Sister Ignatia Henneberry was a 12-year-old middle school student and parishioner of St. Anne, Mother of Mary Church in Mexico, N.Y., when she first felt the tug of religious life. Inspired by the works of Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta, she was intrigued, but true to her preteen mind, didn’t have the focus or avenue for further exploration. “The idea in my mind was that would be a really radical thing,” she recalled, “just seeing how beautiful it was and kind of how other-worldly it was.”
Sister Ignatia had occasional conversations with her parents about Mother Theresa, and her work and service. “I think my words were, ‘being a nun-doctor would be really cool.’” Her parents affirmed her thoughts, but didn’t push their daughter toward more exploration, yet were supportive and patient as she grew as a student and young woman, she said.
Today, at 23, the former Jordan Henneberry is known as Sister Ignatia, and recently took her second temporary vows with the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration. She entered the order in September 2010, and spent her first year as a postulate, “getting to know what life [as a sister] is like.” In August 2011, following another year of prayer, study and reflection, she was vested and received her habit and veil, as well as the name Sister Ignatia. “Then you enter into a more intense period of formation, and taught what it means to give your life to Christ,” she said. Those two years as a novice in the community ended in August of this year, when the young sister took her first temporary vows with the order.
Her journey has been both inspired and challenging. Sister Ignatia entered Franciscan University in September 2008, with an undeclared major and a spot on the college basketball team. She noticed a sister who would often attend the practices, and was compelled to find out more about religious life. “I met her and got interested in the life of a sister. It was my first interaction with religious people,” she said.
Meanwhile, a desire to use her life to help people intensified, and Sister Ignatia focused her college studies on social work. “Looking back, it was the start of discerning my vocation,” she said.
Still, it didn’t seem like enough, and a feeling that there had to be more nagged her. She longed for the radical change that led Mother Theresa, and prayed for the courage and guidance to lead her there. “I guess it depends on who the Lord places in your path.”
The Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration were a beacon smack in the middle of that path. The order’s focus is healthcare and education, and its system includes 13 hospitals, most in Indiana. Now, as Sister Ignatia begins a more intense period of formation, with her second temporary vows behind her, she is learning what it is like to give her life to Christ. She is considered a novice — or beginner — in the community, but will pick up more responsibility along with prayer, classes and work toward finishing her degree in theology and business. She is energized by the realization of her dream of helping people, and what the future holds for her. The vows of poverty, chastity and obedience bind her to the community, with Christ as her spouse. Another round of temporary vows await (“they want us to know what we’re getting into,” Sister Ignatia explains), before final vows.
“It’s such an encouragement to have the support of a community,” she said. “We are that bond to each other.”
The process is well-defined and has been as motivating as it is challenging, said Sister Ignatia. “There are tangible things you forego,” she said, “like marriage and the right to determine for myself what I will do for a career. But those moments are a huge opportunity for me to rely on grace and my relationship with Jesus. I remind myself why I’m doing this — because Jesus has put this love and desire in my heart.”
Being a college student as well as a sister also presents some unique opportunities, said Sister Ignatia. She is reminded of the sister she befriended on the basketball court, who answered a teenager’s questions about life as a religious person. Like a well-timed pass from one player to the next, the ball is now in Sister Ignatia’s hands, and she is on a new court.
“I’m the sister now that’s making friends with students,” she said. “They feel free to ask me questions about religious life. It’s very humbling, realizing that I’m present and [I] thank God whatever they see in me is positive. The witness we bear to other people — it can be a very small thing that can set their mind to think.”
Allison Kanaley is a freelance writer who lives and works in Central New York.