By Christina Capecchi Published Sep 1, 2015
Nicole Varnerin’s search for sisterhood carried her from a sorority to a convent in less than two years. It was all part of a profound spiritual quest, seeking out the community that felt like her true home. The 25-year-old electrical engineer from Connecticut found it in a group of Catholic sisters, the Sisters of Notre Dame.
The prompting to consider religious life first arose when Nicole was 18, but she cast it aside. At the time, the prospect seemed at odds with the career trajectory she had mapped out. “My plan for my life was to study engineering and change the world through science,” she recalls thinking, “and nuns aren’t scientists.”
Still, actual flesh-and-blood nuns remained a mystery. “I had never had contact with religious sisters. It was a foreign concept to me.”
So Nicole arranged for a summer of service living in community with Catholic sisters, an experience that confirmed her vocation. “I felt so comfortable and at home living with these sisters,” she said. “I loved the rhythm of the life and sharing service and prayer with those I lived with. That summer I was the most in-my-skin I have ever felt. It is that Nicole that I wanted to be for the rest of my life, and I truly believed that a big part of who I was that summer had to do with living in community as a partner with religious sisters. My experience that summer marked a point of no return. I just had to pursue religious life. It was in my blood. It was in my spirit.”
Even with that unequivocal conviction, Nicole had to come to terms with her perception of religious life and its inherent sacrifices. For one, she was convinced that she couldn’t be an engineer and a religious sister. “Not true!” the engineer reports. She managed to connect with a fellow electrical engineer who is a sister and assuaged Nicole’s concerns. “Religious life is a state of life, not a profession,” Nicole said. “The profession is secondary.”
The second trade-off was a real one: She couldn’t become a mother, as she had always envisioned doing, and a Catholic sister. “In the early stages of my discernment, it was difficult for me to think about never having children or a family,” Nicole admitted. “But it really was through prayer that I was able to come to peace with my true calling. As I’ve continued on this path, I’ve learned wonderful things about celibate loving. As a celibate, I am called to love the whole world. I have freedom to give my love and dedication to the homeless man I encounter on the street. I am free to love the children in the classroom who are hungering to experience God’s love. And I am called to look the elderly in the eye and take the time to hear their stories and be their friend after all their other friends have gone to the Lord. It is this spiritual motherhood and spiritual family that shows me the blessings of a celibate lifestyle. I soon noticed in myself a desire and tendency to be available for all people, not just one. I was made for this life.”
As to her specific congregation, Nicole said she “fell into” the Sisters of Notre Dame by way of her spiritual director, a Sister of Notre Dame who invited her to a discernment weekend with her community. “I had such an experience of welcome and home that weekend that I didn’t want to leave when the time came,” Nicole said. In a journal she wrote: “I have had this taste of eternal home and all I want is to just go back and live there forever.”
Nicole continued her work in clinical research and officially entered potulancy with the Sisters of Notre Dame in July 2014. She recently moved to Covington, Ky., where she will continue her formation process. In half a year she hopes to begin the two-year novitiate process, which would mean professing first vows in 2018 and making perpetual vows in 2023.
Looking back, she sees as the connective tissue from her college days in sorority to her current status as a Catholic-sister-to-be. “As I discerned religious life, I looked at my desire to be in a sorority as a precursor to my call to religious life. I sought out supportive community in the sorority because we were all females in the male-dominated field of engineering. I love them for who they are and the common values of friendship, scholarship and encouragement that we uphold. Community has always been important to me and is a part of why I feel called to be a religious sister.”
As to her electrical engineering background, Nicole has no regrets. She can envision a number of roles she could fulfill as a Sister of Notre Dame. “I have no idea where I’ll be in two years,” she said. “I’m learning how to surrender myself to God. If I had to dream, I could see myself working with the homeless, in the medical field either in research or patient advocacy or maybe even helping to bring clean water and solar power to mission areas.”
Ultimately, she tells young Catholics, keep an open mind about religious life. “There is no stereotype. God calls all kinds of people. Becoming a religious sister is not about conforming to the majority or conforming to what people think you should look and be like. And the more you follow God, the truer ‘you’ you will become.”