By Katherine Long
Sun Associate Editor
Caryn Crook several years ago found herself standing up in a room full of people and making an announcement that would change her life.
It was the last day of the youth retreat she was chaperoning, and she had joined the kids in a group discussion about vocations. The leader asked those who felt God calling them to the religious life to stand up. Caryn started crying. She knew she had to stand up. God was calling her. But she didn’t want to admit it.
For years, she had been trying to ignore what God was saying. It scared her. But she stood up anyway.
Caryn again stood in front of a sea of faces Aug. 13 and made another momentous announcement: “I ask that I may follow Christ and persevere in this religious community, the Sisters of St. Francis, until death.” This time, there were only tears of joy.
Caryn grew up in Immaculate Conception parish in Fulton, but never once considered becoming a nun. Her great love was nature, a passion inherited from her father, Ronald Crook, and encouraged by her mother, Margaret Crook.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in forest biology from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, then spent two years in the Peace Corps working with farmers of the Central African Republic on fish farming. In 1991, she became a biological technician for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, specializing in restoring natural wetlands on famers’ unused fields. She went to Mass on holidays or when she visited her parents, but had otherwise drifted away from the church.
Things began to change when Caryn’s niece, Samantha Hughes, was born in 1993.
“My sister asked me to be [Samantha’s] godmother,” she recalls. “I figured if I was going to be a good one, I needed to start going back to church.”
Caryn joined St. Mary’s Church in Cortland, where she became involved with the RENEW program, which reinvigorates Catholic tradition by building small faith communities in parishes. The more time she spent with the program, the more she felt the pull to go deeper into her relationship with God. But how? Looking for a little guidance, she met with Sister Louise Alff, OSF, a RENEW program coordinator.
Sister Louise asked if she’d ever thought about becoming a sister. She gave Caryn some materials about her congregation to read and pray on. Caryn immediately resisted the idea.
“I told myself, ‘I’m never going to be a sister!’” she recalls. “No way!”
The pamphlets and the idea went straight into the trash.
But two years later at the retreat, Caryn found she couldn’t resist any longer. And while finally recognizing and surrendering to her true calling might seem wonderfully liberating, Caryn felt quite the opposite.
“It was awful!” she recalls.
At that stage, she hadn’t had much experience with religious sisters. Her reference points were examples from popular culture and movies like “Sister Act.”
“The nuns were so silly and naive, removed from the real world,” she said. “I didn’t want to be one of them.”
Sister Louise helped put her in touch with the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse. She spent a year meeting one-on-one with a vocation director, visiting different regions and meeting the sisters. She learned that the way nuns are sometimes portrayed in the media is not the truth.
“I’ve met figures who are so inspiring,” she said, citing a sister who, at age 60, went back to law school so that she could become an attorney and address immigration reform.
“She passed the bar with flying colors and now she’s doing work she feels passionate about,” Sister Caryn said. “Seeing the sisters’ courage, openness, freedom, I said to myself, ‘I think I can do this.’”
She began the lengthy application process, which included a psychological assessment, writing an autobiography, and “interviewing” with the leadership team.
“I came prepared with all this stuff about computer programs that I knew, but they didn’t care about that at all,” she said, laughing. Computer knowledge aside, the Sisters of St. Francis recognized a kindred spirit and she was admitted to their congregation in 2005.
In the second year of her novitiate, she approached Sister Margaret Patrick Fay, OSF, at the Alverna Heights Spirituality and Nature Center, a retreat run by the Sisters of St. Francis in Fayetteville, about working at the center. Sister Margaret Patrick was quick to welcome Sister Caryn, given her background in biology and ecology. Among other duties, Sister Caryn put together a land management program for the retreat’s 160 acres, selected trees for the memorial gardens and began liaising with Green Lakes State Park, which abuts Alverna Heights. Her expertise was a welcome addition to the community, but more important, she proved to be a good match spiritually as well. “She fit right in,” Sister Margaret Patrick says.
Since then, Sister Caryn has been able to marry her secular career with her spiritual calling. As Franciscan ecology coordinator at Alverna Heights, she works in partnership with staff and volunteers to create and maintain environments that support both wildlife and deeper human experiences with God. She also works with the grassroots advocacy organization Franciscan Action Network, offering her expertise on “care for creation” and pressing environmental issues.
The many facets of Sister Caryn’s life came together at the St. Anthony Convent chapel in Syracuse last week, where family, friends, colleagues and fellow religious packed the pews to witness her profession of perpetual vows. Fittingly for a biologist nun, the Gospel reading was the parable about one kernel of wheat giving up its life in order to bear a great harvest.
Sister Caryn isn’t sure what harvest will come from her kernel, and she doesn’t want to guess; life has shown her that even the best-laid plans can change.
“I’m just open every moment to its unfolding…. There is no coasting. This life calls me to be more, to be who God created me to be. It’s challenging,” she says. “But exciting.”
And one very important person—the one who started it all—knows that Sister Caryn has found her true calling.
“God always had a plan for her,” says goddaughter Samantha. “She’s so perfect for this.”