The Called: Sister Mary Ann Lawrence, MSC
Hometown: Hanover, Pa.
Education: St. Vincent de Paul School in Hanover, Delone Catholic High School in McSherrystown, college classes as a novice with the Missionary Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus
Current assignment: Good Shepherd Parish in Camp Hill
Tell me about your childhood.
I grew up in Hanover, and we belonged to St. Vincent Parish. I am the fourth oldest of 12 children. There were nine boys and three girls, and we often joked that the nine boys made up the baseball team and the three girls were the mascots.
My parents were very hard working and faith-filled. In those days, we went to Mass every morning as a school community, and Confession every Saturday. On Sunday night, we had prayer and Benediction in the church and my three older brothers always served. We prayed the Rosary as a family every night. We had a crucifix hanging in every single room in our house.
We were just an ordinary family that did things together. We played with the neighborhood kids, and it was just a normal family life.
Was religious life always presented as an option in your family?
My mom told us that when she and my dad got married, they always prayed that one of their children would enter religious life. We always joked and said, “We think God answered your prayers because there are four of us who did!”
When I was in fifth grade, I knew in my heart that I was going to be a religious Sister, it was going to be with the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and it would be in a missionary community. To this day, I marvel at that, because we had three or four religious communities in our area and none of them were named for the Sacred Heart or missionary.
In the back of our church, there was an alcove with a life-size statue of the Sacred Heart. When I was in third, fourth and fifth grade, that statue was like a magnet for me. I could not go to my pew until I looked at that statue. I never told anybody about it because I didn’t understand what was going on. As I got older, I realized that the Lord was actually preparing me for religious life.
How did you find out about your congregation, the Missionary Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus?
I entered Delone Catholic, and every year during the three days of Holy Week, there was a retreat for the school. They brought in speakers, and we could go to any presentation we wanted to. I looked at the displays they had set up, I saw the Catholic Messenger magazine. I picked it up and saw a little square ad that said, “Missionary Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus” with an address. I wrote to them, having no idea about them. A week or so later, I came home from school and my mom said “You have some mail here from a religious community.” I read the letter, showed it to my parents, and went up to visit their motherhouse in May. I found myself entering the following September, in 1953, at the age of 15.
We had an aspirancy year at a school for girls who were planning on entering the community. I finished my two years of high school education there, with our Sisters teaching in conjunction with Villanova.
Both of my brothers who are priests – Father Ken, who is now deceased, and Father Bob, who just celebrated his 50th anniversary – entered seminary after eighth grade. They had 12 straight years of seminary life. My sister, Sister Jane, entered the Sisters of St. Joseph after high school.
When I look back on my life of seeing that statue of the Sacred Heart and later entering a community I knew nothing about, I knew it was God leading me.
What was it like to enter a religious order in 1953?
It was very different than today. We had our high school education as aspirants, and I learned more about prayer and myself at the time. Things were pretty strict especially because we were still high school kids, but we could still have fun. Our parents were allowed to visit once a month, so mine came with all my younger siblings. In the summertime, we were allowed to go home.
After my last summer, we were novitiates. We then received a veil as postulants, the year that we were being received officially into the community and become novices. We had stringent rules, all in preparing us for taking vows. The novice director we had at the time made sure we talked a lot about prayer and the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. That allowed us to ask, “Is this really what God is calling me to? Do I really want to take these vows?” It’s a very solemn and official thing. We took our temporary vows five years in a row, and then we took our final vows in 1962.
Talk about the sacrifice of your parents to send all of you to Catholic school, two sons to seminary, and two daughters into a religious community.
When my brothers entered the seminary, they had to give a certain amount to the seminary. And every week, my brothers would send laundry home, my mom would launder it and send it back.
When I entered, I was concerned too about the finances. My parents told me that because they prayed for religious vocations for their children, they trusted that God would help them through financially. When my sister was getting ready to enter, I was in the novitiate. I offered to leave Reading for a while and earn money to help pay for things before going back. My mother said, “No. If God wants my children, He will provide for them.” They were always very supportive, and I knew it was a strain on them, because the four of us who entered were the four oldest of the family and otherwise could have been making money.
My dad worked three jobs, my mom worked in the canning factory in the summer time. My parents were incredibly wonderful about us entering. My dad worked in a cigar factory during the day. In the evenings, he would put up wallpaper for people, and worked at the local Moose on the weekend. If he came home from his day job at 4:00 and had to be somewhere else at 6:00, we never had dinner without the entire family being together.
Where have you served, and in what ministries?
When I left the novitiate, I started teaching right away. In total, I spent 42 years teaching. I started out in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, then went to the Diocese of Chicago, the Diocese of Allentown and the Diocese of Harrisburg. I’ve taught all grades from 1-8.
In between years teaching, I got called to the motherhouse. My provincial called me to Reading. I was in my early 30s. She said that our Sisters were getting to an older age and starting to think about retirement. She said, “We’d like you to take this on, to start a retirement and pre-retirement program for the Sisters.” When I went to bed that night, I thought, “What did I just say yes to?” The next morning, I went to Mass and decided that I would tell Sister no. But I heard God say, “You have been praying that whatever I wanted you to do, you would accept. Now go do it.”
In that role, I served as a member of the community to help the Sisters think about where they wanted to retire and what they needed to make that happen. I did that work for seven years, then I served for five years as a chaplain at three nursing homes in Easton and Bethlehem. In that role, I did prayer services and Bible studies, and then went back into teaching in schools in the late 1980s.
Where have you served in the Diocese?
I was on sabbatical from 1993 to 1994, and my brother Bob was serving in the Diocesan Education Office at the time. I was hoping to teach in our Diocese, and a position opened at St. Joseph School in York. I taught there for five years, and then I came to Good Shepherd School in Camp Hill. I’ve been at this parish for 22 years. I taught first-grade and also tutored students after school, which I continue to do. I’ve also been a Confirmation sponsor for 11 of my students over the years. It’s been nothing but God’s grace working here.
You had a rather unique Prayer Partner program at Good Shepherd School.
I actually started it when I was teaching in Chicago. I’d ask the kids to write a letter to a local government leader, business person or priest, inviting them to serve as Prayer Partners and come visit our class. Everybody’s Prayer Partner would come on a different day to talk to the kids about what they do. Sometimes they would bring gifts for the kids, and we wrote back and forth six times a year. I did that in every school I taught.
Maretta Schmidt, our former principal and former Superintendent who died a few years ago, came every year that I had the program at Good Shepherd. She would bring gifts for all the kids. We also had the bishop and the governor come. It was a great program for the children.
What do you enjoy in your free time?
I’m an avid reader. When I was a kid, we had cabinets above our sink and when it was my turn to wash the dishes, I would stand my book up on the top shelf so I could do dishes and read at the same time. I do a lot of spiritual reading, but I also like Mary Higgins Clark.
I try to walk two or three miles a couple days a week. I’m a huge sports fan, especially Penn State football and Duke basketball. I was sad to see that Coach K is retiring. I think he’s a great man.
I also like to send notes to people in the parish who are having a tough time. I do it as part of my ministry, as a way to let people know I’m praying for them.
What would you say to a young woman who is considering religious life?
Listen to whatever you’re feeling. Don’t dismiss it and think you’re not worthy. Listen to the whisperings you’re hearing. Pray daily and ask the Lord to keep leading you, and find a spiritual director or priest or Sister to talk to. Journaling is great too. Write your thoughts and reactions every day, and you’ll see connections over time.
Finally, pay attention to even the small things. If I had not looked at that statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus when I was elementary school and really thought about it, I might not be here today.
You are being reassigned, and will be leaving Good Shepherd for Reading this month. Is there anything you would like to say to the people you’ve met in the Diocese?
As we all know, our journey in life takes its twists and turns, but the Sacred Heart is always with us. My journey here at Good Shepherd is taking one of those turns as my community is reassigning me to our motherhouse in Reading at the end of this month. The Lord has a plan for all of us and we have all probably heard the famous saying, “We do not know what the future holds, but we know WHO holds the future.”
I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone with whom I have had any contact over these past 27 years – five at St. Joseph Parish and School in York, and in particular my 22 years at Good Shepherd Parish and School. I have so very many wonderful memories and am deeply grateful for all the blessings you have given to me in so many ways.
A very special “thank you” to all those of you who were Prayer Partners to my six and seven year old students. Your letters, visits and gifts were treasures beyond compare. The joy you brought to my little ones will never be forgotten. This was always my favorite program as a first-grade teacher.
Every day at Mass, I place everyone in my life into the chalice at the Offertory and ask the Lord to give us all the graces we need each day. I will continue to remember our Diocese and everyone in it, as I move to my next assignment. I ask you to please remember me as well.
In closing, I ask the Sacred Heart of Jesus to continue to bless and reward you and your loved ones always and in all ways.
(Interview conducted by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)