MERIDEN – For Sisters Sophia Peters and Angela Marie Castellani, Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist, entering a religious community was not even on the radar when they graduated from college.
“We both had careers,” said Sister Sophia, who noted that she was working for the international agency, Oxfam, after college; and Italian-born Sister Angela was a lawyer working for a firm in Italy. “We were living good lives, seeing the world, and everything was moving along,” Sister Sophia added.
But to their and their families’ surprise, the two women entered, stayed and professed their perpetual vow as members of the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist on Dec. 28 – notably during the “Year of Consecrated Life” declared by Pope Francis. It concludes Feb. 2, 2016.
“I always say religious life is the best-kept secret,” said Sister Sophia. “People don’t know the beauty, the joy, the fulfillment of what it is to be a consecrated religious woman.”
Sister Angela Marie agreed. “We have made this great commitment in our call to go out and witness through religious life the beauty and joy that comes from saying ‘yes’ to what God calls you.”
Today, she teaches religion at Northwest Catholic High School in West Hartford, and Sister Sophia, who holds a double undergraduate degree in international studies and Spanish, is a licensed marriage and family therapist.
Sister Angela’s journey began when she became acquainted with members of the order who minister in Italy, and she flew 4,000 miles to the motherhouse in 2002 to learn English and more about them.
To her surprise, when it was time to go home, she said, she “left with a heavy heart from this group of women who were so happy, did so much work for others, were very fulfilled, embraced me lovingly and helped me in so many ways.”
“Learning the language was the least of the important things I learned when I came,” she said, smiling. Rather, what she saw was a community “absolutely immersed in this beautiful life that is lived with great intensity.”
“I left and there was something that changed within me,” she said. “There was a greater desire to look into what it is that I am called to do.” But at the same time, she recalled, “I was far from saying, ‘That’s my life.’ I thought, ‘I’m not that worthy.’”
For Sister Sophia, the obvious was always in front of her, but didn’t blossom until later in life.
She grew up with the community as a child through her parents, who live in Windsor and are active associates of the Franciscan sisters. Moreover, her aunt, Sister Mary Elizabeth Endee, is a professed member of the community.
She participated in events at the motherhouse and attended World Youth Day with the Franciscan sisters. “But I had a love for seeing the world and for service,” said Sister Sophia, who has studied, lived in or traveled to Guatemala, Italy, Spain, Asia, Ireland, Hungary and Chile, among other countries. “So I was always going off to somewhere else.”
In 2000, while studying abroad in Spain, she wanted to find meaningful volunteer work during her college winter break. She contacted Mother Shaun Vergauwen, mother general of the community, who put her in contact with the Franciscan sisters in Italy. They, in turn, directed her to the Vatican’s Caritas House to work with Bosnian refugees outside of Assisi.
“It comes down to call,” said Sister Sophia. “It comes down to being who God has created you to be.
“I think that so many more people would be open to it if they only knew what an amazing life it is … to be given this tremendous gift of our vocation,” she said. “This is a response of love to this very exciting invitation we’ve been given.
“People say, ‘Oh, you have to give up so much.’ We say, ‘No, you have no idea what we receive every single day. We receive the gift of being called forth for who we are before God.’”
Sister Angela Marie echoed the thought. “We have made this great commitment through our call to go out and witness through religious life that beauty and joy that comes from that ‘yes’ to what God calls you. And it is a call. Not everyone is called.”
But they reflect that often in today’s noisy world, people don’t take time to pray and develop a relationship with God by setting aside time in silence to listen.
Sister Sophia said that their years of preparation toward final vows was a time of being awakened to their vocation. “When we take time to go deeper in silence and prayer, that’s when we can ask the questions, ‘Who am I? Who am I before God, and what is he asking of me?’”
For Sister Angela Marie, who was raised in Collestrada, Italy, near Assisi, and graduated from law school in the cosmopolitan city of Perugia, the questions are answered through prayer and experiencing life in the community.
“We have a strong corporate life,” she said. “Even our name shows how we are tied to the Eucharist and prayer. Through that we find the strength to go out and do the work we do.”