Led by Love
Sister Mary Julian Eckman, RSM
Reflecting back on the early years of my life, I see the hand of God preparing me for my vocation as a Religious Sister. I distinctly remember when I was nine years old, and then again around 11 years of age, feeling a strong desire to be a Sister, a desire which never left me. I had never met any Sisters and my only knowledge of them came from stories of the Saints which I loved to read. I figured that they probably weren’t around anymore that I was probably meant to get married. But deep in my heart I still kept wondering . . .
I grew up in Sydney, Australia with my parents, sister, and brother. I attended Catholic Primary and Secondary schools which gave me the opportunity to attend Mass and receive the Sacrament of Confession more frequently than usual, especially from Year 4 to Year 12. It was especially during Mass that I experienced the Lord’s love for me and felt drawn to Him. During Mass one Sunday, I remember looking at my mother who was deeply attentive and wondering if I could ever experience that level of interest. I decided to listen, and over time the Lord touched my heart through the Mass in a way that changed my life.
I continued to experience the Lord pulling on my heart throughout University but didn’t explicitly identify it as a call to Religious life. I was caught up in my studies, my friends and my family. I had chosen to attend a secular University to see how much my faith really meant to me, and it became apparent through those years that it meant everything. Yet the more I attended daily Mass the more restless I became and this confused me. Nothing could satisfy my longing for “something more” and I often chose to be alone, just to think and pray about what was going on. I felt the Lord drawing me to Himself but agonized over why He wasn’t telling me what I should do.
After graduation, I worked as an English language teacher in Sydney, then in January 1999 travelled to Italy and taught English for eight months. The school happened to be near the Vatican and I was delighted to see that some Religious Sisters attended. One day I happened to see a Religious Sister of Mercy sitting in the hall waiting for her class to begin (Sr Esther Mary). She looked so radiant and joyful that I wanted to speak with her, but all I could manage was a very enthusiastic “Hello!”
One day, I was sitting against a column in St Peter’s Square writing a letter to a friend. I was trying to explain why I wasn’t ready to come back to Sydney yet. I never sent that letter but still have it. In it I had written: “I feel like something very significant is around the corner. I have to stay here longer in Rome but I don’t know why. I want to leave but something is making me stay.” I had been praying to St Anne for weeks in desperation to know what the Lord wanted for me. After finishing the letter, I got up and walked towards Piazza Citta Leonina and who did I see from afar at that moment but Sister Esther Mary! I went up to her, desperate to talk but just greeted her with an enthusiastic “Hello!” again. We ended up talking for a long time, right there near St Peter’s. Sister asked me a question which answered my restlessness: “Have you ever thought you might have a Religious vocation?”
Immediately I experienced incredible peace and a rushing in of joy that filled the void in my heart. In that moment I knew my prayer had been answered. I knew I had a vocation and also to which Community the Lord was calling me. Sr Esther Mary gave me her contact details and apologized because she had to go to Mass, adding that “Today is the feast of Saints Anne and Joachim.” That evening I met the rest of the Community in Rome, who were all gathered for the feast day of their Superior, Mother Anne Mary. After the celebration I wrote a letter to the Mother General of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, requesting to enter (I had no idea of the usual steps!).
I called my parents from Rome to say that I was becoming a Sister and was entering in America. God bless my parents, they were shocked but not surprised; their leap of faith and decision to support my vocation bolstered my conviction that this was God’s will for me. I resigned from my job and left Rome a week later, arriving in Detroit, Michigan in August 1999. I entered as a postulant with the Religious Sisters of Mercy the next month. Although I had never been to the United States before or met any of the Sisters there, I distinctly felt that I was home as soon as I arrived at the Motherhouse.
After two years of basic formation at the Motherhouse, I was assigned to Rome to study Philosophy, and then to Washington, D.C. to study for a Licentiate degree then a Doctorate, in Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. During my time in Washington, D.C., two very special events occurred: I professed Final Vows in August 2007 and the Religious Sisters of Mercy established a foundation in Sydney in 2008. I have since been assigned to Sydney, Lancaster, Edinburgh and now very recently back to Sydney again to start teaching.
When young women ask me what they should do if they think they have a Religious vocation, I suggest that they pray to Our Lady and St Anne and persevere in trust that the Lord will answer their prayer to know His will for them. He always gives us the grace to do His will; it is ours to cooperate with those graces in joyful trust.