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Christendom alumna professes solemn vows at Poor Clare cloister in Alexandria

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The chapel at the Mary, Mother of the Church Poor Clare monastery in Alexandria overflowed with family and friends to witness the solemn profession of Sister Mary Johanna July 22, the feast of Mary Magdalene. 

As the ceremony began, Sister Johanna’s parents, Cathy and Tim O’Donnell, stood near the front of the chapel, their eyes fixed on a set of wooden doors to the right of the altar. When the doors opened, a young woman dressed in white and brown stood holding a tall white candle and smiling with the radiance of a bride on her wedding day — their daughter. 

“As a parent, you want two things for your children — happiness and heaven,” said Tim, president of Christendom College in Front Royal. 

One look at the Poor Clare sister’s face throughout the hourlong ceremony ensured the O’Donnells, the 200 guests watching on a monitor outside, and those watching on livestream that she exuded happiness. After her final profession of vows to poverty, chastity, obedience and enclosure, the O’Donnells were assured of the latter when Bishop Michael F. Burbidge responded: “And I, on the part of almighty God, promise you if you observe these things, life everlasting.”

As part of their vow of poverty, the Poor Clares rely entirely on donations for food and other basic needs. They live a cloistered life, with family visits only permitted twice a year. Throughout the day and night, they respond to the ringing of a bell calling them to enter the chapel to pray, especially for vocations in the diocese.

During an interview before the profession, the 33-year-old Virginia native, born Maire Kathleen Dubh O’Donnell, talked about hearing that same promise two decades earlier at the solemn profession of another Christendom alumna.

“I had decided that I wanted to take St. Clare as my confirmation saint,” said Sister Johanna. “My mom asked if I wanted to go with her to the solemn profession and I said ‘yes.’ The part that really struck me was the vows and the promises made. I remember as an 11-year-old gasping and saying, ‘Did he really just say that?’ ”

Her inspiration to choose St. Clare as her confirmation saint came from a surprising source — a comic book. 

“My parents would go to adoration on Monday nights from 9 to 10 and that was their sort of date night. They would go out to dinner and then to adoration at our parish, Sacred Heart in Winchester. I remember asking, ‘Can I go with you?’ because I didn’t want to stay and be babysat. And they said yes. In the adoration chapel, they had a little basket for children’s books. In that basket, there was a saint’s comic book on St. Clare. I remember that picture of her ringing the bell to wake the community to pray in the middle of the night. Reading about her life in that way I just thought that was really amazing and that is what ultimately made me choose St. Clare.” 

Despite her early exposure to the community, several years passed before it became clear this was where God was calling her. 

“What kept bringing me back to the Poor Clares was the totality of the sacrifice. The giving of one’s self that corresponds with my own heart. So much of the call was willingness to leave my mother and father. I come from a very large family and I’m right in the middle. The fifth of nine. I love our family get-togethers and that was the hardest thing for me to part with.” 

The sacrifice was probably best described by her father who said, “She has given up so much, but has gained everything.”

After the profession, Sister Johanna was presented with a silver ring and a crown of thorns symbolizing her union to the crucified Christ. The O’Donnells provided the sisters with the Osage orange tree branches from their property to make the crown. Sister Mary Johanna wore it for the three days following her profession. It will hang with a cross in her room and eventually be buried with her. 

During the kiss of peace, which was more like the hug of peace according to Cathy, she greeted all eight of her siblings as well as her 16 nieces and nephews. Many of her friends, extended family and Christendom professors greeted her in the monastery parlor after the ceremony. She and her family look forward to the allowed twice-a-year visits. 

Bishop Burbidge thanked Sister Johanna during the homily for her sacrifice and inspiration. 

“After the trials and tribulations of this past year and in the midst of the present-day challenges, I believe that it is providential that today’s sacred liturgy speaks directly to all of us about love,” he said. “As Sister Mary Johanna makes her solemn vows, we see the love God has for you, sister, and the love that you have for God. You and all the Poor Clare sisters are all truly apostles who powerfully proclaim to us that Jesus is alive and with us. May their example strengthen and inspire all of us to go forth this day and live for Christ alone.”

Kassock is a freelancer in Fredericksburg.

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021