For sisters making final vows, not having family present was painful, but special

Mother Assumpta Long, OP, holds the Book of Professions as Sr. Peter Grace Weber, OP, signs her name after professing her perpetual vows July 22 with the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor. Despite family, friend and even some fellow sisters being absent because of COVID-19 restrictions, the new sisters found joy in the quiet, holy ceremony. (Courtesy of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist)

Traditional brides aren’t the only women whose wedding day looked different during the pandemic, but new Dominicans find joy in hardship

ANN ARBOR — She could picture the day in her mind: making her vows in front of family and friends, seeing the beautiful cake on display at the reception, and knowing her heart would be her groom’s forever. 

But like so many brides during the COVID-19 pandemic, the day didn’t turn out as planned.

On July 22, Sr. Mary André Thelen, OP, made her final vows as a bride of Christ with the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, in Ann Arbor. Seven other sisters in the community also dedicated their life to Jesus that day.

“The Church has always seen a religious sister as bride of Christ, and therefore her profession day as a type of wedding,” Mother Assumpta Long, OP, prioress general of the Ann Arbor Dominicans, told Detroit Catholic. “Like a bride who pronounces her vows of fidelity to her spouse, in the midst of the Church, until death do us part, the sister consecrates herself totally to the Lord with the evangelical vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience for ‘all her life.’”

Eight sisters lie prostrate during the Litany of Saints at their final professions Mass at the motherhouse of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, in Ann Arbor on July 22. (Courtesy of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist)

In previous years, the congregation hosted between 500 and 800 guests for final professions. It’s one of the few times the community opens its doors to visitors. The sisters, who operate schools in Plymouth and Ann Arbor and serve in teaching missions around the country, observe a monastic lifestyle when not at school. 

Sr. Mary André and the other sisters making their perpetual vows found out in early June that not even their families could be there to witness. Family and friends could watch the livestream of the event instead.

The youngest of five children, Sr. Mary André grew up in Ann Arbor and attended St. Thomas the Apostle Parish. Her oldest brother entered seminary with the Legionaries of Christ when she was 8, and was planning to concelebrate her final profession Mass. It would have been the first time her whole family would be together since he was ordained in Rome in 2012, shortly after Sr. Mary André entered the convent.

Her parents, Brian and Mary Ann Thelen, were disappointed but not surprised. 

“I felt God had prepared us for the idea that we might not be able to be there, but to hear it from her voice over the phone was hard,” Mary Ann said. “One thing God has taught me is that my longing for my family to be together is like His desire to have all of His family, his people, together with Him in heaven.”  

Bishop Earl Boyea of the Diocese of Lansing celebrates the holy sacrifice of the Mass and perpetual profession of vows for the Ann Arbor Dominican community on July 22. (Courtesy of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist)

 Sr. Mary André realized it was God’s will for her final vows and drew a connection to the pandemic.

“Families make that offering with their daughter when she enters religious life, and it’s a sacrifice for them,” Sr. Mary André said. “During COVID, everyone is suffering or sacrificing in some way, and with this cross, we are in union with them. But when you’re willing to give God the things that are hard, He’ll always give you something greater back.”

A different kind of joy

Sr. Irenaeus Schluttenhofer, OP, grew up in Indiana and was invited by friends to attend a retreat “up in Ann Arbor” for a weekend with the Dominican Sisters when she was in her early 20s. That was the beginning of her formal journey to religious life.

“Seeing the sisters’ joy, I wanted what they had: a life of total self-giving centered around our Eucharistic Lord,” the 30-year-old Sr. Irenaeus said. 

More than 140 sisters make up the Ann Arbor Dominican community. In previous years, those sisters who are living elsewhere on mission gather at the motherhouse each July for final vows. This year, only those who live at the motherhouse or who were making their vows could attend, about 70 in all. Being without all her fellow sisters was an added sadness for Sr. Irenaeus.

“The evening of final vows, we received a book with all of their notes — beautiful messages with their prayers, love and kind words,” Sr. Irenaeus said. “Amazingly, all the sisters also watched the Mass — including our sisters in California, who watched it live (early that morning) — even with the time difference.”

Sr. Mary André Thelen, OP, visits with her parents, Brian and Mary Ann, after making her final profession of vows in July. Despite her parents not being able to attend, Sr. Mary André said she knew of their deep love and support. (Courtesy of Sr. Mary André Thelen, OP)

The morning of the final professions, Sr. Mary André’s parents, siblings, and their families — including her 2-day-old baby nephew — got dressed up in their homes to watch their daughter and sister take her final vows. Brian and Mary Ann received dozens of texts from family and friends who were also watching. Many took photos of their TV while Sr. Mary André said her vows and shared it on social media.

Prior to the vows, everyone prayed a novena that Brian and Mary Ann wrote based on Sr. Mary André’s favorite saints to lift her in prayer.

“One of the sisters has a phrase she always says, which is, ‘See you in the Eucharist!’” Sr. Mary André said. “That’s because as Catholics, even when we’re not together physically, we’re united in the Mass. So, during the final professions (Mass), I could really feel the prayers of everyone. I felt so peaceful.”

The sisters typically spend days preparing for final professions, working in teams. The choir rehearses. The decorating crew gets creative. The food crews spend hours in the kitchen making chicken salad, baking close to 1,000 homemade rolls, and constructing a tiered cake that some say rivals the best professionally made cakes around. While the preparations are fun and meaningful for the community, Sr. Mary André and Sr. Irenaeus agree that having quieter days before their vows allowed them to focus on prayer and the commitment they were about to make. On the day of the vows, they missed their family and friends but also found the quietness of the day to be special.

Left to right, newly professed brides of Christ Sr. Theresita, Sr. Irenaeus, Sr. Mary Andre, Sr. Mary Bernard, Sr. Chiara Luce, Sr. Mary Esther and Sr. Mary Consolata cut their wedding cake after making their final vows. (Courtesy of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist) 

“She thought of it as a blessing, giving herself to Christ and Christ alone, and crystalizing the purpose of the day even more,” Brian Thelen said of his daughter.

Instead of being held at Christ the King Church in Ann Arbor, the final professions took place in the chapel at the motherhouse. Bishop Earl Boyea of the Diocese of Lansing celebrated the Mass. Afterward, they all celebrated with a special meal followed by a game of ultimate Frisbee, and praise and worship to thank God for the day. 

And, of course, there was a wedding cake.

A day for the history books

Even though her final vows weren’t what she expected, they were more beautiful than Sr. Irenaeus could have imagined. 

“There was a sweetness about signing my vows on the altar in our own chapel, a quiet afternoon celebrating with the sisters who were there,” Sr. Irenaeus said. “Even when the Lord lets us carry the cross, He’s always carrying it with us, and knows exactly how much we can handle. He gave me those joys, and He let me know that He was with me.”

Sr. Mary André Thelen, OP, visits her family for a week shortly after her final vows. (Courtesy of Sr. Mary André Thelen, OP)

Sr. Mary André visited her family for a week shortly after her final vows. Her parents and some of her siblings and their families quarantined beforehand so they could be together at the family cottage. Sr. Irenaeus also enjoyed a home visit where she and her family “rejoiced together in person.”

Mother Assumpta says this final profession will be one for the record books.

“I consider it a special grace that this group of sisters made their perpetual vows in the same place where they first were received into the community as postulants eight years prior, where they received the habit and new religious name, and where they renewed their vows. No other group can claim that same grace,” Mother Assumpta said. 

“And although we love to share this special day with our family and many guests, there was a solemn simplicity and deep prayerfulness celebrating the ceremony in our small community chapel together. It will surely be a profession we will remember.”