marriage, no sex, no money. Why would you do that? Then I see they are actually happy. Maybe I should look at it and reassess.
“Now not all Catholics are great, but some have such joy and hope and peace, and I didn’t have anything like that. Even though I haven’t lacked anything in my life – I come from a somewhat wealthy family – but I realized it is not something you can buy.”
On Easter, Chapman will be confirmed into the Catholic Church. He has found a family here, a faith, a kind of peace.
“It’s really been a life-changing event,” he said. “I am so happy.”
The sisters gather the huffing students on the sidelines and trade stories, sitting in the grass, where all good life banter can breathe in the fresh air. Their matching brown running shoes peak out from the habits and they smile.
“It’s amazing,” Chapman said. “You gotta want it. That’s their motto. You guys can do it. I guess I can, too.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 602-639-6764.