Building a Sisterhood
A Columbus Dispatch article by Dennis Mahoney
Sister Margaret Mary loved the 18 years that she taught in Columbus Public Schools as Mary Jane Goffena.
The native of Sidney, in Shelby County, also was greatly involved in her parish, St. Michael Roman Catholic Church in Worthington.
Yet there came a time in the late 1980s when she felt pulled — “like a magnet attracting me” — away from that life and toward the solitude of rural Licking County.
She sold her Worthington home and bought 102 acres in southeastern Licking County, where for the next 10 years she lived as a hermitess.
“The Lord asked me to give up my security, and I knew that he was asking me to resign (her job), and just to move out here and live this life, depending on his providence,” said Sister Margaret Mary, 56.
From that transition has come another. Today, she is laying the foundation for what she hopes will be a new community of Roman Catholic religious sisters, the Children of Mary.
In her first years on the property, on Pleasant Chapel Road between Rt. 40 and Newark, Sister Margaret Mary lived in a small farmhouse, alone and in prayer. She tended a garden and accepted food donated to her by a group of Catholic religious sisters living nearby. She occasionally went out, mostly to attend Mass at nearby churches.
As she did so, she began to feel a desire to commit herself to the consecrated life of a hermitess, as prescribed by the Catholic Church’s canon law. At the suggestion of a priest, she visited a hermitage for several weeks and came away convinced it was the life she longed for.
“I just felt very called, very called, just to be alone with God,” Sister Margaret Mary said. “I felt such tremendous peace in God’s presence. When I was alone, it was just like I hungered for that, just an intimacy with God.”
Prayer brings realization
When she returned, a neighbor built a cabin deep in the woods on the property for Sister Margaret Mary to use as a hermitage. She lived there, and a Catholic sister moved into the farmhouse, handling the shopping and finances for Sister Margaret Mary and greeting visitors.
About that time, Sister Margaret Mary told Columbus Bishop James A. Griffin that she wanted to become a canonical hermitess. He suggested she try living in a community of monastic religious sisters for a year before making the commitment.
As she searched for a monastery that would accept her on a temporary basis, Sister Margaret Mary, with Griffin’s permission, began putting up a new building, with a chapel and rooms for use by people wanting to make retreats. She helped with the construction, with much of the lumber cut and milled on the property.
In fall 2000, Sister Margaret Mary entered a monastery of the Visitation Sisters in Toledo, hoping to determine her life’s course. Living suddenly with 19 other women was not a problem for her, but the sounds of monastery life were “a very great shock to my system,” she said.
“It was terribly difficult. . . . the grandfather clock going off, and they had wooden floors that squeaked,” she said.
It was the sisters themselves, Sister Margaret Mary said, who taught her the notion of religious life as a “dying to self, and not putting yourself forward, but just the humility of being there and offering your life to God.”
After only a short time, she realized she was called to form a religious community of women, not to live as a hermitess.
“I had a prayer experience that changed my life,” she said. “God pointed me in this direction. And so I really didn’t have any kind of decision to make. After that prayer experience, I felt that God had put me on this path, and this is what he wanted.” She made her first promises of poverty, chastity and obedience in January 2002, and Griffin gave her the religious name Margaret Mary. Earlier this year, she renewed those promises for three years. For the Children of Mary, she chose a white habit, over which is worn a purple garment called a scapular. Now she is hoping that other women will join her in building the Children of Mary into a church-sanctioned religious community, a process that could take years.
“It’s all God’s own work,” she said. “No human being can get another woman to come and give her whole life to God. It’s so totally supernatural that I just wait and see what God does.“
Last month, Karen Balmert, a 1997 graduate of Watterson High School in Columbus, became the first woman to join the Children of Mary.
Sister Karen, as she is now known, spent two years at Ohio State University after high school but decided the career path she had chosen was not what she wanted.
“I had to re-evaluate everything in my life and start with a clear page, and say, ‘OK, this is what I’ve been heading for. But there’s a need inside of me to find out what did God wants for me’”, she said.
Sister Karen, 26, felt called to the religious life and contacted several monastic congregations before deciding to join the Children of Mary. She will spend the next six to 12 months as a postulant, discerning whether to continue in the religious life.
The transition from the secular world to religious life hit home at the Fourth of July, when she spent time with her family. Sister Karen said it was strange realizing that as they left, she was not going with them. “But I feel that God compensates me for the sacrifice so much more that it really isn’t that difficult,” she said. “That’s not to say it won’t be difficult in the future, but for right now, it’s quite easy.”
Thus far, a big challenge has been learning how to use a weed whacker, Sister Karen said. Saying goodbye to television, on the other hand, hasn’t been hard, she said.
“This silence seems natural to me. The noise of the world seem unnatural,” Sister Karen said.
Bishop praises her
Frank Boysko, who regularly drives from his home near Cleveland to pull weeds in the garden and do other chores on the property, said he’s never been concerned about Sister Margaret Mary living in a secluded area.
“I’m not worried because she’s not worried,” the 63-year-old Boysko said. “This place is an open door. In other words, she lets anybody come, she welcomes them, doesn’t ask who they are, what they’re doing, why they’re here. (She) just welcomes them like they’re old friends.”
The two met in late 2001 when a friend brought Boysko to visit. Boysko had become a “professional volunteer” for a variety of religious groups after he lost his job designing building interiors when his company downsized.
The two connected when Sister Margaret Mary told him of her time at the monastery in Toledo. Coincidentally, Boysko’s mother had spent the last 20 years of her life as a Visitation sister, entering the Toledo monastery after she was widowed and her children were grown.
Griffin called Sister Margaret Mary, whom he has known for about 15 years, “a very holy woman.”
For now, the Children of Mary are known as an “informal association of the faithful,” with few regulations to follow, he said. This is the time for the sisters to determine what kind of community it will be and what their ministry will be, he said.
One of the goals of the community, Sister Margaret Mary said, is to promote what the church believes is the “real presence” of Jesus in the bread and wine consecrated at Mass. She and Sister Karen begin each day with a time of prayer before consecrated bread that is displayed on the altar in the chapel.
She also sees the Children of Mary as being a group of women who, by living as a community, deepen their love for God and others.
“Every person on the face of this Earth is my brother and sister. I don’t care if they’re a drug dealer, or a prostitute, or a Communist, or whatever it is. It doesn’t matter….We’re all brothers and sisters.”
Sister Margaret Mary also wants to help foster Christian unity by inviting anyone to visit and ask questions about Catholicism.
“Hopefully it will be a place where people can come and ask questions and pray and talk. Not debate and argue,” she said.
Today, the hermitage in the woods is difficult to get to, with high grass all around. Sister Margaret Mary fondly recalls her years as a hermitess but knows that is in the past.
“I treasured those years, and they were beautiful and wonderful. But it was a time of grace. I don’t think I could do it right now because God is not giving me that grace right now. Right now, he’s calling me to something different.”
ERIC ALBRECHT | DISPATCH PHOTOS