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Religious Life

She likes the freedom but needs peers

Special Report Writer

Renee Daigle is not about to apologize for what’s wonderful about her life. “I get a full night’s sleep. I know when I go to bed I won’t be awakened by a crying child.” Her six nieces and nephews have all stayed overnight in the convent with “their aunt, the nun” and the four other sisters in her community.

Daigle, 37, entered the Marianites of Holy Cross, in New Orleans, almost 16 years ago. Until a few months ago she was the youngest sister although she’d seen many younger than her enter and leave. Now in her fourth year as vocations director for her province, she goes wherever she can to be with young people and to encourage young women to consider religious life.

Her days are full of visiting confirmation classes and high schools. She gives “busy persons’ retreats” and hangs out with Theology on Tap, a group of Catholics aged 21 to 40 who meet monthly in a local bar for happy hour, followed by a speaker. The New Orleans archdiocese sponsors the program.

She is also pursuing a master’s degree in curriculum and early childhood studies at the University of New Orleans after teaching pre-school and kindergarten for 10 years. Her dream is to run a day care center.

Did she ever want to have children? “Of course,” she told NCR. One of the joys of being a Marianite is the chance to discuss such feelings and the struggles that others in her community have had over such choices. “Nobody can have it all in married or single life. These are choices I chose to live with. No one forced me to choose them.”

What she has gained from her community is encouragement to take leadership roles in the order and in other organizations. “They’ve called on my own gifts. I’m free to be an individual. There’s no set box I have to fit in,” she said.

The Marianites have also “challenged me to stretch. They’re not letting me be complacent,” she said. “If I were married, I would expect my husband to challenge me to be my best self.”

Daigle already had her degree in elementary education from Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., when she entered. That day might not have dawned but for an “awakening” retreat offered at the diocesan run Nicholls Catholic Center, where the Marianite vocations director used to “hang out” with the students. The center helped nurture three or four vocations among Daigle’s classmates.

The Marianites had been Daigle’s primary and secondary school teachers. Her great aunt, Marianite Sr. Edmund Schexnaildre, 90, stopped teaching four years ago. While the order was more familiar to her than any other, Daigle was still shocked when a member of the order asked her: “Renee, are you going to be a nun?”

“I was screaming and hollering in the car. I almost made her let me out. I knew these women were not perfect,” Daigle said, “Some were even a little eccentric. But her invitation fostered my curiosity to learn more.”

When she finally admitted to herself, “I’m going to try it,” Daigle found peace. “I knew I had nine years to make up my mind.” After living the life for three years, she took her first vows. She said final vows seven years ago.

The hardest thing about the life is not having other sisters her age. “I need peer relations.” That’s why she enjoys spending time with graduate students, other young singles and married folks.

At times Daigle bristled that her own growing stages were discounted. On her 30th birthday, she expected congratulations, but instead was told by some sisters: “Oh, 30 is nothing. We’re twice your age.” That made Daigle angry.

So did an older sister’s stare last summer when Daigle wore shorts to a retreat on a hot Louisiana day. But like many Gen Xers, Daigle has no hesitation speaking about her feelings -- unlike many older members of religious orders. “I don’t take it. I give it right back,” she said. When she communicated her feelings to the sister who’d looked disapprovingly at her, the elder nun was apologetic. Today they are close friends. Daigle noted that older sisters may pass judgment unintentionally.

Daigle thinks that members of religious communities “must be willing to do whatever we expect of those in formation.” This includes setting goals, evaluating the goals and one another, listening, sharing our lives and opening our homes to young people. “Our sisters identify so much with their ministries that we often forget we’re part of a community, too” -- not just the principal or the food pantry worker, she said.

National Catholic Reporter, February 23, 2001