After celebrating her First Holy Communion, an exuberant Kathleen Dougherty stood at the end of a long rectangular table and made an announcement, “I just want you to know, I’m never going to wear another white dress again because I’m going to be a nun.”
Fewer than 15 years later, she’s beginning her year of postulancy, which marks the beginning of her move to live in community with religious sisters. For many women, it’s best described as an “asking,” or intense discernment stage.
But before she left, her family wanted to gather for a meal together in their Cary home.
Shannon Dougherty, happy for her daughter but sad to say goodbye, sat near Kathleen and smiled at the First Communion memory. “She was determined,” she said of the young Kathleen. “She was fearless, announcing it in front of family and friends, and even Monsignor Wall. We just thought, ‘Oh, isn’t that cute.’ But, look at her now.”
“But it wasn’t like I was always sure,” Kathleen interjected. “If you would have asked me when I was 12 or 13, I don’t think I knew for sure this would happen; but, I would say that, all along, this has been somewhere on my heart.”
For as long as she can remember, faith was at the forefront of Kathleen’s life. As a child, she would roller-blade to Mass as often as she was allowed. During her junior year of high school, when most kids were thinking of prom and college, she focused more deeply on her faith. And it was at St. Thomas More Academy, in a classroom after school, where she made her first phone call to a convent.
“I have a very strong pro-life heart, and I always assumed that, if I’m meant to have a vocation, it would be with the Sisters of Life,” Kathleen said. “I called them and said, ‘I might have a vocation, but I don’t know, so… should I go to college?’” She laughs recounting the conversation. They told her that she would need a college degree to join their community anyway. She thought, “OK, so I go to college.”
Kathleen describes her entire journey as a series of green lights. “People ask me how I knew I had a vocation. I think I was just always on this path. When you come to an intersection and the light is green, you don’t ask yourself, should I go? Do I stop? You just go, the light is green,” she said. “At every point God has given me green lights, so I just kept taking the next step.”
For Kathleen, one important step was attending Franciscan University, where she took many opportunities to enrich her faith including attending the annual vocations fair. As she expected, she was instantly drawn to the table hosted by the Sisters of Life; but she found herself feeling uneasy because she didn’t feel the pull she expected. Sensing Kathleen’s anxiety as she was leaving the fair her sophomore year, a religious sister told her, “Be patient, and wait on the Lord.”
That idea didn’t sit entirely well with the girl who first announced her plans at age eight.
Even with the “green lights” she described, the journey wasn’t without challenges.
For example, she said she cried when she thought of the things in life she would be missing, such as marriage and motherhood, if she went into religious life.
“I know now that I was afraid,” Kathleen said. “I struggled … I knew there was so much I would be giving up. My parents and all their friends have given me this incredible and beautiful example of natural parenthood; it was all I knew.”
But by her senior year of college, Kathleen said that God sent the brightest green light yet.
“I visited the Vocations Fair again and talked to every table but two. Afterward, my friend handed me a brochure and asked if I had visited the Franciscan Daughters of Mary; of course it was one of the two I missed,” she said. “On the cover of their pamphlet was a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe … I felt an immediate connection. I called them and asked if I could visit over Christmas Break.”
Kathleen spent four days in Covington, Kentucky, the order’s hometown, over Christmas that year. Within days of returning to class for second semester, she emailed Mother Seraphina to plan a return trip for spring break.
During the 10 days of spring break, Kathleen said she felt a peace she had never known before. “Seeing the way the Lord works through these women spoke to me. I thought, if this is where God wants me to be, and this is the right time, I will do what God wants,” she said. “I sat down with Mother and said, ‘I love being here, and I think this is what I’m supposed to do.’”
In return, Mother Seraphina said, “You fit in well here. I’ll pray and ask Our Lady. She usually gets back to me pretty quickly.”
It wasn’t long after that conversation that Kathleen sat down to a meal with the sisters and had cause for celebration. “We all stood up to pray before breakfast and Mother said, ‘Sisters, as I told you earlier, Kathleen’s asked to enter community, and I asked Our Lady at Mass this morning, and she said ‘yes,’” Kathleen recounted.
Soon after, Kathleen sat in church and gazed upon a statue of Our Lady on the altar. “I felt like such a child. We all want to feel chosen,” she said. “The truth is that we are all so very loved. We are all chosen.”