Meet the Navy veteran who became a Sister of Life: ‘My heart was made for something more’
by Katie Yoder
Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Nov 10, 2021 / 20:44 pm
Sister Maris Stella once served her country. Now, she’s dedicating her life to serving God.
“I served in the Navy and I tasted many of the good things that this world had to offer,” Sister Maris Stella of the Sisters of Life told CNA. “But I knew my heart was made for something more.”
Her military career began at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., which has an acceptance rate of just 8%. After studying for four years, she served for five more. Her service journey began on a destroyer as a gunnery officer. She spent hundreds of days off the coast of South America in pursuit of drug traffickers. Afterward, she worked in Naples, Italy, as a liaison officer.
Then, she said “yes” to serving God.
The late Cardinal John O’Connor founded the Sisters of Life in New York in 1991. While they are based in the New York-area, they are also located in Denver, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and Ontario, Canada. The community of Catholic religious women profess four vows: poverty, chastity, and obedience, and “to protect and enhance the sacredness of human life.”
Among other things, the sisters dedicate their lives to offering support and resources to pregnant women and mothers, hosting retreats, evangelizing, practicing outreach to college students, and helping women who suffer after abortion.
“When I met the Sisters of Life, I couldn’t believe that (their) charism existed in the Church and in the world,” Sister Maris Stella said. It was, she said, “everything in my heart,” being lived out in a joyful way.
She defined the community’s charism as seeing every human life as sacred, unique, and unrepeatable.
“That we would lay down our lives that others might live, and just knowing, too, that people have value and meaning, not for what they do and can produce, or what they look like, or how much money they have, but just because God created each person and each person is an act of his love,” she explained.
Sister Maris Stella, who grew up in Ludlow, Mass., said her journey to the Sisters of Life began with the Blessed Mother.
“The day after my First Communion, I consecrated my life to Jesus through Mary,” she explained. “The Blessed Mother, she won my vocation, she has protected my vocation, and she has cared for me my whole life.”
Called to service
She applied to the Naval Academy after feeling the need in high school to “do something great and meaningful” with her life.
“I knew it was a great opportunity for education, a great opportunity to serve my country, and so I went there and I received so much more than that,” she said.
The academy, she said, was a “life-changing” experience.
“I was really surrounded at the Naval Academy by very impressive people who not only had a great attitude of service and sacrifice, but they also really loved God,” she said.
She also encountered virtue formation.
“Part of the experience is being formed in some of the natural virtues of sacrifice and service,” she said. “We would go around in our uniforms and people would thank us for our service, but we really knew we were serving something greater than ourselves.”
The desire to serve something greater stuck with her, she said. In her second year at the academy, she embarked on a Holy Land pilgrimage. While there, she experienced what she called a “big moment in my life.”
“I was sitting in the Garden of Gethsemane and I looked up and I saw a religious sister walk by in habit,” she said. “When I saw her, her presence really awakened something in me.”
“She was really saying with her life what was in my heart: this desire to give myself not just for something greater, but really for someone, to give my whole life to God,” Sister Maris Stella explained.
At the same time, she saw what the world had to offer. She remembered being involved in sports and joining the triathlon team at the academy. She also witnessed the beauty of Catholic marriage from those around her.
Still, “as I was getting out of the military, basically I understood that God was offering me this invitation to live only for Him,” she said.
Her experience at sea, where she served as gunnery officer and Catholic lay leader, only drew her closer to God.
“Sometimes we would be out hundreds of miles from shore and you’d see the stars at night, something just totally extraordinary, so beautiful,” she recalled. She was in awe that “God, who made all of this, also made me and He loves me and He has placed His love in every human person that He’s created.”
While she looked into religious communities in Europe, the Sisters of Life stood out to her.
“I was just so attracted to our life of prayer — we pray about four hours a day — and then our works of service, of serving the most vulnerable, the poor, and the unborn, and the women who’ve had abortions, just bringing God’s mercy to them.”
She remembered attending a discernment retreat with the sisters. Afterward, she prayed a 33-day novena to Mary and returned to her childhood parish where she first dedicated herself to Jesus through Mary. She consecrated her life again.
“That same day I came home and my letter of acceptance arrived in the mail to the Sisters of Life,” she said. “I just knew it was our Blessed Mother really caring for me.”
Outreach to college students
She entered the Sisters of Life in 2006, and in 2015, she moved to Denver to help start a new convent.
“The reason we came to Denver is because we know that women in college are very vulnerable to abortion because they have their whole lives ahead of them and sometimes women who become pregnant think that they won’t be able to fulfill their dreams if they have their child,” she said. “We came on college campuses because we really wanted to be present and there for women who were in, maybe in a crisis pregnancy.”
For women who have gone through an abortion, Sister Maris Stella emphasized the sisters’ “hope and healing mission.”
“That’s one of our most beautiful works where we help women who’ve had abortions,” she said. “So often women who’ve had abortions think that they can’t be forgiven. But the opposite is true, that there’s no sin too great for God’s mercy, and that He longs to heal us and restore us.”
While living out her vocation, Sister Maris Stella still sees her military friends. Many of them support the sisters’ work, especially by helping with their annual Christmas party in New York, she noted. They have supported her from the start: 12 of her academy classmates also came to her final vows.
“To be a bride of Christ is the most beautiful gift I’ve ever been given,” Sister Maris Stella said. “I’m so grateful for it. I love my vocation.”
She shared a special message with those who are discerning religious life.
“It’s such a fulfilling, joyful life,” she said. “God takes nothing away, He gives us everything. While it might appear to be a sacrifice on the front end, we really receive a hundredfold.”
She recommended spending time with Jesus in the Eucharist.
“That’s where He can tell us the truth and He can help us to discover how He made our hearts to love in this world,” she concluded. “He can just help us discover what He’s created us for.”