Two weeks in Kansas: A new experience for novices to share

January 24, 2012

Sister Liberata Pellerin, center, can't resist checking on the supper being prepared at Manna House of Prayer Jan. 21 by Sisters Mary Preenika Dabrera, left, and Monique Like Siswoyo.

The differences between Mary Preenika Dabrera and Monique Like Siswoyo are striking.

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Preenika was born in Sri Lanka, the island nation off the southeast tip of India. The youngest of three children, she remained there until she was 18, when she emigrated to the United States. She arrived in New York City and, after learning English, attended college and worked in a variety of customer service jobs. Now a soft-spoken 30-year-old, she is thoughtful as she answers questions about her life.

Monique was born and raised on the island of Java in Indonesia. One of five children, she left her home country in 2003 to study in the Netherlands for a year. Then she came to the United States, landing in Los Angeles, where she worked as a sushi chef, a retail sales woman and as a beautician at Macy’s. Outgoing and chatty, she laughs easily when English trips her up.

But there are also notable similarities. Did we mention that they are Sister Preenika and Sister Monique?

Sister Monique Like Siswoyo

Together they make up the 2011-12 “class” of novices in the Sisters of St. Joseph. And this month they have come to Concordia after life journeys that have taken them literally thousands of miles from where they began.

Their two-week stay with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia is part of their education as novices to understand that the Sisters of St. Joseph extend beyond just their individual congregations.

About a dozen years ago, the U.S. Federation of Sisters of St. Joseph — a cooperative organization of more than a dozen independent congregations that share a “genealogy” that began in LePuy, France, in 1650 — created the yearlong “novitiate” program, in which novices from all the congregations live and learn together. The idea, according to Sister Anne Davis — one of two federation novice directors and herself a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet who lives in Los Angeles — is to ensure that novices have a foundation in understanding the congregation’s history and mission, and to have a “peer group” of other sisters about their same age and experience. (For a related story CLICK HERE.)

Sister Mary Preenika Dabrera

For Preenika and Monique, that means they have each other to share this journey in religious life.

Preenika (pronounced PREE-ni-ka) recalls meeting Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood, N.Y., for the first time about four years ago.

“They helped me to listen to the Holy Spirit and discern God’s call in my life,” she says, explaining what led her to enter the congregation as a postulant in September 2009. For the next year and half, Preenika lived with seven sisters in St. Patrick Convent in Long Island City, N.Y. By then she felt she knew God’s call for her: “I am certain that this how I want to spend rest of my life,” she said. She became a novice in the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood in May 2011, and last August she moved to Chicago to the house near Midway Airport that is the new home of the federation novitiate program.

While the Federation was deciding on a new location, Preenika had to wait to see where she would be going next. “I was dying to go to California,” she admits with a self-conscious laugh, “but I ended up being in Chicago.”

(She is not at all self-conscious about explaining the head scarf she now wears, laughing at the suggestion that it might have cultural significance to her. “It’s just fashion,” she explains lightly. She recently cut her hair very short and the scarf keeps her head warm in the Midwest winter.)

Upon arriving in Chicago, Preenika met fellow novice Monique, who first saw a Sister of St. Joseph of Orange, Calif., in a hospital lobby wearing a business suit. “I was surprised,” Monique recalls. “I never saw a sister wearing regular clothes.”

In fact, at the home in Java, Monique rarely saw sisters at all. There Catholic women religious live monastic lives in convents — and in habits — and do not reach out to the “neighbor” with apostolic works like Sisters of St. Joseph do.

And a life of reaching out to serve God and the people appealed to her; in July 2010, Monique entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange as a postulant. In August 2011, she, too, moved to Chicago to be a part of the federation novitiate program. And the eight-month program includes their two-week stay in Concordia at Manna House of Prayer, where classroom work has focused on Ignatian spirituality, mysticism, centering prayer and the spirit of the Sisters of St. Joseph, among other topics.

But the Concordia sisters planned the schedule to include regular breaks from the classroom. There have been trips to very rural communities, a chance to volunteer at a local women’s center, being part of a packed house for a performance by the U.S. Air Force “Brass in Blue” band, a stint in the communal kitchen to create a supper of Asian cuisine and even a showing of  “The Wizard of Oz.”

“There’s just been a nice rhythm to the days,” said Sister Bernadette Dean, the other federation vocation director and a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph who lives in Nazareth, Mich. “We focus here (in the classroom) and then we are able to go out and experience Kansas.”

And that has been quite an experience for Preenika and Monique, who have always lived in much more urban environments. When asked if she could live someplace like Concordia, Preenika says yes — but first she would have to learn to drive; she has always lived where she can rely solely on public transportation.

When Monique is asked if she could live in a city of 5,000 population, her response is one of surprise: “That many?” she asks before breaking into laughter. “Where are they all?”

She may have a chance to meet a few more Concordians before she and Preenika, along with Sisters Anne and Bernadette, all head back to Chicago. Their novitiate program continues until May, when Monique will go back to Orange, Calif., and Preenika will return to the sisters of Brentwood, N.Y.

Monique will then begin preparation for professing her first vows, and expects that ceremony to be in July. Preenika has another year as a novice but expects to profess her vows in 2013.

They each understand that this is a different journey than that taken by most women in today’s world. But they are also clear that this is a journey that they are called to, and that fits them.

“Everyone asks, ‘Why do you want to be a sister?’” Preenika says. “No matter how I tried to answer it, people are not satisfied with my answers. If I tell them, ‘God loves me so much, so I want to serve God’s people and bring them closer to God,’ they don’t understand it. (But now) I am sharing my life with people who understand me well.”

Or, as Monique explains, “I see God’s people from many different backgrounds and challenge myself for opening my heart to create spaces for them. I love being a part of this inclusive community of God’s great love.”