They say the call is often an idea that just won’t go away. That God is persistent, and offers the call in many gentle, subtle ways — until you have time to grow into the idea. For Ana Gonzalez, this is exactly how it happened.
Gonzalez was raised in a religious Latino household where she was educated by a traditional Catholic father and a strong willed mother. Her parents welcomed the opportunity for Gonzalez to pursue the American Dream through education and study at Loyola University in New Orleans, a Catholic University founded by the Jesuits. Her parents trusted in God and believed that she was in good hands.
It was here where she first felt the call of religious life.
Hearing the Call
“I was a poor college student,” Gonzalez recalled, “I was tight on money and I needed to find a job, and so I asked a priest if he had any recommendations. He told me about the Dominican Sisters and the conference center they managed. He indicated that they hired college students. The students would work and would receive a payment, room, board. This sounded like a great opportunity. As a clueless 17-year-old I approached Sister Dorothy, who managed the conference center, and assumed that they would immediately hire me. I learned that things did not work that way! Sister Dorothy instead offered me the opportunity to volunteer in the infirmary and join the Dominican sisters for dinner afterwards. ”
From then on she would go to the infirmary after school and volunteer playing the trumpet for the Sisters—for the elderly and for the sick, providing a type of musical therapy. Following the volunteer activity, she was invited to stay for prayers and dinner and had the opportunity to visit with some of the sisters. “She really liked [the Dominican Sisters],” said her sister, Lulu Reeks. “Ana was inspired by her volunteerism. In comparison to playing at nursing homes, Ana found that the elderly sisters were very positive and kind. She was intrigued by what made the sisters in the infirmary be so positive and was curious about their inner peace. She also wanted that, she wanted to be that.”
For Gonzalez, that was the first time religious life was presented to her as a life option. It wasn’t something anyone in her home or in her community had ever talked about with her. “Many women don’t think that religious life is an option because it is not presented to them,” she explained. “As a Latina you are considered a full woman when you have kids. And in some circles women are judged because they are not married or they don’t have kids.
“During my time there I was able to, for the first time, see women who were running schools, women who were attorneys, who were doctors, who were professors, who were in charge of non-profit organizations, and all of these incredibly successful and brilliant women, who were also incredibly humble, could make it in the civilian world but they decided to give their lives to God to make the world a better place. And, for me, that’s where the seed was planted.”
However, it would be over a decade later before she would finally decide to pursue religious life.
Among the things blocking Gonzalez from seeing religious life as an actual vocation were stereotypes and myths regarding it, as well as her own idea of what it meant to be a woman, pressures from her family, and a 25-year plan she had already mapped out for herself and had complete control over. Religious life, and handing over control to God, would take a giant leap of faith and there was still too much resistance in her life at the time. She recalled: “I thought I was going to get married. I thought I was going to have kids. I had this beautiful plan, and I was in control. At the time, this thing about religious life put a hiccup on it. It just meant uncertainty.”
She also was on a mission to prove her father wrong, and show that she could be a strong successful woman in this world and that she didn’t need a man to do that.
“My daddy was very much of the mindset that women should be housewives and not be working. Inspired by my mother, who is a very strong woman, I wanted to prove him wrong. So I went on and got my Bachelor’s degree, and I was going to be the best professional I could be.”
Gonzalez, headstrong like her mother, went on to drive this point home. Not only did she receive a double Bachelor in Communications and Modern Foreign Languages (she is fluent in Spanish and English with intermediate knowledge of French and Italian), but she also went on to receive a Master in Communications from the University of Texas at El Paso. She then entered the professional world and had a successful career in public relations for about 10 years after college. And all without a man.
Latina Women in Religious Life
“At this time I was approaching thirty and the pressure to have kids was getting really strong,” recalled Gonzalez, noting some desperate negotiation tactics from her mom during this time.
Lulu attested to the pressure to have kids: “Less and less women choose the religious path, and especially in the Latino culture, because you get pressured to procreate. Our parents want grandchildren.”
Gonzalez’s Formation Minister, Sister Cathy Arnold, confirmed that there are not many women choosing religious life, including Latinas. “We hope for one or two women a year. Our congregation is about 500 sisters, and in that 500 there are probably twenty (20) Hispanic women. So honestly, Ana has been the first one since we became the Dominican Sisters of Peace, which was in 2009. So, Ana is the first Latina woman that we have had for quite some time. But we do have Latina women among our sisters and associates. We have Sisters in mission in countries outside the USA, including Peru, Honduras, and Nigeria.”
Gonzalez says she is not entering a congregation where she is constantly reminded that she is one of a few Latinas. “We are citizens of the world and the congregation of the Dominica Sisters of Peace is a global organization where the sisters are very globally in tune. Many of the sisters speak Spanish fluently; they have been in missions in Mexico, in Peru, in Nigeria, in Jamaica. I have experienced sisters that are so in-tuned with my culture and heritage, that in my eyes, they are honorary Latinas.
“So, when I am here with my whole Mexicaness, things that I talk about are not completely foreign to the Sisters. And sometimes when I have my sudden Spanish out bursts they respond in my native tongue, because they know what I am saying. They know, many of them, where I am coming from and celebrate what I bring as a Latina, my heritage as a Mexican-American, and they appreciate me for whom I am as a young Latina who has a very rich Mexican background and who grew up on the border in the United States. One thing that I appreciated when I was discerning was that a sister told me, ‘When you meet one Dominican, you meet one Dominican.’ Everybody has their own personal richness that they bring to the table.”
The Call Gets Stronger
Gonzalez had successfully put off God in order to get her education, but God is patient, and God is persistent.
It was around her thirtieth birthday that Gonzalez went on a spiritual retreat. “I was asking questions like, ‘What is going on with my life?’ I am feeling this pressure here from my mother, and I feel the desire to do more, but then I feel also empty. I am living a productive life, I am working hard, but I feel empty. There is gap in here, and I was asking: ‘What can I do?’ So I started praying about it. Little by little the desire to give back and the desire to serve just kept surfacing up.”
And then circumstances began to speak to her feelings and during a trip back to New Orleans from her home of El Paso, Texas to attend her sister Lulu’s wedding (the last of her two sisters to get married) she visited Sister Dorothy Dawes.
“Sister Dorothy was sort of a spiritual guide for Ana,” said Lulu. “Ana thought Sister Dorothy was just the best.”
She had visited Sister Dorothy before, and she had always casually asked if Gonzalez was thinking about religious life, and Gonzalez said she would reply in a joking manner, “Oh Sister, I have bigger things on my mind. I’m going to run the world and it’s going to be amazing.”
But during this visit a few things were different. “Sister Dorothy was a little older, a little sicker, and I’m not sure if that contributed to anything,” said Gonzalez, but this time when Sister Dorothy asked the question, it was direct and firm. “WHEN are you going to join religious life?” she asked Gonzalez. “And I just kind of nervously laughed, but I didn’t say, ‘I’m not.’” Here is when Gonzalez was finally beginning to see herself as “one of the phenomenal women I had seen through a looking glass for so long.”
Upon her return from New Orleans to El Paso, Texas Gonzalez began to notice subtle messages bubble up. In a casual conversation regarding her birthday, as it was approaching, it came to her attention that her birthday, August 4th, is the same as the old fiesta of St. Dominic.
Then there was another bubble surfacing. “I used to teach GED on Saturdays, in a room that was always unnamed. All of a sudden it became the St. Dominic room.”
“Then!” she continued excitedly, “there was an immigration march. Now, I lived in El Paso at the time and immigration marches drew thousands of people. Thousands! And out of all the thousands of people I could be marching next to there is a woman marching next to me with a Dominican Sisters of Peace shirt.” Turns out that Sister was a part of the congregation of the Dominican Sisters of Peace in New Orleans, and the Sister and Gonzalez ended up having dinner together.
“Finally, it’s my birthday,” said Gonzalez. “I am going to church, and my mother, in all her beautiful wisdom, says to me, ‘Mija, you’re not young anymore. You’re thirty. And you really need to think about what you’re doing with your life. Just pay attention at mass. There is some message for you here.’”
As they were entering church the woman who organized mass approached Gonzalez in frenzy because the lecturer didn’t show up. Mass was already starting late and she needed Gonzalez to read. Gonzalez complied.
As she read the first reading, Gonzalez realized, “This reading was meant for me.” The reading said:
You are working for an illusion. Money is not always going to be there. Your boss will not always appreciate you. You need to stop what you are doing and work for God.
“For me this shook me,” said Gonzalez. “That was the last straw. That was my loud and clear calling. To stop what I was doing and look into religious life.”
Heeding the Call
And that is exactly what she did. She quit her job as Communications Director at the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, moved to New Haven, Connecticut and became a candidate with the Dominican Sisters of Peace. The candidacy process allowed Gonzalez the opportunity to discern religious life as a call and living option. During that time she also worked at Albertus Magnus College, a founded ministry of the Dominican Sisters of Peace.
As of last week, and encouraged by her discernment and community, Gonzalez was accepted as a Novice with the Dominican Sisters of Peace. She has since ended her ministry as Community Education Liaison with Albertus Magnus College and attended the Novice orientation last weekend at the Dominican Collaborate Novitiate in St. Louis, Missouri. After the action packed weekend, Gonzalez returned to New Haven to pack all her worldly possessions away in boxes, and start preparing for her novitiate year, which will begin in July. From that point she will participate in a process of prayer, reflection and study that could take many years until her final vows in order to affirm Religious Life as “a life style that gives her life. And a life that brings her happiness and joy.”
“As I am entering the novitiate right now, one young woman who is entering with me is originally from Nigeria, so she is bringing an African richness with her, and I am bringing my Mexican richness with me. I think that as we are in the 21st century we are in an age of integration. Through communication, through travel, we are so connected, and it is so important that we understand and celebrate the richness that our brought forth through our background and diversity. Personally I would love to see more Latinas embrace religious life, as we have an increasing Latino population in the United States and it is such a great life!”
Adding one final thought, Gonzalez said: “Of course I am fearful. But I am reminded that I am covered. I am opening up, and I am asking God to work in me and let me be a light in God.”
For more information about religious life or the Dominican Sisters of Peace, please visit www.oppeace.org and click on “become a sister.”