By Celine Klosterman
ELDRIDGE — At age 12, JonFe DeTorres chose to be baptized.
At 19, she first applied to a Carmelite monastery.
At 32, she came from the Philippines to the United States.
Now, at 36, Sr. DeTorres says she’s “very happy” fulfilling her calling as a Discalced Carmelite nun at the Carmelite Monastery in Eldridge, devoting her life to prayer and spiritual reflection.
The lifestyle offers a rewarding “freedom of spirit,” she says. “You’re not bound by pride, not bound by the desire for recognition.”
Her vocation reflects commitment to a faith she grew to love as a child. She and her seven siblings grew up in the Phillipines in a family of non-practicing Catholics, but DeTorres felt drawn to Catholicism. In elementary school she took catechism classes on her own initiative, and was baptized and took her first Communion after longingly watching her friends receive the Eucharist at Mass for years. “The first time I received Communion, I was so happy,” she says. “I really believe it’s God.”
Six years later, DeTorres discovered Carmelite spirituality and found herself drawn to its emphasis on contemplation and its followers’ secluded lifestyle. So at 19, she applied to a Carmelite monastery. Doing so was “overwhelming,” she says. When talking to the prioress, DeTorres cried — feeling not entirely sure what she was doing, but certain it was right.
The prioress felt differently, however. She asked DeTorres to finish college and get work experience. DeTorres accepted her decision, and continued visiting the monastery to pray.
But as she finished her studies in engineering, her visits declined. After graduating, she found work as a production supervisor for a semiconductor company, and the monastery temporarily lost its allure.
Some time into the job, though, DeTorres began to feel restless and unhappy. So she again called the monastery, and arranged a three-month “stay-in” during which she’d live and pray alongside the Carmelites. After that experience she spent five months in discernment, then became a postulant at age 25.
Her father didn’t approve. Her mother wanted DeTorres to be happy, but preferred she have a family.
DeTorres did find happiness with her decision, though — at least sometimes. “Some days I was 110 percent certain; other days, I’d pack a box with my things!”
She appreciated the quiet opportunities for spiritual reflection, which she notes she wouldn’t have as much time for with a family or job. And work and recreational time with Carmelite community members could prove enjoyable, too.
But DeTorres occasionally struggled with not being able to see the fruits of her spiritual labor. And living with 18 people posed its own challenges, she says with a laugh.
Ultimately, she didn’t feel she belonged at her particular monastery. After five-and-a-half years there, she left to try another religious community.
DeTorres applied to a community in Ghana, but heard no response. She then spent a month with an active congregation that helped women in crisis pregnancies, but found it wasn’t for her. So she sent applications to Carmelite communities in New Zealand and the United States.
The Eldridge Sisters responded the day after she applied, she says.
Just two weeks earlier, the community had decided to concentrate on new membership. “We did not do this for personal reasons, but because we believe in our way of life, a life God is calling us to offer the world,” says Sister Mary Jo Loebig, then prioress.
She said the community feels that through Sr. DeTorres, God answered a prayer.
Sr. DeTorres also believes God had a hand in her journey to the Eldridge Carmelites; the process of applying to the United States went so smoothly.
She arrived in Iowa on Feb. 3, 2006. Though initially startled by barren trees in winter weather, the woman who’d always wanted to live on a farm quickly came to appreciate the rural landscape surrounding the Eldridge Carmelites’ home. “When I saw the field across from the monastery, I felt like I was coming home.” And she says the Sisters “went out of their way to make me feel welcome.”
Since arriving, Sr. DeTorres says, she’s grown much in self-knowledge, especially in awareness of her capacity for love. “The more I live this life, the more I’m not thinking of myself, but of how I can help my community,” she says.
That spark for generosity reveals itself often in simple ways. “If I’m asked to wash the dishes, I do it with love.”
Sr. Loebig says the community is grateful for Sr. DeTorres’ contributions. “We appreciate Sister’s depth of understanding of the charism of Carmel involving prayer and community, her cheerful self-giving way of living community life, and her many skills,” she says.
Sr. DeTorres hopes to reflect God’s love in all her efforts, especially prayer. “I really believe prayer at least helps (those prayed for) feel the presence of God,” she says.
That belief guides her response to people who call the monastery with prayer requests. And “in the process of helping other people find God, I find God also.”
Sr. DeTorres believes her vocation is not necessarily God’s highest calling, but what she personally is called to. It’s the Holy Spirit’s work to push others who are called to religious vocations, she says.
But more people embracing God’s presence in their work is more important to her than more women taking vows of religious life. “Our life is prayer,” she says. “Whatever we do, when we put our heart into it, it’s prayer.”