Women drawn to cloistered Omaha community
One came from the hustle and bustle of New York City, another from Australia. Both women said they have found fulfillment and joy in a small, cloistered religious community just outside of Omaha.
Sister Lydia Boodhu, 58, and Sister Rizza Palencia, 54, two of four new postulants living at the Poor Clare Monastery near Elkhorn, said they have lived happy lives, traveled the world and enjoyed their careers. But something was missing – their hearts yearned for something more.
That something, they discovered, was serving God as a religious sister.
"I enjoyed my life and my friends, but I just realized that I wasn’t happy. I just felt like something was lacking in my life. I didn’t feel so complete," said Sister Rizza, who is from the Philippines but grew up in Australia.
Sister Rizza and Sister Lydia, along with 41-year-old Sister Maria Makoye from Tanzania and 39-year-old Sister Philomena Clement from Nigeria, recently joined six other sisters who live at the monastery near 216th and Edgewater Road.
The four women officially became postulants on the feast of St. Clare, Aug. 11. Together they are spending a year learning about the religious order and participating in its life of prayer.
They spend their days together praying the Liturgy of the Hours and rosary, studying the Gospels, praying before the Eucharist in adoration, doing chores, celebrating Mass and making and selling altar bread, or hosts, to be used at Mass. They also take petitions from the outside community and world to prayer with them each day.
"To me, the religious life is the happiest life you can achieve," said Sister Lydia, who was born in South Korea but lived for about 20 years in Manhattan, working as a manicurist.
A NEW VOCATION
Married twice, a mother of two sons, grandmother to three, and a convert to the faith, she said there’s something about religious life that exceeds the joy she found in her previous life.
"My life journey has been a little crooked … but God makes my life straight. Only in him am I perfectly happy and safe," Sister Lydia said. "It’s like searching for a treasure – and when you find that treasure, it is joy and fulfillment."
As a cloistered order, the Poor Clares send and receive mail from family and friends and receive telephone calls with prayer requests. But they don’t leave the monastery except to shop for groceries, visit a pharmacy or see a doctor. And while the sisters make some money with the altar bread ministry, they also rely heavily on fundraising and donations.
Sister Lydia, who was raised in a Buddhist home, said she didn’t know about Jesus or the Catholic Church until high school, and later when she married into a Catholic family. Her mother-in-law invited her to become Catholic, but Sister Lydia said she wasn’t ready to take that step. Someday, she promised.
Although Sister Lydia’s marriage ended in divorce, she wanted to keep that promise, she said. She was baptized in 1994 in South Korea. That’s when she first thought about religious life, she said. In South Korea, however, people cannot enter religious life if they have been married. So she served as a volunteer missionary in China for many years, and moved to New York City in 1998.
There she met and married a Catholic man, and together they were involved with a Korean Catholic community. He died in 2012 after 13 years of marriage, and Sister Lydia again considered religious life, she said. Her pastor, a Korean Franciscan Friar, connected her with the Poor Clare sisters in New Jersey for discernment.
Sister Lydia came to Omaha this past summer for discernment days at the Poor Clares Monastery, and said she was drawn to the motherliness of Sister Theresina de Santiago, the abbess, and her witness as a spouse of Christ.
Sister Rizza arrived in Omaha in August, and said she felt at peace. Being a contemplative nun serving in a foreign country is something she has wanted to do since she was a young girl in the Philippines, she said. When she was 13, she told her aunt, a Poor Clare sister in Manila, of her desire to become a nun. Her aunt encouraged her to wait, get an education and make a decision when she was older.
Sister Rizza, whose father was a U.S. Air Force pilot, was educated and worked in Australia, but also worked as a nurse for the poor in the Philippines and in Montessori education in California. Feeling unfulfilled, she finally decided to look seriously into religious life.
An Internet search led her to the Poor Clares of Omaha.
"I was drawn to their lifestyle – that is community, prayer and joy," she said. "We are cloistered, so we don’t go out like other sisters, but we are so involved with the community outside and all over the world. We worship together and pray for the world, for us and for everything."
Next August, Sisters Rizza, Lydia, Philomena and Maria may request to take the next step in discernment and enter the novitiate for two years. At that time, they will receive the Poor Clares’ habit, white veil and cord without knots, as they have yet to make vows. At the conclusion of the novitiate, they may ask to make temporary vows and receive a black veil and a cord with four knots, symbolizing the vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and enclosure. They will make those vows annually for three years. After completing the third year, the sisters can ask the community to consider them for final vows, at which time they will receive a crown of thorns and a crucifix ring, both signs of their solemn profession to their spouse, Jesus.
Sister Theresina said she feels very grateful to see the Omaha Poor Clare community growing. In December 2016, Sister Kathleen Hawkins made her final vows, which brings the total number of sisters living at the monastery to 10. Two community members died over the past year. Sister Theresina said she is working on immigration paperwork for two more women interested in the Poor Clares of Omaha.
"It is clear to me that after the building of the monastery was completed in 2015, I am to focus on the building of the community," Sister Theresina said.
A personal relationship is what counts most when considering a calling to religious life, she said.
"Spend time with Jesus, and get to know him as you would a great friend," she said. "Speak to someone who follows Jesus and can help you. And Jesus will show you where he calls you."