Sister Sarah Elizabeth McMahon has a head for science and a heart for God.
The native of Hartford, South Dakota, was earning two degrees — electrical engineering and engineering physics — at South Dakota State University in Brookings when she began to feel a draw into a deeper faith life.
Now, the 29-year-old is one of two millennials who have made a first profession of vows at Immaculata Monastery in Norfolk to become a Missionary Benedictine Sister. Like the other religious sisters at the monastery, the decision to take those vows was not one she made lightly.
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“It wasn’t something on my radar,” Sister Sarah Elizabeth said when asked about her call to a life of religious vocation. “Honestly, if you talked to my friends or my sister’s friends, they thought she would be the one to enter if anyone did.”
In college, she had a relatively long-term relationship with a boy to whom she gives some credit for deepening her interest in her faith. “He was Lutheran growing up and wasn’t practicing when we met. He would come to Mass with me and have questions about different things, and it was like, ‘I don’t know the answer to that. I need to do my own research.’ ”
Through the course of her own research, she said her faith began to grow, as did a sense that something was missing from her life. She joined some Bible studies and began to “dig deeper” to understand what she was saying she believed when she became confirmed in high school.
“I started to delve into my prayer life more,” she said. “College is where my faith had come alive really.”
But in the midst of asking God for direction, she also began feeling the call to end her relationship with her boyfriend.
“(God) was calling me deeper into something, and I knew I couldn’t commit totally into discerning freely if I was committed to another person at the time,” she said.
After breaking off the relationship, Sister Sarah Elizabeth attended a women’s silent retreat at Broom Tree, a retreat center in South Dakota, an event that allowed her have a lengthy heart-to-heart with God about where she needed to be.
“I’m a planner, and I want to know what you have planned from here on out,” she said of her conversation with God.
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Sister Sarah Elizabeth had intended to spend spring break of her final year in college doing mission work in Mississippi. Instead, she was presented with the idea of going on a “Nun Run,” where she would go with a group of women to multiple convents or monasteries in a week’s time. She was one of nine who went on the trip.
She discovered one of the stops would be another silent retreat, which she looked forward to because her life at that point had become chaotic.
“I didn’t think I needed to get anything else out of this trip,” she said. “God had other plans.”
Throughout the week, Sister Sarah Elizabeth learned the story of how St. Therese of Lisieux — the saint to whom she became connected at her confirmation — would give flowers to people who were called to vocations if they asked for them.
She also began reading “Consecration to the Sacred Heart of Jesus,” a booklet that someone on the trip had given to her after it had piqued her interest once before.
“It’s written in the voice of Jesus,” she said of the booklet. “And it gets to a point where it talks about temporal goods — housing, food, clothing, your family, whatever. He says, ‘I don’t ask anyone to give this up unless I call you to religious life.’ It was in bold print, and it felt like it was talking specifically to me at that moment, which kind of freaked me out.”
Her mind immediately skipped to St. Therese, “I said I need pink roses if this is really Jesus talking to me.”
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Overwhelmed, Sister Sarah Elizabeth had put the booklet away and spent the remainder of the day with her thoughts on the feelings brought up by what she had read. One of the things that stuck out most was the comment that those in religious vocations made up the heart of the church. With a background in engineering, Sister Sarah Elizabeth said she was accustomed to using her mind, but “the heart was different.”
“It got to a point where, later in the day, I had this feeling I should look up,” she said. “When I did, there were pink roses.”
Her first encounter with pink roses that day came in a portrait of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Her second encounter happened when she found a statue of St. Therese of Lisieux. Later in the week, she entered the dining room of another monastery on the trip and again found herself in the midst of pink roses.
Sister Sarah Elizabeth said she couldn’t ignore what she believed was an invitation to a life of religious vocation, but the planner in her continued to question the where, when, why and how that could happen.
She had accepted a job in the engineering field in Sioux Center, Iowa, a move Sister Sarah Elizabeth said she also felt right about accepting, so the call to religious life seemed almost like a mixed signal.
She decided to keep praying.
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Sister Sarah Elizabeth worked for a year before her aunt, a Benedictine Sister in Yankton, told her about the Missionary Benedictine Sisters in Norfolk. From the description of their work that she received, Sister Sarah Elizabeth said she needed to at least look into them.
After visiting the monastery and meeting the other sisters at Immaculata, Sister Sarah Elizabeth said her heart opened wide to the call she had experienced earlier.
“My heart was just like yes, yes, yes, to everything and every person I met,” she said. “It was that ‘coming home again’ that I felt when I picked my college and when I picked my job.”
A follow-up visit a month later reinforced what she initially felt.
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Sister Sarah Elizabeth made her first profession of vows in September 2017. She lives at the St. Augustine Mission in Winnebago, where she works with students in first through eighth grade, teaching religion and helping out with science.
Occasionally, people will question whether they think she’s too young to make such an enormous decision about her future, but she quickly points out that many her age make a similar commitment through marriage — and with significantly less time in discernment.
“There’s been moments that I have thought about the fact that I won’t get to have my own kids or I won’t have that special relationship with someone,” she said. “But, even right now, God is blessing me in different ways — like being able to be a spiritual mother to 117 kids in Winnebago and being able to open up to a new culture, too.”
Sister Sarah Elizabeth added that if, for some reason, she was called away from the vocation before her final profession, she would feel blessed for the time spent in discernment with the Missionary Benedictine Sisters because it has given her an opportunity to grow in understanding of herself.
“I can’t imagine being anywhere else right now,” she said. “You live in the moment because that’s all you’re really guaranteed.”