Wherever the Church is, so too are members of religious orders who, in serving day in and day out, fulfill countless roles in their communities. Teachers, nurses, caretakers, religious education, bookkeepers – religious sisters and brothers take on many roles, and often more than one at the same time.
Sr. Rene Backe is no exception. 2021 marks her 65th anniversary as a member of the Sisters of St. Agnes and her 33rd year of service in Diocese of Gallup. In an interview with The Voice of the Southwest, she reflects on her life’s work as a religious sister, beginning with her childhood in Crown Point, Indiana.
Voice of the Southwest: How did you discern your vocation?
Sr. Rene: I went to school and was taught by the Sisters of St. Agnes. I think, when I was very little, our pastor used to come in and tell us Bible stories, and he made Jesus seem like someone so very real, who we would want to be friends with. The Catholic faith was strong in my family, too – my grandparents, my parents. We only lived two blocks from church and my dad said, “every time those church bells ring you should be there.” And so I remember in sixth grade I started going to daily Mass. And I was impressed by the lives of the sisters – they were excellent teachers. Then I went to the convent for high school education – that was back in 1951. *laughs* So I’ve been there awhile.
I was especially impressed by my seventh-grade teacher, because she seemed to have a real personal interest in each one of us. I was inspired by her life, her way of teaching.
And this was the order you joined? How did you discern that you were called to join them?
Well, I guess because I knew them. My parents thought maybe I should join the Franciscans, but I didn’t really know what their charism or ministry was – didn’t even know the word “charism” either.
Really, it was what they did and how they lived, and I saw it in the sisters at Crown Point. In one sense there wasn’t a lot of thought about which order to join – [theirs] was the one that attracted me.
When I first pronounced vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience I regarded then as negating some good things in life. No money, checkbook; no spouse and children, family of my own; no decisions about where I would work and live and what I would do. But I have come to see them as gifts, charisms, strengthening me for living simply, not being possessed by possessions or obsessed with them; ability to love all God’s people freely; and being confirmed that the ministry I was asked to do was God’s will for me. The vows have been blessings in my life.
What attracted you specifically – was it their thoughtfulness, like your teacher displayed?
I think so. I remember, in getting ready for the convent, they helped make some of the clothes I needed. My mother didn’t know anything about entering a convent or what needs to be done. And my teacher – it was inspiring. I wanted to be like her.
And now that you’ve been in the order for so long, have you come to understand their charism in a deeper way?
Yes – like I said, when I entered, I didn’t know what “charism” meant. It’s an attraction of the spiritual way of life that God gives to certain people, and when they gather together in a community, they sense that and grow with that. In our community, when I entered – we wore woolen habits and starched headgear, all of that, until Vatican II. And our days were pretty much ordained – except on Sundays. But after Vatican II…the call was for religious communities to look at their constitutions and their history, and that would reveal the charisms. And so we put a lot of time into studying and discussing our constitutions and our history, and we decided that the constitutions needed some updating. We re-wrote the constitutions based more deeply on the Gospels, and of course then had to send them to Rome, to the Vatican, to be approved, and they were.
So we’re now living in the new constitutions. We began as a teaching community, and then some doctors in Fond du Lac asked the sisters – if they would build a hospital would we staff it? And so Mother Agnes sent some sisters to get nursing degrees, and that’s how we got involved in the nursing ministry. When you think of teaching and healing, they are both what Jesus did while He was alive.
Our nursing ministry, our teaching developed a mission statement, and the laypeople who worked with us adopted that too. It wasn’t just a job – it was a ministry, a participation in the mission of Christ. To me, Vatican II was a big blessing, because first of all, it called us to – I guess I’d say get out of cruise control…and deliberately choose how we would live this charism and mission to which we were called, even though it would be different.
I remember one time our novice director had us write one question on a piece of paper and she would answer it. And I remember writing “how do I become closer to Jesus?” Her response was: “Every person, every event, every circumstance brings Christ into your life. Pay attention to that.” And I have tried to follow her advice.
When I entered, I knew I didn’t want to be a nurse, and I did like our teachers, and I figured I would be teaching kids until I was 80. But somehow I became director of religious education. I didn’t have to focus so much on science and math.
When I went to Farmington, NM, I was so inspired by the CCD teachers. These were people who were wanting to grow through what they were doing. And then I moved from children’s education to adults, through the RCIA process, and I found that so enriching. I just loved working with people seeking Christ, seeking to find a meaningful way of life.
In 1989 I graduated from Creighton with a degree in Christian spirituality. So then I began also giving retreats, doing spiritual direction, and again that was such a sacred privilege, to journey with people in their search for deepening their relationship with Christ. I feel like my life has really been blessed through all of these various experiences, and through the people I’ve gotten to know. I feel blessed by their goodness.
Do you have any favorite memories from teaching RCIA?
I remember there were two different families in Farmington. One person came into the Church one year in each family, and the next year someone else in their family came in because of what they saw happening in the life of the first person to come in. And to me that’s the way that the Faith spreads – by oral transition, really. Seeing how God works individually in people’s lives is important to me.
What do you like best about serving in the Diocese of Gallup?
Well, I’ve been here now 33 years – longer than anywhere else. One thing I really love out here in the west is the mountains. I love traveling up into Colorado and spending time – sometimes I just stop the car at the side of the road and get out and stare in awe and wonder. Nature is a big spiritual gift to me here.
In all your time as a religious sister, what are some specific spiritual insights you’ve learned?
I think a call to religious life is, first of all, a call or an invitation from God, and when we receive that invitation we have to consider whether we will respond or not. I think this invitation to religious life is given to individuals and it takes a thoughtful, responsive person to know that this is God who might be beckoning them. It’s not something we choose for ourselves. There is listening to God, and then an attraction to that way of life.
If a person feels that God might be calling them to [that way of life] they should explore it – ask questions, find out about it. If God is truly calling you to it, it’s a very meaningful way of living. A lot of people may say “I want to give my life to something bigger than myself”, so this is one way of doing that.
During this time of scandals and the pandemic, some people are disillusioned by the Church, but I think it’s important to remember that it’s Christ’s Church, and some servants have not been faithful to their call, to the charism of the priesthood, but it’s still Christ’s Church and we can still encounter Christ in the Eucharist.
In the same way, in this time of pandemic we’re missing the Eucharist. It might be a good thing to miss it for awhile, and hopefully we will be able to get back to daily divine nourishment. And so I would say to everybody – to Catholics in particular – to remember it is Christ’s Church, and we are all members of this mystical body, and we need to pray for each other so that our leaders will be faithful and so we, in our own lives, will be faithful to the Gospel, the blessings, the gifts, and the Sacraments God has given us through the Church. The Church is the channel of grace for us.
Now for some fun questions – do you have hobbies you particularly enjoy?
I love reading. I love to hike but of course haven’t been doing that for awhile. I love puzzles – I think I’m challenged by them. And since I come from Indiana, Hoosier territory – the land of hospitality – I like to procure meals for friends and get together. Of course, I haven’t done that for about a year now.
I obviously don’t play anymore, but [baseball] was my favorite sport as a child. I played as first baseman or in the outfield. When I was a girl, we would go to Grandpa’s farm every Sunday night, and we kids would have a baseball game, and sometimes the adults would join us. And once a year we would go to a White Sox game – we were careful to pick a Sunday when there were two games for the price of one.
Do you have any final reflections you’d like to leave us with?
St. Paul has a saying that I think is important. He says, “keep your eyes fixed on Jesus.” So, no matter what happens in the world around us, especially in this time, if we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, we will see how to deal with the challenges and difficulties, the storms. Even in the boat, when the storm came up, the Apostles focused on Jesus.