Sr. Mary Veronica McKimmy (novice directress), Sr. Bethany Marie Bland, and Mother John Mary Read (mother superior), stand with a portrait of their founder, St. Paul of the Cross, after the vestition of Sr. Bethany Marie on May 31, 2023. COURTESY OF ST. JOSEPH MONASTERY
‘It was supernatural’ – Passionist novice reflects on her vocational journey
BY ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD, THE WESTERN KENTUCKY CATHOLIC
Fourteen-year-old freshman Hannah Bland was sitting in her religion class at Trinity High School in Whitesville when she first recognized the call to religious life.
“We were watching Fr. Robert Barron’s ‘Catholicism’ series,” said the Whitesville native. “In the video, behind him, a religious sister in a full habit walked by – and my heart just dropped.”
In that moment, “I knew that’s what I needed to do,” she said.
After school she went home and “asked my parents how they’d think I’d look in a habit,” she said, explaining that “my parents are wonderful and we’ve always had a very open relationship.”
This set into motion many years of discernment, in which she visited both active and contemplative communities, hoping to find where God was calling her.
At last, on May 31, 2023, Hannah Bland became a novice with the Passionist Nuns of St. Joseph Monastery in Whitesville, receiving the Passionist habit and her religious name: Sr. Bethany Marie of the Glorious Wounds of Christ.
The Passionists are a cloistered, contemplative community, which means they reside within the enclosure of their monastery in order to enter into a contemplative prayer relationship with the Holy Trinity. The cloister enables the nuns to authentically live out their vocation of uniting themselves with Jesus’ Passion, and prayerfully interceding for the rest of the world.
Sr. Bethany Marie did not set out to join a cloistered monastery; much less one in her hometown.
“It wasn’t something I’d naturally do. It was supernatural,” said Sr. Bethany Marie in an Aug. 7, 2023 interview with The Western Kentucky Catholic.
Sr. Bethany Marie said she went on several “nun runs,” which are trips to visit different women’s religious communities. Her parents even took her and three of her best friends on a nun run during the summer before her senior year of high school.
After graduating from Trinity, she attended Brescia University in Owensboro and worked for three summers on staff at Gasper River Catholic Youth Camp and Retreat Center in Bowling Green.
Meanwhile, God was “nudging” her toward cloistered life – though she fought against it: “The Lord kept at it (and) I’d joke with my friends about joining the Passionists,” she said.
She kept discerning with active religious communities – like the Nashville Dominicans, who typically teach in the classroom setting – but “nothing felt right. So, I took a break from active discernment.”
It was while attending the SEEK2019 conference sponsored by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) in Indianapolis, Ind., that she was re-inspired to discern.
“I was at a talk by Sr. Bethany Madonna,” she said, in reference to a popular speaker who belongs to the Sisters of Life religious community. “I remember being at the conference, and my heart dropped again and I knew I needed to discern again.”
Looking back, Sr. Bethany Marie realizes that “the Lord used a Bethany to call a Bethany.”
After receiving her bachelor’s degree in theology from Brescia, she became the director of children’s ministry at St. Stephen Cathedral in Owensboro.
At this time, the future Sr. Bethany Marie was sharing a house with several other Catholic young women. These women had just finished serving as FOCUS missionaries and were deeply involved with their faith.
Sr. Bethany Marie said her novice directress has nicknamed this time her “pre-novitiate year” because these housemates “were very alive in their faith and helped me learn how to live in community.”
“It really got me into my faith life – that experience was huge and very supportive,” she said. “That community was really wonderful.”
At the same time, “as I continued to grow in my prayer, there was a natural growth of wanting to pray more throughout the day,” she said.
She decided she would finally settle this argument with the Lord about whether she was called to cloistered life, and visited the Passionists for a weekend in March 2021.
“It’s been explained that I became smitten after that,” she said with a smile. “I experienced here a real love and beauty of the liturgy.”
She left the monastery at the end of the weekend, thinking, “Oh no. I have to come back!”
She returned for a 10-day visit – following the typical process of discernment for the Passionists – and during that time, experienced “deep peace.”
She officially entered the monastery as a postulant on May 31, 2022, kneeling at the door with her parents, Joe and Cathy Bland, for the entrance ceremony.
Sr. Bethany Marie told the WKC that her parents were “really huge within my discernment,” and credited them for “the extra exposure of the Catholic faith” in addition to being sent to Catholic schools (in addition to Trinity, she attended St. Mary of the Woods School for her elementary education).
“My dad had a big conversion when I was in kindergarten,” she said. “He really came alive in his faith and that was very influential to me.”
She considers it a gift that thanks to her family, “I really loved my Catholic faith growing up. I never doubted my faith.”
Now that she is a novice, Sr. Bethany Marie embarks on a two-year period of learning about and preparing for vows as a Passionist nun.
She said that prior to experiencing that “deep peace” during her 2021 visit, she had heard people talk about such a peace, but didn’t know if it truly existed.
However, “once you actually find it, you realize this is that peace they talk about when finding your vocation,” she said.
Watch the videos!
Part one: Sr. Bethany Marie’s Name
Part two: Sr. Bethany Marie’s Novitiate
Originally printed in the September 2023 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.