Eucharist, Mary’s heart draw Genoa native to consecrated life
July 28, 2021
A well-tended plant set in life-giving sunshine.
That’s the metaphor Sister Julian Marie Swantek used to describe the experience of her journey from receiving God’s call to the consecrated life to her first profession of vows.
Like any good gardener, God worked to prepare her, she said.
In her case, she said, the University of Nebraska – Lincoln (UNL) Newman Center’s many opportunities for encountering God cultivated her vocation, and eventually led her to the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Wichita, Kansas.
“It wasn’t just one experience,” said Sister Julian Marie.
The Newman Center’s daily Mass and holy hours created an environment in which she could “bloom and flourish slowly in the presence of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament,” she said.
It led to “growing in the Lord, getting to know myself better, getting to know him better, and then receiving this vocation from him as well.”
Growing up, Jessica Swantek attended St. Rose of Lima Church in Genoa with her parents, Annette and Marc, and four siblings.
During high school, she recalls, the seeds of her vocation were being nurtured while receiving the sacrament of reconciliation during the annual March for Life pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., with the group from the Archdiocese of Omaha.
“It was life changing. I experienced the mercy of the Lord in a way I hadn’t before,” said Sister Julian Marie. “It was really the first time I gave Jesus my heart.”
The graces from this experience also allowed her to be receptive to God in a new way. She said she attended a retreat with other students that year, during which the priest said some of the women in the room might be called to religious life.
“It was just a passing comment, but without that experience of reconciliation, it would have just gone in one ear and out the other,” said Sister Julian Marie.
A ‘GREAT THIRST’
A few months later she began college with two objectives. The first was to earn a degree in engineering with a minor in animal science because she wanted to work in the food processing industry.
The second was to satisfy her “great thirst for developing a relationship with the Lord,” she said. “I knew what I wanted and looked for it as soon as I could.”
Her college orientation tour was led by Tessa Contreras, a student ambassador a few years older than Sister Julian Marie. On every tour Contreras gave, she told students as they visited the Newman Center and its church, St. Thomas Aquinas, that she always sat in the fourth pew on the right if they ever wanted to sit with someone.
“Sister Julian Marie was the only one who ever took me up on it,” said Contreras. “We prayed there together a lot over the years.”
Contreras said many graces can be found at the Newman Center. She pointed to regular encounters with many people – priests, religious, single and married – living their vocations well.
Another was encountering Jesus in the Eucharist at daily Mass and during holy hours and adoration, all offered at times intended to work with most students’ schedules.
Contreras said she saw Sister Julian Marie show up regardless of her schedule or how she felt on any given day.
“That’s all God needs. He does the rest. Faithfulness obtains all,” said Contreras, who now works as the Great Books Program coordinator for The Newman Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture. Great Books offers liberal education and study of the humanities for graduation credit at UNL.
“Her love of the Eucharist really anchored her in her spiritual life,” Contreras said. “It’s no surprise she chose St. Peter Julian Eymard for her namesake. He’s known for his love of the Eucharist.”
After her freshman year, Sister Julian Marie became a Totus Tuus missionary in the Archdiocese of Omaha. College students and seminarians lead the parish-based, summer catechetical program for grade school and junior and senior high school students.
Sister Julian Marie said the experience was important for three reasons. She made more “holy” friends, people who were living their vocations well. She learned tools for discerning. It also incorporated prayer opportunities such as a holy hour and the daily Liturgy of the Hours. By the end of the summer, she committed herself to continuing these prayer practices.
Her sophomore year, she visited the Christ the King Sisters in Lincoln, primarily as a volunteer. She helped with projects and shared meals with the sisters, glimpsing their way of life. “It became something I could see myself doing,” she said.
As she grew in her faith, she pursued her professional development with equal enthusiasm, securing a summer internship between her sophomore and junior year at a flour mill in Wichita, Kansas.
While there, she became aware of her future religious order, although she didn’t visit that summer. “I told myself I’m not discerning … because I had taken a step back to explore” a career in food processing, she said.
ANSWERING THE CALL
When she returned to Lincoln for her junior year, she had new resolve.
“I knew after the internship, from a worldly perspective, (food processing) was everything I wanted, but spiritually it wasn’t satisfying,” she said.
She asked Father Andy Roza, director of vocations for the Archdiocese of Omaha and assistant pastor at the St. John Paul II Newman Center in Omaha, for spiritual direction.
The Swanteks had gotten to know him when he was the chaplain at Scotus Central Catholic Junior/Senior High School in Columbus, which is near Genoa. With his support, she started looking for a religious community.
In December 2017, she went on a Fiat Discernment Retreat, sponsored by Fiat Ministries, which is devoted to helping young women through the discernment process.
During this retreat she met members of six different religious communities. Two felt like possibilities, she said. One of these was the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Wichita. She visited their community and never made it to the second.
“They say you know when you find the right community – that’s awful when discerning because it’s not helpful,” said Sister Julian Marie, laughing, “But it was that way. The community felt like family. I felt peace.”
Their charism of imitating Mary in everything as the first and foremost disciple of Jesus and her immaculate heart’s ability to lead people to a perfect union with God resonated, she said.
Their prayer apostolate for the conversion of sinners and the sanctification of priests both excited her and provided peace, she said.
Mother Mary Magdalene O’Halloran, the order’s general superior, said the eucharistic thread that runs through Sister Julian Marie’s discernment and now her vocation is beautiful.
“We have a very eucharistic spirituality; it is really at the very center of our lives. (Sister Julian Marie’s) desire to spend time with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, to attend daily Mass was God’s initiative, knowing she would need that strength and grace to follow him,” Mother Mary Magdalene said.
She entered the community as a postulant in August 2018 and became a novice on February 11, 2019, beginning a two-year period of intense discernment without commitment while living in the community. On March 13, 2021, Sister Julian Marie professed first vows.
Because the Church requires religious to live their vows of chastity, poverty and obedience for at least three years before professing perpetual vows, she may profess perpetual vows in three to six years.
During this time, she will work toward a degree in education at Newman University in Wichita. She plans to join the community’s other nearly 30 sisters teaching in local diocesan elementary through senior high schools.
LEADING OTHERS TO JESUS
Sister Julian Marie’s mother said she has watched her daughter’s faith grow stronger as she matured. She credits the Newman Center with her daughter’s formation and “the clarity for what God wanted for her life.”
“We didn’t do anything different from most other Catholic families. We didn’t even have a devotion to Mary, but we do now because of her,” said Annette Swantek.
Father Roza said Newman Centers are vital to creating new Church leaders in every vocation.
“The fact that it can help someone like Sister Julian Marie learn about her faith, how to pray and how she relates to God, that sets her up to help others for another 60 to 70 years,” he said.
Her friend Contreras believes “a lot of people will be blessed through her vocation. When someone is showing up every day … living out God’s will, only good things come from that.”