Finding quiet to hear the voice of God
Off the beaten path and tucked away from residential living sit two conventional buildings in central Wisconsin. They are nestled among the towering white pines planted years ago by the lumber industry on a bluff overlooking where the Little Plover River meets the mighty Wisconsin River. Tranquility is felt in this peaceful sanctuary where Mother Agnes and her four fellow sisters now live. The name of their order, The Seraphic Adorers of the Child Jesus, calls out their contemplative nature and their dedication to the adoration of Jesus in the most holy Eucharist. The sisters are consecrated to the divine child Jesus and His little way of holiness, and they intercede in His eucharistic presence for the needs of the Church, the world, our diocese, for all priests and for our personal prayer intentions.
Sitting in the community’s sun-filled gathering space, Mother Agnes recounts her early life. “My parents encouraged me and my siblings to read about the lives of the saints, which in turn brought many comforts, deep admiration and examples of fortitude for my own spiritual growth. My father also brought me along with him to video presentations that he gave called ‘Family Enthronement to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.’ At these talks, I became fascinated and drawn to the mystery and beauty of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The seeds of love for the Sacred Heart were sown in my own heart!”
“The only ones who will even know that the Lord is calling are the ones who will take time to listen.”
But Mother Agnes admits that her initial desire was to go to law school. “I had my own plans, but I felt the Lord really calling me. I even asked for another sign. It was a call on my heart. I could say ‘Yes’ or I could say ‘No.’ When I felt this call, it just disrupted me; it disrupted my life, but I wanted to do God’s will. I realized God creates us for a purpose, and if I say ‘No,’ I’ll never know what I was destined to be; I’ll never know what could have been. I decided I was going to follow His plan because I knew I’d be at peace.” She entered a monastery in Alabama when she was 18. “As the years have gone by, I’m so grateful I said ‘Yes’ to Him.”
Mother Agnes served with The Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration in Hanceville, Ala., beginning in 1986. Her superior was Mother Angelica, the founder of Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN). In 2015, Mother Agnes took a sabbatical. A friend of hers, who knew Monsignor Joseph Diermeier of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Marathon City, called and asked him if he had a place where Mother Agnes could stay. He offered her the small convent across the street from the church’s adoration chapel. She agreed with excitement but recalls, “As soon as I arrived, Monsignor Diermeier looked at me and said, ‘You know God sent you up here for a reason.’ And I said, ‘Oh, no, Father. I’m not ready to do anything right now.’ And he said, ‘It’s OK. It’s all in God’s time.’”
So, with much prayer and discernment, Mother Agnes felt the Lord asking her to start a community here in the Diocese of La Crosse, dedicated specifically to the Child Jesus. Soon, two other women joined her. They were encouraged by Monsignor Diermeier and, on Dec. 8, 2018, Bishop Callahan approved their statutes, beginning their community. Then one morning when Mother Agnes was in church, praying before the image of Divine Mercy, she prayed, “Lord, we need a place. If we don’t have a place, we can’t continue adoration.” Later, when she checked her cell phone, she noticed a viable piece of property that was only on the market for two days. She previously called on another property closer to Marathon City but the realtor, upon hearing that they had no money for a down payment, told them they wouldn’t even be able to see it. Mother Agnes explored this new possibility with a new realtor, again explaining that they were sisters and had no money, but this time the response was, “We’ll take care of you.”
“And I knew,” Mother Agnes recalls with great enthusiasm, “I knew that was the Lord!”
The property had originally been guest lodging owned by the adjacent papermill, and it was used for business visitors or remote employees. There were six bedrooms, each with its own separate bathroom but no closets. For women who already know what they’re going to wear every day, this omission was no deal-breaker. There was a big conference room, perfect for an adoration chapel, and even an outdoor basketball area. They knew they wanted it and set out to find monetary donations.
One month later, through much prayer and word of mouth seeking financial help, they moved into their new community home of contemplative prayer dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Their rigid monastic schedule begins early with much time for prayer and continues in adoration throughout various hours of the day. But there is work to do, too. Sister Maria Josefina is in charge of the grounds work. She makes her own joke by pointing out that if something is broken, she’ll break it even more! She takes care of the animals (dogs and cats) and does all the house maintenance and kitchen duties, and she has a special flair for cooking. She also excels in graphic arts, creating their prayer cards and writing their newsletters.
Sister Anna Maria works in the bookkeeping office managing reports and finances. She also maintains the sacristy and decorates the chapel, where she is in charge of the flowers and candles. In the sewing room, she is the primary seamstress, making or mending their habits and veils. Collectively, each of the sisters has different cleaning charges in different areas of the house to keep everything tidy and organized.
“I’ve noticed that a lot of sisters realize their vocation through eucharistic adoration,” says Mother Agnes. “You quiet your soul and then God can speak. It’s harder for young people—with social media and phones—to listen. I know the Lord is still calling. You can be called to marriage or you can be called to the religious consecrated life. In the past, life was quieter. Now, our minds are overly stimulated. The only ones who will even know that the Lord is calling are the ones who will take time to listen.”
“The world is telling us you can get whatever you want,” adds Sister Josefina. “Pleasure, pleasure, pleasure; there is a great fear of missing out. Maybe I could have been one of those kids thinking, ‘What if?’ But as a sister, I’ve never had so much fun in all my life,” she laughs with a broad grin from ear to ear. “When you have this fear of missing out, it’s like chains around you. It’s choking. As a religious, there’s a cleaner freedom, a lighter heart.”
“There’s also a fear of commitment,” says Mother Agnes. “Young people are even afraid to get married because they’ve seen unhappiness. Some could fear failure … ‘What if I try it and it doesn’t work?’ It’s much easier in religious life than in marriage because you have eight years to decide. You can enter and have a year of discernment as a postulant. Then you have two more years to study all the vows and the charism of the life. Then you take vows after three more years. After this (a few more years in our community), you can take your final vows and get your wedding ring.
“We must have a living faith. It can’t just be a faith I got from my parents. I’ve got to make it my own. We’ve got to be taught that our life is a relationship with the Lord and that the structures protect it. It’s like a marriage; if you’re married to this guy, then you can’t date that guy. Is that just a rule or is it a protection for our relationship? This is what the Ten Commandments do; they protect our relationship with the Lord. And, if you do this all for love, it’s not burdensome. That’s what our life is about.”
Just a few times a year, the sisters might go out to a school or a confirmation event to speak about vocations and be a visual example of religious life. Because they are contemplative, marketing and self-promotion is not their priority, but with so few sisters in the diocese, they realize the benefit of reaching out, representing religious life and giving talks.
In the future, Mother Agnes thinks there may be opportunities to make small expansions on their property to offer retreats for people to learn how to pray and spend time in adoration. But for now, their mission is to pray for priests and bishops, seminarians and new vocations and most importantly, for the people of the Diocese of La Crosse. This is their gift to us.
If you’d like to learn more about The Seraphic Adorers of the Child Jesus or inquire about becoming a religious, visit their website seraphicadorers.com. You can also sign up for their newsletter, make a supporting donation or submit a prayer request.
Story by Marcy Stenstrom
Published in the May/June 2023 issue of Catholic Life Magazine