When I was born, my parents gave me the name Julie. Three months later, my parents took me to my dad’s Byzantine Catholic church to have me baptized. When the priest asked during the baptism, “What saint is this child to be named after?,” my mom, a protestant who knew very little about saints, was speechless. My godmother stepped in: “Saint Julie!” she said.
Sometime later, my mother, being a good Baptist, took me to her church to “dedicate” me to God. (Baptists do not baptize infants, waiting for the person to make his or her own choice, but they instead offer their children to God in a dedication ceremony.) She told me years later that when she did this, she “really meant it!”
I don’t remember attending my mom’s Baptist church every other Sunday as a young child. My mom became Byzantine Catholic when I was seven, and from then on the whole family was immersed solely in the faith, traditions and beauty of the Byzantine Church. I grew into my faith alongside of my mom, who became more on fire each year as she discovered more gems of the faith. Under the leadership of both of my parents, our family was very involved in the life of the parish, especially in its spiritual and educational dimensions.
During middle school and as I started high school, I thought of myself as a good Catholic, but God wasn’t yet totally real to me or the passion and love of my life. Throughout those years I was very insecure and struggled to fit in with my chosen group of friends. The summer after my sophomore year in high school I attended the national ByzanTEEN Youth Rally at Mt. St. Macrina in Uniontown, Pa. I made some friends, learned a lot in the talks and was having a great time, but near the end of the weekend I again found myself in my typical state of insecurity and loneliness. Earlier in the weekend I had learned about the Jesus Prayer, and in the midst of my desolation I decided to give it a try. I was stunned to be immediately filled with an overwhelming peace and joy that had absolutely nothing to do with the acceptance of my peers. In that small moment I had opened the door of my heart to God, and my life was completely changed.
I continued to have many of my usual struggles when I went back to my public high school that fall, but I had found my value as a daughter of God. I began to make time each day for prayer, and I took the initiative to learn everything I could about my faith. That fall I also convinced my family to attend the annual pilgrimage at Mt. St. Macrina, which I heard about during the youth rally. We drove down for the day on Sunday, and while we were there I must have repeatedly mentioned that I wanted to talk to Sr. Celeste, the nun who facilitated the youth rally. “Well, go talk to her!” my mom said. But I didn’t know what to say; I just wanted to be around her. Finally, before the evening was over, my dad walked over to Sr. Celeste and introduced my family. I recall that we talked about the beautiful weather! I didn’t know at the time that this attraction was one of the first signs of my vocation.
The sisters at Mt. St. Macrina were the first religious sisters I had ever met, and it wasn’t until high school that the thought of religious life occurred to me as a possibility, maybe while reading the autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. During my senior year, my pastor started to slip discernment retreat brochures into my mail slot at the church. I was shocked but honored that he thought I might be called to religious life. I didn’t look into attending them…at first.
As high school came to an end, I made the decision to attend The University of Akron for financial reasons, even though I had set my heart on attending Franciscan University of Steubenville. It turned out that God knew what He was doing (as He always does!) by leading me to Akron.
During my first semester of college I decided to attend a discernment retreat with the Sisters of St. Basil the Great at Mt. St. Macrina. I loved the experience. It was the first time I had spent time with religious sisters, and I found out that they were very “normal” people, who laughed and liked to have fun. However, when I returned to school, it wasn’t long before I started spending time with a great Catholic guy from our Newman Center (the Catholic group on campus). We frequently attended the daily noon Mass together at St. Bernard’s, the Roman Catholic church just off campus, and started dating in December. I quickly threw aside any thoughts about religious life.
I loved college and was quickly growing into the person God had created me to be. I was surprised to meet other devoted Catholic students and made lots of wonderful friends. And to my great surprise, God called me to leadership roles as I sought to develop a more authentic and dynamic Catholic atmosphere at the Newman Center and as I helped my new friend Jessie to establish a Students for Life group on campus. For my remaining years in college I served as president of our Newman Center and vice-president of Students for Life (Jessie holding the corresponding roles!). I started working at the local Right to Life office and found my niche using the communication and design skills I was learning for the glory of God.
About eight months after we started dating, my boyfriend broke up with me. As a typical heartbroken girl, I thought my life was over! Later on, I read back over my journal entries during the time that we were dating and was surprised to discover that I wrote about the sense of “something more” to which I felt called. I didn’t understand, at the time, what it was.
That fall I attended another discernment retreat at Mt. St. Macrina. Again, I enjoyed the experience. The following spring the sisters were holding a discernment retreat in Phoenix, Arizona. I wanted to go, mostly because I had never been to Arizona and I knew it would be nice and warm! However, I knew I couldn’t go because of the cost of a plane ticket. But then one evening, the vocation director, Sr. Barbara Jean, called me up and said, “Someone has offered to pay for your trip. Would you like to go?” I heartily agreed.
On the plane I realized that although I was excited to go to Phoenix, I should also be serious about praying about my vocation. On Saturday morning we were praying Matins (morning prayer) in the little chapel of the retreat center. I was so at peace. I stayed in the chapel after everyone left. I stretched my hands out from each side of me with my palms facing upwards, in an act of surrender to God. As I stood there with my eyes closed, it felt like my arms were rising up on their own. I immediately pulled my arms back down to my body with the thought, “I don’t want anyone to see!” And within me I clearly sensed the Holy Spirit saying, “If you say ‘yes,’ everyone will see.” I knew that the Lord wasn’t talking about my hands; I assumed that He meant that if I entered religious life, everyone would see the decision I had made. I was at peace with that.
I was quite sure after this experience that God was calling me to religious life, but He knows me so well that He knew He would have to pull off something even more dramatic to impress the point upon me forever!
Holy Week was beginning as I returned to school after the retreat. In my prayer that week, the thought occurred to me that I should take note of the calendar date of that experience in the retreat house chapel and remember it. If it was true that I was really being called to religious life, I figured that this date would be important to me. So I repeated it in my mind: “April 8th…April 8th.”
On Holy Wednesday I repeated the date “April 8th” to myself as I prayed after Mass and then headed over to the Catholic book store near the church to look for a gift for a friend who would be entering the Catholic Church during the Easter Vigil. In the store, I walked straight over to the book aisle, not necessarily to buy one for my friend, but just because I love books! One book caught my eye and I pulled it off the shelf. It was about naming children after the saints, and it listed hundreds of saints and their feast days. I immediately thought of Sr. Barbara Jean’s vocation story, in which she explains how she heard the call to religious life on her feast day—a day on which she had made the annual habit of doing something special for herself and taking extra time for prayer. I thought to myself, “I should look up St. Julie and find out when her feast day is, so that I can make that day special too.” Previously, I had chosen St. Julie Billiart as my patron, since she was the only “St. Julie” I found, as opposed to “St. Julia.” So I flipped through the book and found St. Julie Billiart, and I froze, staring in shock at the page. Her feast day was April 8th! The tears started running down my face. “Lord, You want me?” I prayed in joy. “I’m so honored that You want me as Your bride!”
In a daze of joy, I found a gift for my friend and practically skipped back up campus (at least spiritually!). It was a warm day, but halfway to where I was going, the sky opened up and it poured! I started to run but couldn’t in my wet flip flops, so I took them off and ran barefoot into the nearest building, laughing out loud. God showered me with love in that rain by blessing me with a childhood joy of running in downpours!
It was difficult for me to tell my parents, family and friends about the call I had heard. Becoming a nun isn’t exactly a standard “career path.” How could I explain the intimate love I shared with Jesus which had led me to say “yes” to His invitation to be His bride? To my surprise, those in whom I confided were completely supportive. After a few months of joy mixed with inner turmoil, I began the application process with the Sisters of St. Basil. On the feast of the Dormition (August 15, 2006), I was accepted as an “affiliate” for a period of formal discernment before applying to be accepted into the community. I spent my last two years of college as an affiliate, visiting the sisters when I could, while remaining very active on campus, at Right to Life, at St. Bernard’s and in my home parish. I often wondered if God was calling me to the Roman Catholic Church, because of the youthfulness and zeal I found there, but it was during this time that I began attending weekly young adult gatherings at my bishop’s residence. It was in praying Vespers (evening prayer) with Bishop John Kudrick and these faithful, energetic young adults, that I realized that my beloved Byzantine Church was still alive and that God was asking me to be a part of its revitalization.
In January of 2008, before beginning my last semester of college, I made my longest visit with the Sisters of St. Basil and spoke to them about formally applying. However, God had other plans. Shortly after I returned from my visit, I read a letter that Bishop John had just published about his vision for establishing a men’s or women’s monastery (or both) in the Eparchy of Parma. He quoted from St. John Paul II’s apostolic letter Orientale Lumen (Light of the East), in which the pope wrote of the beauty and necessity of traditional Eastern monasticism, calling for its revitalization. With every word of that letter, my heart was “burning within me.” I simply knew that this was what I desired and what God wanted for me.
Without much hesitation, but also without any confirmation that this new monastery was even possible, I wrote to Bishop John of my interest. At that moment began a new journey of trust in God’s providence and wisdom. To my joy, I learned that Sr. Celeste (now Mother Theodora), the sister to whom I was so attracted during that first visit to Mt. St. Macrina, and who I had come to know better since that time, had discerned that it was God’s will for her to found this new monastery. I did what I could to journey with her through the struggle and complete surrender to God that was required in seeking exclaustration (a leave of absence from her community) and moving to the Eparchy of Parma (in December of 2008) even before the house that was given to us for our monastery was ready to live in! In February of 2009, I moved in with Sr. Celeste into the empty rectory at St. John’s in Solon where she was temporarily living, and on April 3, 2009, we moved into our new monastery on Mumford Road in Burton, Ohio…drywall dust from renovations still floating in the air! As we prayed for the first time in our monastery—Matins, that first morning—I cried tears of joy as I realized that this was Matins for the same liturgical day (Lazarus Saturday) as it had been on April 8, 2006, the moment that God revealed the gift of my vocation to me.
My close friend from college, Jessie, with whom I had stepped out in faith in so many ways during college, became the next woman to join our monastery (now Mother Gabriella). We laugh when we talk about the fact that writing the constitution for Students for Life was practice for writing our monastic typikon (rule)! If becoming a nun isn’t a standard “career path,” becoming a nun and starting a new monastery is even more absurd, yet this is the way God has chosen to love me, and this is the way He desires for me to love Him.
At the dawn of my life I was baptized into Divine Life, “dedicated” to God, and named after a saint who would help me to realize my vocation (and one who knows what it is like to establish a new community!—St. Julie Billiart founded the Sisters of Notre Dame).
At the dawn of my monastic life, I was named after another saint, one who would (and continues to) help me understand my vocation and to live it. On September 30, 2012, I was tonsured as a rasophore (“robe-bearer”) nun and received the name Sr. Cecilia. The martyr Cecilia is a model to me of monastic life because it is said that during the wedding celebration of her forced marriage she was singing in her heart to Jesus, asking Him to preserve her for Himself alone. Monastic life is a life of total dedication to God and continual praise of God. It is also a life of “white martyrdom”—a daily dying to self.
After receiving the name Cecilia, I learned that this name means, “Guide to the blind.” As time has passed, I have come to understand that when the Lord said to me, “If you say ‘yes,’ everyone will see,” He didn’t ultimately mean that everyone will see me, but that through my vocation others would see Him.
I made my life profession and was tonsured as a stavrophore (“cross-bearer”) nun on November 8, 2015, becoming Mother Cecilia. I ask God for the grace to persevere in this difficult but beautiful monastic life, so that at the end of my life on earth He will find me still completely dedicated to Him and still desiring to live forever as His bride in heaven.