A tale of two vocations: Religious sisters take intersecting paths from Columbus to Lincoln
October 15, 2021
Two religious sisters from the School Sisters of Christ the King in Lincoln have shared the same parish and high school in Columbus, a friendship between their families, communal religious life and now teaching duties in a room full of second graders at St. Teresa Catholic School in Lincoln.
Though nine years apart in age, the vocations of Sister Teresa Marie Wozny and Sister Mary Chiara Middendorf have been weaving together for years, beginning at St. Isidore Parish in Columbus.
Both sisters made religious vows in August, though at different stages of religious life.
Sister Teresa Marie, 32, professed perpetual vows, following the final stage of formation, Aug. 1 at the Cathedral of the Risen Christ in Lincoln.
Sister Mary Chiara, 23, made her first profession the day before, July 31, at the School Sisters’ motherhouse in Lincoln.
Sister Mary Chiara’s family, the Middendorfs, moved to Nebraska the year Sister Teresa Marie first entered religious life.
“So I’ve only known her as a sister,” Sister Mary Chiara said. “But my family got to know her family really well.
“Her mom is my Confirmation sponsor, and her dad is my brother’s Confirmation sponsor. … They were very good and welcoming to us.”
Sister Teresa Marie’s parents, Sue and Charlie Wozny, said they consider Sister Mary Chiara and her nine siblings adopted grandchildren.
Since making their vows, Sister Teresa Marie and Sister Mary Chiara have been spending nearly 24 hours a day together, living in community with Sister Teresa Marie serving as a teacher-mentor to Sister Mary Chiara, who hasn’t yet completed her teaching degree.
The time in the classroom together is “definitely a good way to get to know someone,” Sister Mary Chiara said. “We are a team.”
Her parents, Mary and Michael Middendorf, moved their family to Columbus and St. Isidore Parish in May 2009, and the sisters’ two families met later that year.
That fall, when Sister Mary Chiara was in sixth grade, the Woznys invited the Middendorfs to a family celebration of saints put on by the School Sisters of Christ the King, a community founded by the late Bishop Glennon P. Flavin of Lincoln in 1976.
“That was my first opportunity to meet our community,” Sister Mary Chiara said.
“That night I wrote in my journal: I think God wants me to be a School Sister of Christ the King. I saved my name tag from the event and stuck it in my journal. So that was a very memorable event for a sixth grader.”
From there the sisters’ connection began and grew as their discernment to religious life also evolved.
SISTER TERESA MARIE
Sister Teresa Marie is the youngest of three daughters born to Sue and Charlie Wozny. Her sisters, now married, are Lacey Wozny and Julie Beckman.
Sister Teresa Marie graduated from St. Isidore School and Scotus Central Catholic Junior/Senior High School in Columbus.
She always seemed to love Jesus, but her high school years were pivotal, Sue Wozny said.
A retreat during her freshman year seemed particularly influential.
“She really fell in love with the Catholic Church and fell more deeply in love with Jesus,” her mother said.
Sister Teresa Marie said the support she received during a Bible study in her senior year of high school helped her become open to a religious vocation, but still “I didn’t think it was probable. I didn’t think the Lord was necessarily calling me to it at that time.”
Her Bible study gave her a new appreciation for the Eucharist, she said, and she and her friends began going to adoration.
“It was beautiful to have that support, and that continued into college (at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas), being able to go to daily Mass with a number of friends.”
“So it was very easy to just continue to foster that relationship with our Lord, and to have his heart speak to my heart, in Cardinal (John Henry) Newman’s words.”
FROM FEAR TO LOVE
At Benedictine, “I was open to whatever God was calling me to, but I had a lot of fear” about entering religious life, she said, “even though I was exposed to the Missionary Benedictine Sisters out of Norfolk growing up. … It was never something that I really had considered, that the Lord really could be calling me to.”
“But as I continued to learn about my faith in high school and into college, I was able to let the Lord transform my fear into love. His presence in the Eucharist really helped to orchestrate that transformation, that conversion of my heart from fear to love.
That’s an ongoing thing that he’s continuing in me, to show me when I’m afraid that he can conquer all fears.”
After a year at Benedictine, Sister Teresa Marie spent a summer as a Totus Tuus missionary for elementary and high school students in the Diocese of Lincoln and was able to spend time with the School Sisters of Christ the King.
At Totus Tuus, an encounter with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament allowed her to “experience his love in a way that I had previously, but this time there was a new grace of being able to let that fear go and to be released of it enough to know that he was calling me to something more, that I wanted to be able to say yes to.”
“I just really knew the Lord was speaking to me through his words in the Bible in the Song of Songs, knowing that he was calling me to be his bride,” she said.
“I had never read the Song of Songs, but he chose that to alert my heart, to really begin that transformation before him. Then I just continued to fall in love and to stay in love with him.
“He writes a good story when I let him,” she said.
ON TO LINCOLN
Sister Teresa Marie finished another semester at Benedictine, the fall of her sophomore year, before taking time off to discern her vocation full time.
She moved to Lincoln and worked with the sisters in their schools and continued to pray and discern.
She entered the order in the summer of 2009 and finished a degree in theology and elementary education at Benedictine while in formation with the School Sisters.
Sister Teresa Marie brings unique gifts to the community, said Mother Margaret Mary of the School Sisters of Christ the King.
“Sister Teresa Marie, like her patron, St. Therese, has a great confidence in God’s providential love and care, and so can live and serve with joy and patience even in the face of hardship and challenges, bringing encouragement and hope to others,” Mother Margaret Mary said.
“Sister is an excellent second grade teacher, and at the same time she is eager to continue to learn how best to serve her little ones and lead them to Jesus, the Good Shepherd.”
SISTER MARY CHIARA
Mary and Michael Middendorf, who are now members of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Gretna, said their oldest child grew up being responsible and determined, but also patient and forgiving.
Over time they had a hunch that she might choose a religious vocation, they said, yet gradually letting go has been difficult for both her parents and nine siblings.
Sister Mary Chiara said her large family helped form her for religious life.
“My vocation is from the Lord, but he uses the environment that he places us into to form us to belong to him,” she said.
Her siblings are Maria, 21; Maximillian, 19; Gianna, 17; John Paul, 14; Margaret, 12; Damien, 10; Madeleine, 8; Dominic, 6; and Henry, 3.
Religious vocations were openly discussed in her family, Sister Mary Chiara said, especially because her father had been a seminarian before he met her mother.
“Just knowing that my dad was open to it, open to giving himself to the Church in that way, was a really good witness for me,” she said.
Beginning at age 6 or 7, Sister Mary Chiara joined her father in eucharistic adoration.
“It was early on Saturday mornings, and the only reason I would go with him was because he would wake me up with breakfast, which was usually dessert from the night before,” she said.
“So my motivation for going wasn’t exactly holy. But I know from that experience of being with my dad and being with Jesus, the attraction grew from just wanting a brownie or a cookie to finding this sweetness, this satisfaction and fulfillment in being with Jesus in the Eucharist.”
YOUTH CONFERENCE EXPERIENCE
That attraction ebbed and flowed, she said, until she was a junior at Scotus and attended a Steubenville Youth Conference.
Until then, she said, she had been reluctant about a calling to religious life.
“When I was in high school, I definitely tried to ignore it because I was afraid of what my friends would think,” Sister Mary Chiara said. “So I just kind of stuffed it and tried to ignore it, but that experience of his love for me at the Steubenville conference was so strong, I finally decided I just can’t ignore it.”
She went on to describe that experience:
“I went with several dozen of my friends from Scotus,” she said. “The Saturday night event is a big eucharistic adoration night with a procession. The priest had exposed Jesus on the altar, and the band was playing music, and it was just beautiful.
“Then he took Jesus off the altar and started processing around with him. … There was incense and candles, and it was beautiful. I looked around and noticed my friends. I could tell by their faces that they were experiencing Jesus … And I wanted that, but I felt none of that. I just felt kind of empty and cold inside.
“So I told Jesus that, and told him I was angry. ‘I’m here for you and you’re not doing anything,’” she told him. “‘What’s going on?’
“As I was telling him this, my eyes were closed. And I opened them and Jesus in the monstrance is right in front of me. … As I looked at him in the monstrance, I felt so utterly overwhelmed by his love for me. Particularly out of the millions and millions of people he created, he loves me, personally and intimately. I felt so deeply aware and overwhelmed by this.
“So I just received his love and thanked him and asked him: ‘What can I give to you? Anything I give to you is going to be nothing compared to what you’ve given me, but what do you want?’
“And I just heard him say in the depths of my heart: ‘Give me yourself.’
“I received that and sat with that, and I wasn’t sure what that meant. But as I continued through high school, continued talking to my spiritual director and sisters in our community, I realized, I think that means he wants me to be a School Sister of Christ the King.
“There were all sorts of fears and worries and drama that were happening inside of me at that thought. But whenever I would bring those worries and those fears to him, he just answered them with so much peace and so much confidence and assurance that he’s going to take care of me. He has me, and he desires me to belong to him.”
CALLED TO TEACH
Sister Mary Chiara was born in Illinois and lived in Ohio for 11 years before her family moved to Nebraska.
She was homeschooled before attending Columbus High School for two years and finishing high school at Scotus, graduating in 2016.
Sister Mary Chiara felt a calling toward teaching and had been studying the subject at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
She was there a year before entering a discernment house for the School Sisters of Christ the King. While discerning she took classes through the Newman Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture on the UNL campus.
She lived at the community’s motherhouse in Lincoln for a semester before officially entering the School Sisters of Christ the King in August 2018 at age 20.
For three semesters she studied part-time at Benedictine College while taking formation classes with the School Sisters and living with them in a community in nearby St. Joseph, Missouri, and in Lincoln.
In August Sister Mary Chiara began mentor teaching with Sister Teresa Marie. If she continues in religious life, she would complete her degree in teaching and theology at Benedictine.
BRIDE OF JESUS
Sister Mary Chiara has been a welcomed part of the School Sisters community, Mother Margaret Mary said.
“Sister Mary Chiara brings not only a freshness, vitality and sense of humor to community and apostolate,” her superior said, “but also the desire to belong totally to Christ the King and the determination to allow him to continue to purify and strengthen her in her resolve to live for him alone.”
Sister Teresa Marie and Sister Mary Chiara said they’re grateful for their families, St. Isidore Parish and its pastor, Father Joe Miksch, as well as other archdiocesan priests, for supporting their vocations. The sisters also said they’re grateful for the School Sisters of Christ the King.
Sister Teresa Marie said her family of sisters is “my beloved community whose joyful witness and fidelity have helped me to be Jesus’ bride.”