Cecilia Joseph is many things. She’s a junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, an elementary education major and a part-time worker in a day care.
But above everything else, Joseph’s identity is as a devout member of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Mercy, a convent in Lincoln.
“What people always assume about convents is that it’s so serious and that everyone is always praying,” Joseph said. “Yes, we have times of seriousness, and yes, we do pray, but we do so much more.”
The sisters become a tight-knit group through the hours spent eating and hanging out together. Despite the image of nuns as stoic, religious figures, Joseph said that laughing isn’t a rarity at all in the convent.
Joseph is originally from Minnesota but moved to Lincoln during high school. On a visit to a community in Carthage, Missouri, to see Christmas lights, Joseph and her cousin bumped into the congregation from Lincoln who were also visiting.
“They talked to us, exchanged emails and took pictures, stuff like that,” Joseph said. “But I didn’t think anything of it at the time. I had already told myself that religious life wasn’t for me. I thought, ‘Becoming a nun? Oh my goodness, no.’ Clearly I was wrong.”
Keeping in touch with her cousin, the sisters invited the duo to visit and see if joining their community would be right.
However, Joseph wasn’t sure if joining the convent was the right decision for her, at least at first.
“When I first entered with my cousin, we didn’t take it seriously,” Joseph said. “We treated it more like boarding school.”
Starting in the postulancy phase, which serves as a period for testing the lifestyle, Joseph and her cousin participated in prayer and community life with the sisters, but were still allowed the time to think about making the next step. Entering the novitiate stage afterward, Joseph described it as being a “sister in training.”
“You get a white veil and start to learn about the rules in the community and the three vows you take,” Joseph said. “You participate much more in what the sisters do and get involved more deeply.”
During her decision period and Joseph’s senior year at Pius X High School, she saw the departure of her cousin back to Minnesota. Despite this, Joseph remained in Lincoln.
“I don’t know why I stayed exactly,” Joseph said. “I started to think about whether joining the convent was what God wanted for me, whether or not it was in my life’s plan.”
Joseph said that joining is no easy decision to make. Becoming a member means giving up family, friends and to some extent, your future outside of the convent.
“But then it came to me one night,” Joseph said. “I realized that Jesus has offered me everything, but to give up everything in return is still incredibly hard. But you get so much more in return. Thinking about that really helped me make my decision and without God’s grace I probably wouldn’t have even thought about it.”
When Joseph finally made the choice to officially become a sister and enter a six-year phase that concludes with a lifetime induction, it became clear that she would be pursuing a degree.
“I had a wide range of options,” Joseph said. “At first, I wanted to pursue something in special education, and after that, I considered speech pathology. Because our convent does such a wide range of things, I had a lot of options.”
Joseph’s congregation is involved heavily with the local area. Some nuns opt to follow a path in nursing, health care, social work or teaching. Joseph said that teaching the faith to children isn’t just about teaching a secondary subject alongside math, English and reading.
“It’s their whole life, their whole being,” Joseph said. “As sisters, we’re living that life in a much more radical way and being able to bring that to the children makes elementary education so important to me.”
But to get to her destination, Joseph wades through the ocean of struggles that all college students go through. Driving 20 minutes to campus a few days each week, she takes a variety of education and child development classes and will begin the student-teaching phase of her major in the spring.
“It’s a fine balance,” Joseph said. “When you’re a sister you have your own time of course, but living in a community, you need to put time aside for the other sisters. They’re like your family.”
Joseph dislikes the notion that everybody involved in religion is a conformist or that they lack free will.
“You can be yourself in community,” Joseph said. “It’s not as if you’re forced to be ‘like this and this.’ You end up knowing yourself more and from there you grow. Community is a huge part of it, but you’re still an individual. It challenges you to come out of yourself and to learn to live greater and give more generously.”
However, belonging to a community makes college and life in general much easier to come to grips with for Joseph. Providing a sense of security and a safe haven, the convent is an eye in the hurricane of college.
Joseph said that being a sister means to be called on to act like a saint and that it is her community that helps her through the battle of reaching this goal.
“Being able to come back to the sisters when you’re stressed out is wonderful,” sister Cecilia said. “They’ve been there, they know what you’re going through because some of the sisters have already gone to school before and they’ve experienced the student lifestyle. They’re there for you. They understand you. It’s something that’s irreplaceable.”