success stories

There are Vocations to the Religious Life Out There Here is Why

Life's twists, turns lead New Jersey woman to church, vocation

By Maura Rossi
Catholic News Service

Life's twists and turns led Joanne Riggs first to the Catholic Church, then to religious life.

Born, baptized and raised in the Dutch Reformed Church, she made her first profession of vows as a Missionary Sister of the Immaculate Conception in June at a Mass celebrated at St. Brendan Church in Clifton by Father Richard Rento, a retired diocesan priest and former St. Brendan pastor.

"After a short time being professed, it seems very good to me," Sister Riggs said.

It was at St. Brendan's she went through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and was received into the church in 1997 by Father Rento. He helped her sort out her life journey that led to religious life.

In his homily he encouraged her, as a Missionary Sister, to "play life with tenderness, love, concern, skill, passion. ... You are exactly right for what you discern as your calling."

Sister Riggs worked for a while as a teacher after college, then took a job as a nurse's aide at St. Joseph's Hospital in Paterson.

There she met Sister Saundra McKeta, a Missionary Sister of the Immaculate Conception and a registered nurse. They struck up a friendship and Joanne Riggs decided to become a nurse, earning a bachelor's and a master's degrees in nursing. She "worked all over," she said, from the emergency room to the operating room.

"All this time I was nonpracticing" in her faith, she told The Beacon, newspaper of the Paterson Diocese. "(I was) just having a great time. Doing all the fun things, travel, cruises, the whole bit."

In January 1995, she married a doctor she met in the emergency room.

"We were married 10 months when he died," she said. Ten days after their engagement, doctors discovered he had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. After a brief round of chemotherapy, he decided against further treatment, she said. He was not a Christian, but as he got close to death he would say to her, "Pray for me," she added.

"It's the drugs talking, I told myself," Sister Riggs recalled. "The man knows I don't pray."

But she promised to pray for him. She remembered that from attending Mass with Sister McKeta, there was "this nice convenient prayer where I could insert my own intention."

"After a while, though, I realized I was going to Mass not just for that prayer," said Sister Riggs.

She became interested in Catholicism, "a very different tradition than what I was used to," she said. She also was influenced by the kindness and support she found among the Missionary Sisters as she faced the grief that followed her husband's death.

Eventually, Sister McKeta suggested she talk to Father Rento, who encouraged her to participate in a seven-day retreat that included daily one-on-one sessions with a spiritual director.

Three days into the retreat, Sister Riggs was in the chapel when she realized what her director meant when she had asked, "What grace do you expect to receive from this retreat?"

Sister Riggs said she realized the "deepest desire of my heart was to know and love God." Her director then asked: "But how do you get to know and love God?"

The retreat moved along, and "I came back well-prepared to join the Catholic Church," she said. "But maybe also feeling called to more than just that."

After she became a Catholic in 1997, she shared her interest in religious life with friends who were Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception. They urged her to "go away and just be a Catholic for a year."

In July 1999, she entered the community as a postulant, and the following year joined the novitiate. She said she had "to live in community, something I was unprepared for, especially because of the differences of the people involved." Then came a formation year and time to travel and meet sisters from her community's province who are serving in Maine, California, Texas and Ohio.

Sister Riggs said she has been asked why she would enter religious life during an especially difficult time for the church as it deals with a sex abuse scandal.

"This a painful time for the church," said Sister Riggs. "But this has not been my experience of the church. I have seen nothing, really, but a lot of goodness and kindness."

Her family also has been supportive.

"They were all there when I entered the novitiate, including distant relatives," said Riggs.

From her family's faith tradition she brings "a lot of good theology, a lot of instruction, a lot of good services," she said, as well as a knowledge of Scripture.

Almost the first words she heard from her community after her profession, she noted, were: "Get a job."

"I'm looking," she said.