SURREY--The Bermejo sisters have not seen each other for two years, but they feel closer now than they have ever been.
That’s because Joyce and Rosaria are now united in a new bond: both have just become religious sisters.
“I call her Sister-sister,” said Sister Rosaria, who made her first vows with the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville, Tenn., July 28.
Only eight days later, her eldest sister Joyce made her first vows with the Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians (also known as the Salesians), in the congregation’s chapel in Newton, N.J.
“We share not only in our family and our upbringing, but also our consecration now,” said Sister Rosaria. “We’re supporting each other in a friendship and sisterhood that I can’t connect with anyone else.”
Sister Joyce, the eldest child of Surrey couple Basil and Josephine Bermejo, entered the Salesian community when Rosaria was in Grade 12.
When Joyce was 8 years old, “I wanted to be an astronaut.” Over the years she changed her mind, leaning first toward art school, then toward becoming an English teacher. Meanwhile, Rosaria excelled in math and science, and neither expected to become religious sisters.
They were, however, deeply involved in Youth for Christ, in music and youth ministry at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Surrey, and in volunteering to serve the poor.
“It was where I found my happiness,” said Sister Joyce. “I felt so happy serving God, more so than going to school. I found my joy in spending time with the young people and leading them to God.”
It was that feeling of happiness, plus the influence of a few friends who left home to join the Norbertines and Sisters of Life, that led Joyce to discern her vocation as a sister. She joined the Salesians as an aspirant in 2014.
“I wake up every day and I am so grateful to wear my habit and see my crucifix. They are all signs of my promise to God,” she said days after making her first vows.
“I am a witness to the world that God is real and God loves them. People look at me and say: ‘Oh my gosh, she is a nun!’ It makes people turn.”
Her acceptance of her call to religious life helped Rosaria discern hers.
“The Salesian spirit has always been a big part of my heart, and I thought God wanted me to be a Salesian just like my sister,” said Sister Rosaria.
Her Surrey parish had a strong Salesian presence, but she was also surrounded by other faithful Catholics and religious women; she met the Missionaries of Charity during volunteer work, and her studies at Corpus Christi College put her in touch with the Nashville Dominicans.
“Then, I began to be introduced to this whole other side of the Church: monastic traditions and especially the prayer of the Church in the Liturgy of the Hours.” Rosaria started participating in celebrations at Westminster Abbey, and enjoyed immersing herself in the monastic prayer of the Benedictines.
By January 2016, after hearing a particularly inspiring testimony by a Dominican from Nashville, she had made up her mind. She took a vocation retreat with that community in May and entered in August.
“I felt really strongly that I didn’t have to wait anymore. There was nothing really holding me back and my heart wanted to keep moving forward.”
Thanks to a two-year formation period (half the length of the Salesians) the sisters serendipitously said their vows in the same year, and only one week apart.
“It’s a great joy. We’re biological sisters, we’re both religious, we’re both spouses of Christ,” said Sister Joyce. “Every time I pray I think about her, especially during Mass, and I offer up my Communion and my prayers for her.”
She says they feel “spiritually connected,” even though they can only communicate by snail mail.
“We’re travelling on a parallel track. Even though we don’t see each other physically, I feel she is close to me just because our vocations as religious make us closer in Christ.”
Mom Josephine Bermejo said it was a spiritual journey for the whole family, not just her daughters, and a difficult but joyful process.
“They were just married to the Lord Jesus Christ,” she said. “I miss them terribly, but knowing they are in a situation the best I could ever imagine gives me so much consolation.”
The family immigrated from the Philippines in 2002. At the time, Josephine’s children were 10 (Joyce), 7 (son John), and 5 (Rosaria). “They are first and foremost God’s children. We are just blessed that the Lord has lent them to us,” she said.
“I did not lose two daughters. We gained two communities. There are 300 Dominicans of St. Cecelia in Nashville and thousands of Salesian sisters around the world.”