Sr. Mary Thomas, SsEW, on the day she received the habit, July 16, 2022. COURTESY OF SISTERS SERVANTS OF THE ETERNAL WORD
God speaks to the soul
Father, daughter reflect on religious calling
BY ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD, THE WESTERN KENTUCKY CATHOLIC
When describing his daughter’s religious vocation, David Mattingly likes to say that “God chose a rose – Madeline Rose – from our family garden.”
On July 16, 2022, his daughter, under her new religious name, Sr. Mary Thomas, received the habit of her religious community, the Sister Servants of the Eternal Word in Irondale, Ala.
“It is a sacrifice, but we make it because we know it’s God’s will and we will all be blessed for it,” said David, whose family belongs to St. Mary of the Woods Parish in Whitesville.
The Western Kentucky Catholic recently interviewed father and daughter ahead of World Day for Consecrated Life taking place on Feb. 2.
Sr. Mary Thomas, SsEW, told the WKC that she was in seventh grade when the thought “first entered my mind” about a possible religious vocation – but she did not take it seriously at first.
Her parents raised Madeline and her four siblings to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days, did family prayers each night, celebrated the feast days of each child’s patron saint, “and tried to instill a love of Our Lady,” said David.
When the kids were younger and attending public school, David supplemented their religious formation with resources from the Seton Home Study program. Later, when the children transferred to the Owensboro Catholic School system, he and his wife, Monica, continued to foster an environment of faith at home.
“Even when they were going to Catholic school, I tried to supplement their formation by having conversations about faith at the supper table,” said David.
As a high schooler, Madeline, along with her sisters, worked at the Carmel Home in Owensboro, a nursing home run by the Carmelite Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus.
It was during her junior year, when most students were discussing colleges and scholarships, that Madeline felt prompted to reflect on what she was really meant to do with her life.
“Mainly, I started going to Confession more often,” said Sr. Mary Thomas, adding that she would drive to the Carmel Home before school to attend their daily Mass, and spent her work breaks in their Adoration chapel.
Her junior year was also when revelations first broke about then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick as multiple men came forward to accuse the prelate of sexual abuse. (McCarrick was later laicized by Pope Francis.)
This, along with the onslaught of further investigations into clerical sexual abuse cover-ups across the Catholic Church, prompted Madeline to start praying a 54-day novena “to make up for the sins and to pray for those affected.”
“I also started to pray the rosary on my own” for abuse survivors and all those suffering amid the sex abuse scandals, said Sr. Mary Thomas.
Around the same time, there was a cluster of school shootings across the nation. Madeline reflected that “these were kids my age,” and realized she should not postpone listening for God’s plan for her life.
“It opened my eyes to realize that you are called to be holy no matter what state you’re in,” she said.
David said they had sought to expose their children to the possibility of religious and priestly vocations, but “I didn’t push my children in any direction because that can backfire.”
“God speaks to the soul,” he said. “But my wife had an inkling. She said, ‘Do you think Madeline might have a vocation to religious life?’”
When Madeline knew for sure that she was called to discern religious life, she first told her father, when the two were on a walk together.
“I really looked up to my dad, and he explained that it must be God’s will for this to work,” she said with gratitude that her parents have supported her vocational journey.
After one final Christmas with the family in 2020, she entered the Sister Servants of the Eternal Word in January 2021.
David described “a mixed bag of feelings” as their family naturally misses her a great deal: “You feel honored, that God is truly blessing your family. But with any vocation, there will be joy and the cross. But she’s doing God’s will.”
Yet, he is proud of his daughter’s dedication to her call.
“From a very young age she was always very determined,” he said. “The Lent before she entered the convent, she tried to get five people who’d been away from the sacraments to attend Confession!”
During this phase of the novitiate, which lasts about two years, Sr. Mary Thomas will study the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, as she learns about “virtue, prayer, and understanding what it means to live in community – understanding your weaknesses and struggles,” she said.
After that, she is expected to make her first vows and switch from her white veil to a brown veil. Those vows will then be renewed for five consecutive years, followed by her final vows.
Sr. Mary Thomas believes she was readied for this vocation through her family’s faith-filled upbringing.
“If we want more strong vocations to religious life, the priesthood, and strong marriages, it’s necessary to have that,” she said. “It’s important if we want good and holy vocations.”
Originally printed in the February 2023 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.