Off the farm and into the convent: “This feels natural. I like it here.”

Off the farm and into the convent: “This feels natural. I like it here.” April 2, 2012

An uplifting vocation story from Kansas:

Last year at this time, 22-year-old Annie Stuhlsatz and the older siblings in her family were planning to dye Easter eggs and hide them in baskets of grass and green wheat gathered from the fields around their small farm in the shadow of St. Mary Aleppo Church.

On Easter morning, the younger of the 10 Stuhlsatz children would scatter, looking for the colorful eggs before the tight-knit family went to Mass together at St. Mary’s.

Annie was also hiding a secret in her heart as she followed the family traditions. This would be the last Easter she would spend on the farm outside the tiny hamlet of Aleppo in western Sedgwick County.

She was in the final stretch of her first year of teaching science at Heights High School in Wichita, a job she’d taken after graduating from Pittsburg State University the year before. But during the 40 days of Lent leading up to Easter, after years of fear and faulty assumptions and traveling down side roads, a realization had hit her. Not only was she called to be a nun, an idea that had hung only free-form around her since she was in high school herself, but she was called to be a nun in Wichita. She’d always figured, once she’d found out nuns were real, that she’d have to go someplace far away to become one.

In August, sad to leave her family but with a peace she hadn’t experienced before, Annie Stuhlsatz joined the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Wichita, becoming one of fewer than 100 women who enter convents and monasteries each year in the United States to be nuns (living a contemplative, cloistered life of prayer for others in a monastery) or sisters (who also go outside the convent to serve others).

It was the culmination of a slow, countercultural but steady journey for someone who, like many people, had only known nuns from “The Sound of Music” and “Sister Act.” After a peak in 1965 of 180,000 religious sisters in the United States, the number had plummeted to 56,000 last year. Even many Catholic schools do not have nuns as teachers. In Annie’s life, the only sister she’d known was one who taught her religion for a year or two in high school. But there have been signs of increased inquiries into religious life since 2000, said Brother Paul Bednarczyk, director of the National Religious Vocation Conference in Chicago.

“I was waiting for something to really jump out at me, but that’s not usually the way it works. God whispers, he doesn’t yell,” Annie said. Instead, on her visits to the Immaculate Heart of Mary convent at 145 S. Millwood, in the old rectory next door to St. Joseph’s Church in Delano, “it was: ‘This feels natural. I like it here.’ ”

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