By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — Sister Jennifer Hager will celebrate her 40th birthday Oct. 25, two weeks after entering the Congregation of the Humility of Mary as a novice, perhaps the greatest early birthday gift of all. The CHM community welcomed Sister Jennifer, their first novice in 19 years, during a reception ceremony Oct. 12 in the Humility of Mary Center’s Magnificat Chapel.
Her desire to pursue a calling to religious life began in 2009. As an individual with learning differences, she faced some challenges in finding the right community with whom to share her gifts. “I want to give back for what I have experienced (in life),” she told The Catholic Messenger.
“We thank God this morning for leading Jennifer to the Congregation of the Humility of Mary and for the welcome they have extended to her to join their community,” Archbishop-elect Thomas Zinkula said during the reception ceremony. “She is a joyful, easy-going, humble, peaceful, caring person with a long history of ministering to the people of God.”
Archbishop-elect Zinkula became acquainted with Sister Jennifer during annual retreats for individuals with special needs in the Dubuque Archdiocese, where he served as a priest. Sister Jennifer’s family lived in Dubuque at the time.
“We ask God to walk closely with Jennifer on her novitiate journey. May she experience deep, human, pastoral, intellectual and spiritual growth,” said Archbishop-elect Zinkula, just days before his installation as Archbishop of the Dubuque Archdiocese.
Sister Jennifer learned about the Sisters of Humility after moving to Davenport where she attended St. Anthony Catholic Church and became acquainted with John Cooper, the pastoral associate and business manager.
John took her under his wing. In a touching column in the St. Anthony Parish e-newsletter, he recalled meeting Jennifer six years ago after Saturday night Mass. “Jennifer told me, ‘I really want to become a lector at Mass.’ That next week, we put her in contact with one of our best lectors, Mike Jacobsen.”
“At the same time, Jennifer and I began looking at religious orders. Several months later, Jennifer started volunteering in the parish office three days a week. She became part of our staff, taking on more and more responsibility. Our Mother Superior (my nickname for her) became an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. She joined the R.C.I.A. team and was a godmother to Laurie Gibson. From sacristan to stocking the McAnthony Window prayer center, Jennifer has become a fixture of holiness in action in our parish,” Cooper wrote.
However, “Like Joseph and Mary at the Inn, Jennifer kept receiving the message ‘no room for you’ from religious orders.” Then she met Roberta Shadensack, a co-leader of the CHM lay associate process with Sister Lynn Mousel, the CHM vocation director. Sister Lynn advised Jennifer to learn about the community by becoming an associate, “which the trooper in Jennifer dutifully did,” John wrote.
The CHMs accepted Jennifer in their formation program last year, following an extensive process of discernment, including tests, interviews and recommendations that any candidate would undergo, said Sister Johanna Rickl, the community’s president.
During that first year, Jennifer participated in a program in Wisconsin, one weekend a month, where several men and women’s religious communities send aspirants to learn about religious life. She moved into the CHM community’s Vine Street apartment building in Davenport.
“She was so spiritually grounded and involved in the church,” Sister Lynn said. Welcoming her to the novitiate is “part of our community’s desire to be really inclusive and open to a variety of women who might be called to join us.” Until now, Sister Lynn had been the newest member of the community, entering in 2004 and professing final vows in 2011. The CHMs have 48 vowed members and 60 lay associates.
Sister Jennifer is “a person very desirous of following Jesus and helping others,” Sister Johanna said. “She has a very positive outlook. She’s optimistic and very open to new experiences.” Her desire to serve in the community as a Sister of Humility, “challenges us to widen our tent.”
During her two-year novitiate, Sister Jennifer will live, learn, pray, and work with the sisters. She will volunteer for Project Renewal in Davenport and at St. Anthony Parish. Temporary vows, a three-year discernment process follows the novitiate.
Sister Jennifer said she looks forward to “community life and being able to help others in many different ways.”