The Mary Immaculate Province of the Sisters of Notre Dame added one more woman to its roll of permanent sisters in Toledo on Sunday when Sister Jennifer Marie Zimmerman recited her final vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience at Christ the King Church. Sister Jennifer Marie, 34, might have stood alone in the ceremony celebrating her perpetual profession, but she felt great love and support.
If anything was a surprise at the service, it was “the feeling of having everybody there,” she said. “When I turned around and everybody was praying for me, it’s like, there’s everybody that I love right there: family, friends, sisters, coworkers.”
Sister Jennifer Marie’s sisters were there in great numbers. About 170 of the Toledo province’s 197 sisters attended, and they were joined by sisters from other Sisters of Notre Dame provinces and from other Toledo-area religious orders. (Though members of women’s religious orders are nuns by definition, Sister Jennifer Marie said their preference is sister because they work in the community, and they tend to reserve nun for sisters in cloisters.)
Sister Mary Cyrilla Hellman, 90, remembers her final vows ceremony that took place in 1948. “You never forget. It’s one day that stands out in your whole life because it makes a difference in your whole life,” she said. For her final vows, “There were 10 of us, and no member of our group left [the order] until God called them in death.” Three are still living, she said. Seventy years after making her first vows, Sister Mary Cyrilla continues to minister at Mercy St. Anne Hospital, Toledo Correctional Institution, and nursing homes. Sister Mary Cyrilla is one of 22 sisters celebrating milestone anniversaries this summer, from 25 years as a sister to one sister having a 75th jubilee.
Sister Mary Delores Gatliff is the provincial superior, and she said that Sister Jennifer Marie’s profession is “my one and only” service of final vows as community leader. The next such service in Toledo likely won’t take place for another 10 years, she said, because “the Church allows a long time for the formation program so that we’re really sure and know what the life is and what our gifts are, and is it a good match.”
Sister Mary Delores’ year of final vows was 1975. “I was with eight other sisters, and that was kind of the norm then. We were larger groups; we were also younger, because most of us at that time entered right out of high school."
Sister Alice Marie Willman made her vows alongside three sisters in 1985. She remembered how impressive it was to see the sisters walking in while singing "Ave Maris Stella," a prayer for Mary. It was sung in 1874 by sisters bringing the first exiled group from Germany to the United States, and is now a traditional song in the profession rites.
Sister Jennifer Marie started thinking of religious life after college at the University of Toledo, where she majored in sports medicine. "My best friend, Sally, had told me she was going to enter the community, and I thought, ‘Great for her' — not thinking of it at all for me. But by coming to visit her, I got to know the sisters."
She moved back to her hometown of Defiance after college and had a "great job, apartment, car, everything that society says you're supposed to have, but it wasn't enough," Sister Jennifer Marie said. She started going to Toledo on weekends to work on service projects with Sally and the other sisters. Then she felt the need to try religious life. "I never expected to still be here, and now Sally is married with two little boys." Sally left the order prior to making final vows.
Now Sister Jennifer Marie is codirector of campus ministry at Notre Dame Academy and its strength and conditioning coach. She has occasions to provide pastoral support and educate the students about sisters' lives. "I had a pretty normal first 24 years" before entering the order at age 24, she said. "I think that helps me relate to the students at Notre Dame Academy in a different way," she said.
"These girls, they'll ask you anything, they're not bashful on that," Sister Jennifer Marie said. They have asked her about whether she would rather be a priest. "I'm very honest with them and tell them that's not my calling, so it's hard for me to enter into that discussion when it's not something I feel inside myself."
Sister Jennifer Marie doesn't wear a habit — born after many sisters’ clothing rules were modernized, "that is not something I grew up with." But she does have the two items of office that all of her sisters also wear: a cross and a ring. Sister Jennifer Marie received two rings on her path to permanence, indicating a promise of marriage to Jesus: a plain silver band at first vows and at final vows a ring engraved in French that reads "All for Jesus through Mary."
Now a full Sister of Notre Dame, she joins an order with its sisters' median age being 70, more than twice her age, but that doesn't matter. "It's hard to explain until you're around these women. It comes out wrong. They don't act their age. There's something about the joy that comes across from them, there's a youthfulness. I look at the older sisters, and we're surrounded by wisdom. And I don't believe I'm going to be the last Sister of Notre Dame in Toledo. I feel very strongly there are others that will be coming."
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