" I just knew I wanted to do everything that
had to do with God ." ( Sr. Faustina Ferko )
By Robert R. Schwarz
She is 35 but looks years younger. She stands five-foot-seven , has brown hair and smiling blue-green eyes and a cheerful disposition , and she prays several times during the day and evening. She likes hamburgers without a bun , guitar playing , making pottery , and cycling along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Et cetera, et cetera. You could call Sr. Faustina Ferko a kind of Catholic Renaissance woman but you'd have to expand that definition to include mountain climbing. She's hiked up Pike's Peak twice and, during one ascent when pelted with hail, rain, and snow and seeing flashes of lightning , she thought she was going to die.
" I was praying and asking Jesus to lead my steps ," she said during our interview. Whenever she mentioned "Jesus" , she intoned His name as if He were a beloved neighbor of hers whom she had known for a long time.
As was to be expected when Sr. Faustina Ferko was hired as the new director of youth ministry at St. James Catholic church in Arlington Heights , Illinois, she came with a devotion to Jesus and also to those conversion moments with students she calls "God moments. " During our hour together, she recalled one of those special moments when a novice stationed at a Philadelphia high school : It was in a chapel there after an " adoration " service of prayers and singing for freshmen . "Everybody was getting up to leave except for a girl who remained kneeling ," Sr. Faustina said. " I asked her if she was okay , and she said ' yes , but I don't want to go. ' It was like she was saying this is God and I don't want to leave Him . For this girl , it was a beautiful moment. "
continuing : "That was the beginning [ of a
conversion] for that young lady , and for it to
happen at her age is so important . In that
moment they understand how much God loves
them. The younger these children can take hold
of the realization that God is real and that He
wants a relationship with them, the better. " She related with exuberance all this to her ministry at
St. James by emphasizing the importance having a " good atmosphere for the students to encounter
Christ." Sr. Faustina has "high expectations" for the program she is developing at St. James to get
adult volunteers to teach religious education to 9 th through 12th grade students , whether they have been confirmed or not. "I think a lot of parents are looking for ways to better plug our teens into this parish. "
I asked her what she would like people to say about her at her funeral . Her prompt reply: "I saw Jesus in her."
Why and How She Became a Religious Sister
How did it all begin for her ? " The beginning seed was planted in my heart at age eight at a 2 ½ –hour charismatic Mass," she said. " It was very engaging. " Then I attended a seminar where I learned about gifts of the Holy Spirit. At the end, people pray over you. When they prayed over me, I felt my heart and His heart became one. At that age I didn't know what that meant. I just knew I wanted to do everything that had to do with God . I realized that as I got older, my heart was so big and full of so much love that I wanted to give it to more than just one person."
Then came four years at Franciscan University at Steubenville, Ohio and a bachelor of arts degree in theology. Now with a college debt to pay off, Sr. Faustina spent the next ten years working as a youth director at various levels and with various jobs to help pay off that debt . She made rosaries, loaded trucks for United Parcel Service, and answered telephones for a telemarketing agency. Today she is a sister ( and resident ) of Holy Family of Nazareth in Des Plaines , an order formed in 1875 in Rome , which today has 1,300 sisters—not nuns, who are cloistered and whose vocation is primarily prayer. The order's work in its 13 countries focuses on helping families.
Asked if she ever had any regrets about choosing a religious rather than a family life, Sr.
my first vows June 15. " We both laughed. "I'm kind of still in the honeymoon stage. I'm totally
blown away by all that God has given me in the last three months. So, I have no regrets. I always
knew I had a religious vocation in life but at the same time I knew that if God brought some
wonderful guy into my life I would be open to that . My mom was always saying 'I'm praying for
you to meet a nice Catholic man ." Again we shared a good laugh. Then she continued : "So, last
June 15 I told my mom 'thanks for praying for me into the arms of Jesus . You couldn't get a better
guy than that .' I wouldn't change my life decision now for anything, for I think God has given me
everything I've dreamed of , a great job and two great bosses [ Fr. Matt Foley, pastor, and JoAnne
Mullen-Muhr , director of faith formation ] . "
All of Sr. Faustina's family lives in Erie, Pennsylvania . Her father is retired from General Electric, where he did manual labor on train parts for 35 years. " He always put the family first, Sr. Faustina said. "If we needed a pair of shoes or pants, he'd buy it for us before himself. Thanks to the sacrifices of my father, I was able to attend Catholic schools all my life. He'd put everything on the back burner to make sure that we got our Catholic education. " She has two brothers: Jamie, 41, a kitchen designer at a Lowe's store , and Frankie, 43, an electrician for Verizon.
And for Recreation ?
With full-time youth ministry and rising at 5 a.m. for prayers, private adoration, and meditation , and later, saying the Rosary followed by afternoon and evening prayers , one wonders if there's any time—or energy—left for Sr. Faustina's recreation. But there is. Sometimes she sees a movie like "l2 Years a Slave" or " Rise of the Planets of the Apes "—my grin at this title was noticeable, causing Sr. Faustina to comment , "A Friend talked me into it. It really, though, was a decent movie. "
And there are books: " The Giver," which she thought fantastic, " The Hunger Games, " The Gospel of Joy," by Pope Francis, and books by Henri Nouwen. She exercises , which includes long bike rides, like the 17-miles she pedaled last Labor Day along Lake Michigan near Loyola University. What seems to delight her most is "hanging" with her sisters at the Des Plaines convent, where she'll play and sing her guitar for them. "They are my community, " she said . " Spending time with them is really important. "
With two students at a Catholic Heart work camp at
Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.
She paused for a long moment to mull over a question about what makes her sad. Finally, she said, "When something tragic happens like the beheading of that American journalist in Iraq. It also made me angry. It also makes me sad that a child dies from hunger every 20 seconds, and here I am with all this food around me and I can't get it to them."
She was suddenly reminded of the 24-hour hunger food fast she is planning for all the parish high school students . " It's a 24-hour lock-in ," she explained . " They will drink water and juice and then end with a 5 p.m. Mass followed by a feast of all their favorite foods their parents will bring. " Money will be donated for each hour the students go without food and then given to Catholic Relief Services.
We ended our conversation with one last question: Was there anything she had to learn the hard
way? What had been most challenging for her was being unable to see her parents during her
novitiate except for two weeks each year . Another challenge came quickly to mind: "Oh, yeah," she
mused, recalling her first days as a novice and how she was instructed to wash dirty dishes ( she still
does this ). " Correction is difficult when you're 30 years old and somebody is telling you how to do
something you've been doing well for years . She admitted that the real challenge was pride.
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© 2014 Robert R. Schwarz