By Madeleine LiMandri, BA '21
This beginning set a precedent: that UD is home to women with a religious vocation. Our religious alumnae and Dominican professors have shared their discernment stories and the role UD played in discovering their lifelong call to religious life, in hope that their experiences will aid young women at UD in their own discernment processes.
This month in our new series “Sisters Serving UD,” we are sharing the discernment stories of our two current professors who are a part of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia order, more commonly known as the Nashville Dominicans: Affiliate Assistant Professor of Theology Sister Mary Angelica Neenan, O.P., and Affiliate Assistant Professor of Philosophy Sister Elinor Gardner, O.P., beginning with Sister Mary Angelica.
The Nashville Dominicans first arrived at UD in 2016, when Associate Professor and former Chair of Theology Mark Goodwin extended an invitation to alumna Sister Jane Dominic Laurel, O.P., BA ’92 MA ’95, to teach systematic theology full time at UD. As a result of this conversation, three Nashville Dominicans arrived in Irving and established a convent. Prior to this, the Nashville Dominicans had dozens of other mission houses, but not one in Dallas. Though these three sisters have since returned to their mother house in Nashville, the convent in Dallas and the relationship between UD and the sisters is still thriving.
The Dallas convent is currently occupied by five Nashville Dominicans, three of whom serve at Mary Immaculate Catholic School in Farmers Branch, and the other two, Sister Mary Angelica and Sister Elinor Gardner, serving as beloved members of the UD faculty community.
“I like to remind those who are scared of discerning into the wrong vocation that it is not a question of a good and bad option, but of two goods; you need only be concerned with which good God is calling you to,” said Affiliate Assistant Professor of Philosophy Sister Elinor Gardner, O.P. In hopes of aiding young women in their discernment process, Sister Elinor shares her own discernment story with our UD community in this installment of our Sisters Serving UD series.
In high school, Sister Elinor was deciding between the University of Dallas and Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. She was certain that she wanted to go to a small, Catholic liberal arts college, but ultimately settled on attending Saint Anselm. “I find it interesting that the Lord eventually brought me back to the University of Dallas,” she said. “It’s as though it was always meant for me, just not at that time.”
At Saint Anselm, Sister Elinor was drawn to the Benedictine lifestyle, particularly their practice of Divine Office. “Through the experience of praying the psalms with the Benedictines in Divine Office, increasing my own prayer life, attending more daily Masses, and spending quiet time in adoration, I was drawn to the life of a religious,” she recalled. She began thinking and praying about religious life, but at the time, no place seemed to really connect.
“I had this desire that the Lord put into my heart, but I didn’t know what to do with it,” she said. “I of course had other things I was attracted to, like the idea of marriage, raising a family, and the possibilities of a career.” So Sister Elinor graduated from college with a degree in philosophy without really having resolved this question of what to do with the desire God had put on her heart. “I wanted to do something great with my life, and more importantly I wanted to do God’s will, but I had a hard time seeing what that was,” she explained.
As time went on, Sister Elinor “fell in love with the pursuit of truth” and grew in her desire to continue the academic life. It was while pursuing her doctorate in philosophy that she went to a conference and saw a Dominican sister for the first time. After reaching out, she was on a Dominican retreat two weeks later.
“Once I started to learn about the Dominican order and what teaching sisters do, things fell into place rather quickly,” she said. “What’s different about the Dominicans is the combination of the monastic life, studying and teaching. It seemed so natural to me.”
Sister Elinor reflected that “the most important thing is to go and meet the sisters, not to just discern abstractly.”
There were little “confirmations” along the way that led Sister Elinor to believe she was on the right path, one being how God worked out her student debt. She calls discerning into religious life “an act of trust,” just as with marriage, because a person does not receive an inspired book from above instructing one on what vocation to choose.
“Once I found the Dominicans, I really stopped looking at other communities because I had a sense of being home,” she said.
Sister Elinor noted that UD students have an “intellectual vibrancy” and a “desire to be taught.” This allows for an environment where students are able to “truly learn to stand on their own feet and think for themselves,” she said.
Sister Elinor borrows the words of St. Pope John Paul II, “Be Not Afraid!,” as advice for young UD women discerning. “I would first advise one to take away fears and ask God for a calm, trustful spirit in your heart,” she said, reminding us that the Holy Spirit works in us peacefully and gently, so one need not be afraid. Additionally, she urges those discerning to “focus on your relationship with God.”
“Take advantage of all that UD offers: adoration, Mass, Campus Ministry, etc., to increase your prayer life and grow in your relationship with God,” she encouraged. “Doing this will foster an ability to hear God’s voice, so “don’t hesitate to dive deeper into your prayer life.”
“The Nashville Dominican sisters are a tremendous blessing to the University of Dallas, and indeed to our broader DFW community,” expressed Provost and incoming President Jonathan J. Sanford, Ph.D. “They are inspiring and excellent professors, giving fundamental shape to the education our students receive; they are joyful witnesses to holiness, providing beautiful examples of lives rooted in a radical love for Christ and his Church; and they are essential contributors to our broader work of building a culture that encourages excellence in every way, generously sharing their time and talent with all who fall into their orbit, both on our campus and throughout the diocese. In just a few short years they have become so much a part of the University of Dallas that is hard to imagine UD without them."