Be Not Afraid: Sister Rafala on missionary sisterhood and her religious habit as a ‘sign of eternity’

07 March 2024

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

Sister Maria Rafala Duraj serves the Archdiocese of Edmonton through the Polish Catholic community of Holy Rosary Catholic Church and the Sisem Daycare Centre, which is run by her order, the Congregation of Sister Servants of Mary Immaculate. Sister Rafala made her perpetual vows in 2011 and she moved from Poland to Canada in 2012. Watch her episode of Be Not Afraid here

The Archdiocese of Edmonton is the only diocese in Canada to host the Sister Servants of Mary Immaculate.

When did you first think of religious life? Did you grow up around a lot of religious sisters?

That is a good question because I grew up in a little village and at one point when we moved as a family, our neighbors were religious sisters. I didn’t have that much contact with them, because I wasn’t initially interested in religious life, but I could watch them working in the garden.

A young Sister Rafala with her sister Beata, as children, in 1989.

They were talking a lot with my parents and coming over for visits, but from my side I wasn’t that interested.

Except for one moment where there was a retreat – I was probably in Grade 2 or 3 – and there were lots of young sisters at our local parish. I spoke with one of the sisters and asked her: “How do I become a sister?” She was a very tough lady and I really liked her – but she was very straightforward.

She said: “Well, many of the girls ask about religious life, but then they never join the religious convent. So at that point, I thought ‘I’m not going to ask again, because this sister was not willing to answer!’”

Then, years later in high school, I had the chance to join the high school that was run by Ursuline religious sisters. It was a private school and so my parents were OK with that because it was a good school. At that point, I started to see religious sisters more closely, because I was attending a school with them.

I entered the convent right after high school – no college or other work.

A soon-to-be Sister Rafala around age 18 or 19, before entering religious life.

I remember considering religious life early on in high school, but I started out thinking that I could be a missionary sister – which is interesting, because I ended up coming to Canada as a missionary!

In high school in Poland you finish school with a final exam called a “maturity exam.” You kind of get to check if you are really mature, really an adult. I said to God: “If I pass this exam well, then it is a sign that I should consider religious life.” And I had struggled in some areas of school, so that exam could be difficult.

But I passed the exam – and everyone was surprised how well it went!

So right away, I went to visit the Sister Servants of Mary Immaculate. And then I heard a voice in my heart that said: “Will you follow me?” I was 19 years old.

Sister Rafala with her siblings in 2011, after her final profession.

How did you decide which religious order to join?

I was really wondering – what should I do? There was this older Ursuline sister who would sit by the door of the school and she was checking in on us and she was always willing to listen to us when we had any issues.

I said to her “You know Sister, I think I may have a vocation to religious life, but I don’t know which congregation I should choose.”

She said “God will tell you, but you also need to know what you like. Some sisters work with sick people, some like to work with the young people. Think about this.”

Then, at a retreat with the Sister Servants of Immaculate Mary, they were passing around a basket of quotes from saints. At the time, I was praying that God would make his will known to me. The quotation that I got from the basket was from St. Maximilian Kolbe, and it said: “If you know the shortness of your life and the length of eternity, you will choose Jesus and Mary.”

This was for me a sign that I should be with a Marian congregation. So I chose the Sister Servants of Mary Immaculate.

When I shared with my parents that I wanted to join right after high school, they were kind of devastated. I joined in July of 2002, right after I finished high school.

With parents and siblings after final vows in 2011.

Why were your parents devastated?

I first shared the news with my Dad. I shared it with him first, because I thought it would be more difficult. But I was surprised because he just said: “OK, we will continue to discuss this.”

Both of my parents are Catholics, but my Mom is more devout, more practicing.

When I shared my decision with my mom, she got so upset. I thought it would be the opposite. She said she could not imagine being a sister, being a nun, and to be happy. For her, marriage was happiness. She could not accept that there could be another way of life where you could also be happy.

With fellow sisters, preparing for final vows in 2011.

How has your family’s perspective on your vocation changed?

Oh yes – it has changed a lot. After my postulancy of three years, I made my first vows and my parents came for that. I didn’t know this until later, but when they came to my first vows they spoke with another Sister and the Sister said to them that she would pray for me, that I would be faithful to my religious vows and my father responded saying “and we will pray that she leaves religious life!”

So they were still in a “fighting mode” at that time.

I was this personality that was often “here and there,” and often doing things that weren’t very wise. Yes I believe that is why they were surprised that I made this decision to join a religious order!

Sister Rafala with her maternal and paternal Grandmothers.

After I made my temporary vows, my order sent me to a small village in the mountains to work with the children there. At that place, we really needed some help from men to do some of the heavy work in our community, like carrying coal for the fire.

So my Dad started to help us. My parents started to see how “normal” the Sisters were and they started to be happy for me, to accept my vocation.

At my final vows – six years after I had initially entered –  my parents came again and the Sister who heard my Dad say that he hoped that I would leave, she recognized my dad. So by my final vows, my parents were excited and supportive.

Sister Rafala makes her final vows in 2011.

What drew you to religious life?

Service. I remember from the beginning of my childhood that I would take care of my three younger siblings and my cousins. It made me happy to give them joy by serving them! It was difficult to take care of young children, but I felt a joy inside of me.

I believe that is why God called me to join the Sister Servants, because they work with children.

Childcare is central to our calling as an order, but we also care for the sick. Our Sisters in Canada started out working in hospitals and most of them were nurses, but then they started working in childcare.

At that point in Poland, there were many of us joining religious life. When I was entering the convent, there were 20 other girls that were joining at the same time as me.

In the Tatry mountains in Poland.

What I see in Canada is that there are not as many religious sisters. I see our parish here in Edmonton where there are many of us sisters, and many of us came here when we were young sisters, and yet we have not seen a big increase in vocations because of our presence in the parish – so it is in God’s hands.

Did you ever consider marriage?

In high school, I had boyfriends, so at that point it wasn’t 100% that I would be a sister.

But then in prayer time, when I was spending time with Jesus, I had that connection and relationship that is so precious and it drives you into relationship with Jesus and through that relationship I was drawn to religious life.

At one point before my final vows, I did have thoughts about whether I should actually make those final vows. I shared it with my superior and she was very helpful. She told me it was good to be honest about these thoughts and that it was quite normal. She didn’t push me one way or another, so I knew it was a choice.

But by the time I made my final vows, it was a conscious “yes!”

Sister Rafala with children from Sisem Daycare Centre in Edmonton, Alberta.

Have you ever regretted that you will not have biological children?

Well, I work with children almost every day , sometimes from 7am-5pm. So there are challenges with that!

Yes of course, sometimes I’ve had the thought, especially when I was younger. But now, I am with children so much and it is a lot. I believe that God has given me that as compensation! They are wonderful.

The Congregation of Sister Servants of Mary in Edmonton, Alberta (2014).

Do you feel happy and peaceful as a religious sister?

Yes. People will sometimes question your vocation – but at the time of my final vows I was confident that this was what I wanted.

I think it was St. Augustine who said: “Once you choose, you will always have to choose.” So the peace that I felt at my final vows was 100 percent. One hundred percent joy. Yes, this is what I want. But it doesn’t mean that I won’t still have doubts some days. So I choose again and again and again. And that choice gives me peace and joy.

Sister Rafala attended World Youth day Lisbon in August 2023, along with young adults from the Archdiocese of Edmonton.

Would you say that your prayer life was central to discerning your religious vocation?

Well I definitely did not have a consistent prayer life when I was 17 to 18, at the beginning when I started discerning religious life. In my teens, I was part of a youth group and we had a lot of adoration and praise and worship and times of prayer. So that helped me with discernment, even though it was inconsistent.

As I got closer to the end of high school, I had more time for myself and I was going a lot – often every day – to Mass. This was helping me a lot because I heard the Gospel and in such a small church I was very engaged. I prayed every day in the morning, and in the evenings I was writing letters to God. I would tell him what was going on in my life, even telling him about boyfriends and things that went on with my parents. This also helped me a lot with discernment.

Sister Rafala during the filming of her episode of Be Not Afraid.

What led you to move to Canada?

After my final vows, I had a talk with my general superior and I mentioned that I was willing to go on a mission, if that was God’s will. This was in 2011.

I was given the opportunity to choose between Cameroon or Canada. I chose Canada and I came to Edmonton in 2012.

I mean, it was really difficult making that move. At one point I was wrestling with God, asking him “why?” I was thinking, “Canada is a huge country and it is wealthy and I don’t know if people here want to hear about God. Is this really what you want me to do, God?”

Sister Rafala arriving in Canada in 2012.

Then when I came, I heard that voice from God again saying: “You know, it doesn’t matter if people are rich or not, they still need to hear about me.” I was speechless – God you must be kidding me! But now I see.

I remember when I first landed on Canadian soil in Toronto, on our way to Edmonton, and this lady came up to me and thanked me for wearing the habit. It felt like a sign from God that I was on the right path.

People say that we are a sign of eternity. That is what I believe that my habit says to the world. Even if I don’t say anything, people look at my habit and think “maybe there is something else, something higher.”

For me, this is a sign of being a person of God.

With fellow sisters in Edmonton, on their way to visit the Edmonton Carmelite community in Spruce Grove (2015).

What do you love the most about religious life?

Definitely the prayer time. Being in front of the “Being” is the best part.

What advice would you give to a woman who is discerning religious life?

Prayer. If you stay with the Gospel and read the Bible every day and you pray, you enter into a relationship with Jesus. You ask him the questions in your heart. Sometimes it takes time, but he will answer all those questions. So your prayer life is first and foremost.

A spiritual mother with children at Sisem Daycare Centre, Edmonton.

I was sharing not long ago with some young people that there are two things that are important to do well: First, discerning is important. You can go to a convent, you can date someone, and it is important to actually try these things and discern while you are trying something. Don’t be afraid to try things. Check the websites, go to sisters and ask them questions!

Second, you must make the choice eventually. People are afraid to choose. But choice is important! Make the decision. Decisions can be painful, but it is your life, don’t waste it with wandering all the time.

Don’t be afraid to make the jump!

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

Visit the website for the Sister Servants of Mary Immaculate.

(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.