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Catholic Vancouver May 10, 2019

Nun shatters misconceptions about cloistered life  

By Agnieszka Ruck

Sister Cecilia of Our Lady of the Trinity (born Anita Tremblay) made her final vows as a cloistered Carmelite nun in Armstrong, B.C., last fall. “I never dreamed of being a cloistered nun, and now I can’t imagine being anything but,” she said. (Photos submitted)

Living in a cloistered environment completely dismantled Sister Cecilia’s predictions.

Sister Cecilia of Our Lady of the Trinity (born Anita Tremblay) made her final vows as a Carmelite in the cloistered St. Joseph Monastery in Armstrong, B.C., last October. But, she told The B.C. Catholic, years earlier she never would have predicted her journey to the religious life would end in a cloister.

“I’m a feet-on-the-ground kind of person,” she said. “I wasn’t interested at all in a cloistered life. I was more interested in an active order.”

Tremblay first started thinking seriously about religious life about nine years ago. She realized she must have a calling while reading The Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux.

While she was engrossed in the saint’s famous autobiography, “the Lord zapped me,” she said. “It’s like your heart wakes up with this love for God that grows, and you realize that God is calling you to him.”

St. Therese had been a cloistered nun, but Tremblay was not interested in that life. She believed cloistered Carmelites “were all really old nuns and all they did was sit in the chapel and pray all day.”

So, she looked up the Benedictines and visited convents of sisters with more active lives – sisters who were not cooped up in convents. But her spiritual director insisted Tremblay keep an open mind. Eventually, more to appease him than because she was interested, she contacted a Carmelite monastery in the Diocese of Kamloops, about an hour’s drive from the family home.

Her weekend with the cloistered nuns shattered all her previous notions.

“The other orders that I visited, nothing really drew me. When I came here, there was something about it, something that drew me in,” she said. “I was intrigued and it got rid of a lot of preconceived notions about what cloistered life was.”

The nuns weren’t all that “old,” ranging in age between 40-60. They did pray all the time, but not locked up in the chapel like she’d originally thought.

“Everything we do is a prayer,” she said. That includes going to Mass, cooking, doing yard work, and making jam, cards, and art for sale to support the sisters. The Carmelite life became more appealing and realistic.

Sister Cecilia plays the flute as a Carmelite nun.

After the weekend visit, she returned home, spent some time in prayer, then contacted the nuns again; this time, to stay for a little while longer at a live-in. A live-in can last from two weeks to three months and is for women discerning joining a community but needing some time to get to know it. Usually, a woman will attend a live-in, then go home and discern some more. Not so for Tremblay.

“I was supposed to be home for Christmas, but I never left. After a couple of weeks, I just knew.”

Before the live-in, she had already gotten rid of her cellphone, ensured she didn’t have any debt, and removed other barriers that might keep her from entering the novitiate. All that was left was for the community to welcome her with open arms – and for her family to accept the drastic change.

It wasn’t easy for her family, especially her parents (she was a daddy’s girl) and for her sister, Giselle.

“She went for discernment and she was supposed to come back for Christmas,” said Giselle. “It was bitter sweet. It’s a blessing for her with her calling, but I do miss her.”

The two sisters grew up in the Church, attending private Catholic schools and volunteering at parish dinners and in music ministry, but Giselle said her sister never showed an interest in becoming a nun until about a decade ago.

“It’s beautiful to see her grow in her faith, for sure,” said Giselle. She only visits her sister once a year, and then from behind a grille; she can pass her hands through the bars, but can’t give her a hug.

“Now we have more of a spiritual connection.”

Bishop Joseph Nguyen of Kamloops calls on Sister Cecilia to make her final vows.

Sister Cecilia made her final vows last fall and now cannot leave the cloister except for medical reasons. She lives under the daily schedule of her community and, though the routine (starting with morning prayers at 5:30 a.m. every day) is always the same, she was surprised to find it is not boring.

“We are busy, very busy. God gives us all gifts and talents. With the gifts and talents he gave me, it was a big asset to the community,” she said.

Though her times for prayer, work, and recreation are rigid and set, the tasks she’ll do each day can vary dramatically. Sister Cecilia might sew habits one day, then use her carpentry skills to make small repairs around the monastery the next. She sings, she cooks, she’s handy with arts and crafts, and she’s one of the few nuns who can be relied on to drive the others to doctors’ appointments.

“Our different talents did not get shelved. God uses them to his advantage.”

Sister Cecilia’s life has dramatically changed since she made that first connection with the Carmelites in 2012. “How young and naïve I was then,” she laughs.

“My advice to anyone discerning religious life is: Let God guide your vocation, and don’t put up road blocks thinking you know what you want. God will surprise you in ways you never dreamed possible,” she said. “I never dreamed of being a cloistered nun, and now I can’t imagine being anything but.”

St. Joseph’s Monastery is hosting a Come and See weekend May 17-19. Young women discerning religious life or interested in learning more about cloistered Carmelites are invited. More information is available by phoning 1-250-546-8801.

Want to read more about vocations and vocational discernment? You might like this story about Deacon Felix Min's journey to ordination, this article about the changing landscape of seminary studies, or a personal testimony from a young woman trying to discover her calling on a mountaintop.