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Love Stories Extraordinaire: Visiting the Nashville Dominicans, part 2 of 3

Mary Rose Bacani Valenti

Sunday, November 23, 2008

It is the classic question I have for every couple: “How did you know he/she was the one?”
It is the same question I have for every religious: “How did you know He was the One? And that this religious order was the one for you?”
I love love stories (especially with the way women tell them!). Who doesn’t? And that’s one of the many reasons I love the Nashville Dominicans and working on the documentary about them.
The Nashville Dominicans (or the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia) is a religious congregation of Sisters whose main apostolate is in education. They began with the establishment of a girls’ academy in 1860, just prior to the Civil War, at the invitation of the Bishop of Nashville, himself a Dominican. The four founding Sisters established St. Cecilia Academy with the patroness of music as their namesake. Within ten years, a novitiate officially opened and a congregation was born. Today, the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia number 225 and can be found in 33 schools in 13 states and Australia. With a median age of 36 they continue to expand into new territory with a message of hope that the New Springtime reference by Pope John Paul II is indeed in bloom.
Every Nashville Dominican I’ve talked to sees herself as a Bride of Christ. She has the most beautiful Husband! They are all so grateful to Mother Marie William for her fidelity to the Rules and Constitutions of the congregation and to the Church documents especially during the tumultuous times of Vatican II. After all, every yes is linked to a previous yes.
If you ever go to the Nashville Dominican website and go to Community, and then click onto Sister Profiles, you’ll be able to read some of their beautiful vocation stories.
Three of those Sisters whose vocation stories are on their website are in the Salt + Light documentary on the Nashville Dominicans.
Sr. Anna Laura of “Not Without a Sense of Humor!” is so vibrant, loud, and super-joyful! I loved listening to her in the documentary, but meeting her in real life was even better. We had breakfast together on my last day at the Motherhouse and I heard about her life before being a Nashville Dominican. She decided to take a course on “Christian Marriage” in her senior year at the University of Dallas, since she was contemplating marriage. But it was during that course, when the lay professor talked about the beauty of marriage and how religious life mirrors the Union with God that we are all called to, she was intrigued! She had never heard religious life explained this way before! She also showed me around St. Cecilia Academy, about seven minutes away, and showed me around the campus, where she is the current Academic Dean. Her love for the girls, her vocation, her love of life – these were so very apparent and over-flowing. God bless her!
Sr. Anna Grace of “With a Joyful Heart” was a professional ballet dancer for about 10 years, but her heart and soul were starving for God. I didn’t get to meet her at the Motherhouse, but one of the other Sisters said, “Oh, Sr. Anna Grace is so graceful. She can make even throwing out the garbage look like a beautiful dance!”
sr-marie-vianney-and-me-2.JPGSr. Marie Vianney of “Espoused to the Most Perfectly Beautiful” is a real treasure. She has these big bright eyes and youthful air about her that’s captivating! She has been a Nashville Dominican for 55 years now, and yet she speaks about her Final Vows as if it happened yesterday. She still goes into tears whenever she talks about the beautiful letter her mom wrote her on the day of her Final Profession. Sr. Marie Vianney is also an artist, whose father was a good friend of the Group of Seven. Sr. Marie Vianney is also Canadian, and so there was that immediate spark in her eyes when she saw us. She even took me to her art studio upstairs, and didn’t let me leave without giving me a large print of one of her paintings, and a box of cards with prints as well.
For two nights, I was able to have a guestroom to myself on the bottom floor of the Motherhouse. In that room, there is a binder with pages of an introduction to the Nashville Dominicans. There is a section with print-outs of these vocation stories that I love. Curiously enough, they had one vocation story of a girl whose name I was familiar with from my past. Remember that young woman from part one who told me about the Nashville Dominicans? She also told me about her sister who left professional basketball to become a cloistered nun, a Poor Clare. Her name is Shelly Pennefather. There was a photocopy of the article on Shelly Pennefather written by Alexander Wolff for Women Sport, Fall 1997. And here it was in full, in front of me at the Motherhouse of the Nashville Dominicans. It is such a beautiful and inspiring story. Shelly Pennefather renounced her worldly life, including a six-figure salary as a professional basketball star in Japan, to become a Poor Clare. I read the article and the final picture of Sr. Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels (Shelly Pennefather’s religious name) putting her palm on the glass that separated her and her friends, who put their own palms against hers, their faces looking to the camera with big smiles, almost pierced my heart. But mostly because Sr. Rose Marie looked so happy in her habit, with a crown of thorns on her head on the day she took her vows as a Poor Clare. The image of her looked so mysterious, so ethereal, and so beautiful. (Check out Shelly’s story HERE.)
I thank God that there are religious who are faithful to their calling and face the world conscious that they are married to the Beautiful One.

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