Be Not Afraid: Sister Monika answered the “last call” of Jesus

22 February 2024

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

Sister Maria Monika of the Wound of the Heart of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd serves the Archdiocese of Edmonton at Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church in Maskwacis. Sister Monika grew up in Bytom, Poland. She trained as a physiotherapist and teacher before she entered the Congregation of Sisters of Merciful Jesus in 2009. She made her final vows in 2017, the same year she moved to Canada. Watch her episode of Be Not Afraid here

When was the first time that you thought of becoming a religious sister?

Well, on my First Communion, when I was a young child, I had a strong experience. The priest, after we were done practicing to receive Communion for the first time, he told us children to “stay in the church.” He meant for us to literally stay in the building, but I received it as a deeper meaning: to stay in the Church.

I really thought about religious life when I was 13 years old. We were on this retreat in the mountains and I remember one Holy Eucharist (Mass), it really touched me, it struck me. And I thought that maybe that experience was the voice of Jesus calling me.

A childhood memory with a friend in the Tatry mountains, Poland.

When I was in high school, I wrote a letter to one Sister and we spoke about vocation. In Poland there are many religious orders. At the time, there wasn’t any Internet yet, but there were many, many orders that were advertised in my community. 

But then I stopped looking because when I was in my last year of high school, my father died. He was sick and then in two  months he had died. I stopped looking at religious life because I discerned that I had to stay at home. So for many years my vocation was far, far away from my mind.

A future Sister Monika (back row) with her physical education students (September 2009)

Then, in 2005, when Pope St. John Paul II passed away, this was a very strong moment. I felt a call to really change my life, I remember crying so hard, it really impacted me. So that experience was like the second time that I was called by Jesus. 

After that, I continued to work for several years – I had also completed a graduate degree in physiotherapy (2004) – and then the final call of Jesus came in 2009, when I was 29. I call 2009 the “the last call of Jesus.” You know, he gave me the free will to do whatever I wanted and when that “last call” to religious life happened, I discerned very fast.

When you received that “last call of Jesus”, what did you do next?

So I went to my parish priest and I just shared that I thought I had a vocation to be a religious sister. I had been working so hard for so long, I thought there had to be something more to life than work. I still have this desire for something more.

You know, you can be a lay person who is very active in serving the Church and that is what the priest suggested first.. But I said no. I feel it’s not that. I had already spent so many years working full time in the world as a Catholic and I knew that was not it. I wasn’t happy.

A future Sister Monika in 2006-2007, a couple years before entering the Sisters of Merciful Jesus

When he heard this, the parish priest mentioned that he had spent one day with the Sisters of Merciful Jesus, which was interesting because that community was in a completely different area of Poland. But as I was sharing he said that he felt that the Holy Spirit was moving, because he thought that community could be a good fit for me. I had never heard of them, but he suggested them and because the Internet was working by then, I started to do my research online.

I entered that community several months later in that same year and I have been with them ever since.

Did you ever consider marriage, before becoming a religious sister?

You know, everyone likes to look for love so I did fall in love a few times in my life. I grew up as a Christian, so for me when you start dating, when you fall in love, you take it seriously.  So I did consider marriage with one boyfriend, but it never got to the point of engagement.

When I was teenager, religious life was in the back of my mind, but I really didn’t want to do it. So when I was dating, I would avoid thinking about that.

Sister Monika on the day of her perpetual vows, with her mother, Barbara

How did your father’s death impact your discernment of religious life?

After the death of my father, it was really the hardest time in my life. I was really focused on my family and focused on work. I studied rehabilitation physiotherapy. To pass the exams in my program I had to throw myself into work and so I wasn’t really thinking about any vocation.

Every person has a different way of grieving, and after my father died, I was very active. Some people fall into a depression, but I was the opposite. I just wanted to move forward.  I was moving so speedy that some of the grieving process was delayed. So that’s how I handled it all. Moving quickly.

I had to mature much quicker. I really loved my father so it was really the biggest loss in my life; my life went completely upside down. One day, we learned that he had cancer and then two months later he was just gone. 

I was in a very intense program at school when he died, and I even had to prepare for exams at the same time as the funeral. My mother didn’t know how I did it. So I see it as a big grace, because God made it possible.

At that point in my life, I was both a bit spoiled and very tired. I was really focused on athletics and work for my degree. To join a congregation you cannot be so sad, or so selfish. My father’s death made me wake up and realize how selfish much of my life was, and without that event in my life I don’t know if I could have become a Sister.

My father’s death made me confront God and ask:  “Who is Jesus really for me?” I had been living a life with lots of protection and assurance, but then my biggest protection – my father – was taken away from me.

I had to ask, who is Jesus for me now? Do I want to be happy, like in a movie, or do I also want to know how to endure suffering and to know the cross and to understand how Jesus gave his life for all of us?

My father, he gave the best of himself to me and my family, and because he gave such a good example, I could understand the love of Jesus, how Jesus gives himself to us. These examples of selfless love made me understand that I didn’t want to be a religious sister for myself. I wanted to choose Jesus. I wanted to follow his way, and that way has the cross.

How did your career impact your vocation?

I worked as a physiotherapist and also as a teacher of physical education. I taught physical therapy and anatomy and also worked as a rehab physiotherapist, so I had a very full career.

I think that work really kept me in touch with people from outside of the religious community. I knew well what life is like outside of religious life.

On vacation in the Polish mountains of Tatry, circa 2013-2015

In that work, I was also with lots of children and youth and I really liked working with them, so I was able to see that although I will not have my own children, I can still be a mother to young people. By working with young people, I saw that I was really passionate about helping them see that there is more to life than just a career, that we can follow Jesus in our lives!

Why did you choose the Sisters of Merciful Jesus? 

Growing up in a community where there was lots of Marian devotion, I always loved Mary, but I had always had this longing for Jesus. In the 10 years between my father passing and me entering with the congregation, I saw the sin in my life and I saw that I was not perfect, that I am not the person that I thought I was. I saw that I was not holy at all.

When Pope John Paul II died in 2005, I somehow experienced the mercy of God. I saw that our Merciful Jesus is good, and he gives me everything that I desire. I longed for him and he never pressured me. I saw in the mercy of Jesus that you are really free to do whatever you want, even when you choose the wrong thing and then there is pain. If you return to Jesus and repent, he will be so, so merciful!

Arriving at Mysliborz, Poland where the maternal house for the Sisters of Merciful Jesus is located, with fellow novices, before taking first vows in 2012

At one point I made a big mistake in my life – I will not go for details – but because of this experience, when I returned to Jesus, I knew his mercy so well. So when that priest directed me to the Sisters of Merciful Jesus and I opened up their website, I just knew. Oh yes, I like this! As soon as I knew about them, I never had to discern with another community. 

My brother – when I first entered with the community – he said, “I’ll see you next week.” He was sure that I would not stay with them for long. He was sure I wouldn’t be a Sister. But little did he know! So those moments were funny too!

Were you ever fearful of religious life?

I’ll go back to when I was a teenager and my view of religious life at that time. I had this immature sense that Jesus wants to take everything from you. I had the feeling that Jesus will just take and take, he will take away my happiness and my freedom. He will take away the sports that I love so much. 

Because I was fearful, I didn’t want to share with others that I was drawn to religious life. I didn’t trust Jesus. Trust is a big part of discerning a vocation. The Bible says that perfect love casts away fear, but I can say that trust is another name for love and mercy.

I had to ask myself if I really trusted Jesus, because I still feared that he would take who I am. I also feared because I knew I was a big sinner and I didn’t think a sinner like me could be a Sister.

At the community chapel in Mysliborz, Poland, taking first vows, along with other fellow sisters in 2012

 Before I entered at 29, I also thought that I was too old! I know that in Canada and America, 29 is not old; I was still under 30. But in Poland, I thought I was too old; it was too late. I also liked my independence, and I knew I would need to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. This all seemed difficult to face for me.

How did you overcome these fears?

Well, life is a journey. It doesn’t all happen at once. It’s funny too – because my character is very intense and so how things happened with my vocation, matches my character.  

When I first called the Sisters of Merciful Jesus, I was a teacher, so I scheduled a retreat with them over my vacation time. It was incredible, because it was like the retreat was designed just for me and what I needed. It was Kairos – God’s timing. The retreat with the Sisters went so well that summer that I planned to enter the community in the fall. But I was a teacher and we are supposed to start teaching again in the fall!

I told my coworkers, “I am sorry, you will have to find another teacher, because I am becoming a Sister.” It was actually all so funny, how fast it happened! And my principal at the school was kind and approved all the paperwork that needed to be done for me to leave. So in October of the same year that I found the sisters, I entered.

A meeting of “junior sisters” from the Sisters of Merciful Jesus, circa 2015.

Yes – so that is how Jesus provided. I was so excited, I was so overjoyed that I couldn’t believe it was all happening and the fear dissipated.

The process of entering the community wasn’t always easy, but Jesus knows me and he knows who I am.  He accepted me for who I am and whenever I doubt, he says: “You and me, we go together.” We are together. We can handle this together.

What did your Mom and brother think of your decision to enter a religious community? 

Yes, this was one of the difficulties. My mom could not believe that I had finally decided to enter. She had known about my desire for religious life in the past, so it wasn’t a mystery where this desire came from. But  she couldn’t believe that I was actually entering because for so many years I had not said anything at all about religious life. Now, I was entering in just a few months. She knew that I had always been independent, so I would do what I set out to do and she said if I am happy, then she is happy for me.

My brother, I know he has struggled. He has accepted it, because he knows it is my life. But in some ways he did not approve. He has never said that he is happy that I am a Sister. Because he’s also not a practicing Catholic. That is not easy. We always have some arguing when I visit, but he is also not ashamed of me. We can go anywhere together and he is not embarrassed.

Because I am far away in Canada, that is difficult too. This is certainly one thing that I must offer up to the Lord. But it is part of my life!

Teaching children at Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church in Maskwacis.

Why do you believe that God has called you to the Edmonton Archdiocese?

You know, I really like this question, because it is all really by faith that I am here. If I didn’t have faith in God’s plan, it would be much more difficult.  I love our congregation’s motto: Jesus I trust in you. It’s short, but beautiful and deep.

So this is my intention when I came to my community: Jesus, I trust in you. This is also connected to my vow of obedience. I believe that when our superior makes a proposal for where I should go, and she discerns with our council, I trust their discernment. They know my strengths and weaknesses and they choose a good place for me. 

I have been here now six years and I can see how it helps me to journey with people in their faith and I can see how our faith can look different in different places. My experience here working with First Nations people has really opened wide for me that I am called here to serve.

With community members from Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church, along with former pastor Fr. Roger Rouleau and fellow sisters, Sister Josefina and Sr. Justyna.

This place – Canada – calls me out of my self-love. It breaks down the false ideas that I am enough without the Lord. Being here I have learned much more deeply how much I need to trust Jesus. In a sense, I am invisible. This is Jesus’ work. I don’t want the people to see me; I want the people to see Jesus and follow Jesus.

In the Divine Mercy image, Jesus is depicted on a dark backdrop and in our community we are always preaching that if you take Jesus away from the image, there is only darkness.  He is the light of the world.

It is amazing because Jesus became man to save Canada, to save Edmonton, to save the poor, the people who are unbelieving, to save those with mental illness and spirituality sickness. So I believe that he sent me … and it’s amazing. Yes, it’s an amazing journey!

Sister Monika filming her episode of the vocation series, Be Not Afraid.

Are you happy? Are you fulfilled?

Well I think that for me “fulfillment” is a big word! For instance, Pope Benedict XVI died in 2022 and at this passing you get the sense that he fulfilled his life. So I think that the moment when you say, “ I am fulfilled” it’s the moment of your death!

In my life I do have a strong sense of conviction. Am I happy in my daily life? Yes – happiness, it’s also part of my life. Yes. But it’s not the goal.  I am happy that Jesus entrusted me with this vocation. I am happy that he trusts me, he really trusts me. I have to trust him, but he trusts me with much also.

Sister Monika in the audience at the February 2024 Vocations Rally for the Archdiocese of Edmonton, St. Joseph’s Basilica, Edmonton.

However, I’ve also had to prepare for suffering too, because Jesus’ plan has not always been my plan. I never thought I would work outside of my home country. I was open, but it was so surprising!

In some ways, as you get older, you realize that some things in life are final. Doors close. That is how it is for every person. At some points in life, different choices are no longer an option for you and some things that you would have liked will not happen. In this life, not every desire will be fulfilled. That, I have to be honest about.

But that is OK. If you are in the right place and you have a relationship with Jesus, it will all be well. I have Jesus as a spouse; it’s really something. It’s a big thing, it’s beyond me. It’s not just about me; it’s about Jesus. Here in Canada I see that it is all about Jesus even more clearly, because there are not many Sisters here in Canada. 

What would you say to a woman who is fearful of religious life?

I believe that loneliness is very connected with your needs, what you really desire in your heart. There is a place in the heart that no one and no material thing can fulfill. There is a deepest longing that nothing can take care of, except Jesus. Many of the saints talked about this deepest longing.

People have to discover that they are children of God, and they’re deepest identity and dignity is in God, which no one can take away from you. So loneliness is a part of life – because we all have that need for God that only he can fulfill. Even in marriage, people feel great loneliness.

 I’m thinking of this beautiful quote from Pope St. John Paul II the Great

“And [in the end] everything else will then turn out to be unimportant and inessential except this: father, child, and love.”

It’s really something – if you have a father, and you feel as a child, you will be not lonely, because you have your father.

Sister Monika with fellow members of the Sisters of Merciful Jesus, Sr. Josefina and Sr. Justyna

I also think there is loneliness because we have so many distractions and because we want to be so active because we are scared of the silence. We are scared of what is inside of us. If you experience inner silence, you will start to see yourself in relation to God, not just in relation to other people. 

We have so many “mirrors” these days – the mirror of other people, who we are constantly interacting with in person and on the Internet and so we never look at ourselves, because we are too busy. We only see ourselves in relation to other people, not God. We don’t have time to reflect and to sense our deepest desires. I remember this from before I was a sister. Life was so busy.

It’s in that meeting with ourselves, that we can face that loneliness and encounter Jesus. We can hear what it is that we truly want in life, and maybe that desire will be for religious life. But it is a discernment process and we need to be quiet, quiet, quiet to be able to see and hear clearly.

How would you counsel someone who is discerning religious life, but is struggling to trust Jesus?

First, personal prayer, and a sacramental life, yes! Regular confession, regular Communion, because it keeps you in touch with Jesus on a daily basis. The sacraments make us see as Jesus sees. And with prayer. If you don’t pray, you don’t have this relationship with Jesus.

If it’s possible, a second step is to share with someone you trust about your discernment. I think it could be a shame to be thinking about religious life and to be held back by a fear of sharing that with other people. Don’t be ashamed that you want to belong to Jesus, as a spouse. Don’t be ashamed that you want to follow this calling.

Sister Monika shared parts of her vocation story at the February 2024 Vocation Rally hosted by the Archdiocese of Edmonton.

How do you choose which order or which convent?  There are so many orders, so you will find something for yourself because the Catholic Church has so much to offer in the way of life. It’s not just a very narrow life, but there are so many possibilities in the Church.

For me, it’s also a joy to share with you because, you know, I want to also give the message to the young women that you can really have so many different interests and hobbies and you can be a Sister. 

To be a sister you don’t have to be shy and naturally prayerful – the Lord calls so many kinds of women. Be open to God’s plan. Yes, whoever you are, Jesus is the way!

Watch the video version of Sister Monika’s story here.

 Visit the website for the Sisters of Merciful Jesus.

 (This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity)

 Jenny Connelly – Archdiocese of Edmonton

Be Not Afraid is a series of videos and companion articles that tell the stories of 12 religious sisters and priests who serve within the Archdiocese of Edmonton.

New episodes are released every Thursday. Subscribe to our YouTube channel to watch new episodes each week.