HAMDEN — From the time she was in first grade, Bridget Mary Smith knew she wanted to be a nun. But her younger sister Colleen Therese rejected the possibility outright … because it was her sister’s.
“I wasn’t going to be a sister. Maybe it was sibling rivalry,” she recalled. “I was going to get married and have a dozen children and be a special ed teacher and then … God totally turned my life upside down.”
Jesus, of course, had ideas of his own.
At the end of her junior year in Cor Jesu Academy, a school run by the Apostles of the Sacred Heart in St. Louis, Colleen was on a class retreat, and the priest told the girls, “I think God has something he wants to say to every one of you today, but you have to sit still long enough to listen so go someplace by yourself and ask God what he wants to say to you.”
Colleen decided to take the challenge and went for a walk by herself.
As she recalls: “I said, ‘God what do you want to say to me?’ and I don’t think I even finished the question when I heard him say in my heart, ‘I want you for myself.’”
The immediate response that came into her mind was “I don’t want to be a sister because my sister is going to be a sister!”
Later that day, she went to confession and was crying to the priest and insisting, “I don’t want to be a sister because my sister is going to be a sister!” He laughed, and the more she cried, the more he laughed.
“I’ll never forget what he said to me that day: ‘Just remember that in His Will is your peace.” He made her repeat it three times before she left confession. “In His Will is my peace.”
He was quoting St. Ignatius Loyola.
“Basically, what he was saying is that if it is God’s Will, you won’t be afraid, it won’t make you miserable and there will only be happiness and peace,” she said.
But for the next few months, there was no peace. She was in constant turmoil even though she kept repeating over and over “In His Will is my peace.”
During her senior year at the Academy, she was applying to colleges and getting scholarship offers. Soon she would have to make a decision about her life.
“I was feeling so torn,” she recalled. “I was praying to St.Therese, but I wasn’t going to ask for a rose because I didn’t want to make my life depend on a sign.”
Then, one week her parents went to Chicago for a conference and when they returned, her mother came into her room and said, “I brought you something.” She put a bag on Colleen’s bed and left.
“I didn’t think twice about it,” she said. “I thought it was probably saltwater taffy and I yelled to her, ‘Where is this from?’”
“We stopped in Darien, Illinois,” her mother said. At the national shrine of St. Therese the Little Flower.
“Now, I was sure it was saltwater taffy,” Colleen said. “I opened the bag and inside was a paperweight, and I thought that it was the oddest gift my mother had ever given me. Why did I need a paperweight?”
But it wasn’t just any paperweight. On it was a red rose and the words, “In His Will is my peace.”
“And that was my moment of surrender,” Sister Colleen Therese Smith said. “I said yes to God, and peace just flooded me. All the turmoil was gone. After I entered the Apostles, there sometimes were tough days in formation, learning to live with different personalities and learning the ways of religious life. But even on the challenging days, I could never bring myself to think that maybe God was not calling me. I couldn’t deny that God had called me.”
After she made her decision, she didn’t tell anyone until one night when she and her mother sat down for dinner.
“It was just my mom and I, and she looked at me. She knew my college acceptances were due and she asked, ‘So have you decided what you’re going to do next year?’”
“All I could say was yes. Nothing else would even come out of my mouth,” she recalled. “And I’ll never forget this. She had the newspaper in her hand and she put the paper down and she said, ‘You’re going to be an Apostle, aren’t you?’”
“I started to cry and I said, ‘How did you know?’ Then, she started to cry and I will never forget her words — ‘Mothers pray too, you know.’”
Today, Sister Colleen Therese Smith and Sister Bridget Mary Smith are members of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a congregation founded in 1894 by recently beatified Blessed Mother Clelia Merloni.
Sister Bridget is a kindergarten teacher at Sacred Heart Villa in St. Louis, and Sister Colleen is Director of Mission Advancement for the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She previously served as vocation director and as principal of St. Rose of Lima in Newtown.
The congregation currently has four postulants, one novice and eight junior professed sisters.
Sister Colleen says that the example of Blessed Mother Clelia is attractive to the younger sisters.
“When I entered the convent, we didn’t hear about her in high school, but now young women read her biography and they enter already having a devotion to her,” she said. “Some of them have credited her with the graces they received that allowed them to say ‘yes’ to their calling.”
And who knows? Perhaps Mother Clelia and St. Therese collaborated on that vocation of a confused teenage girl at Cor Jesu Academy.