By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
Keokuk native Rachel Dunlap entered religious life with the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Dubuque, Iowa, last fall at the age of 25. As a candidate, she lived with sisters, sharing their way of life and getting to know the community members better. Last month, she began her novitiate journey with the Rite of Initiation. “Novitiate is a two-year period focused on prayer, deeper vocation discernment, study and ministry,” she explained.
A 2016 graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Sister Rachel said she began to feel “nudges” toward religious life during her freshman year. “I met several sisters, including a Presentation sister, at the busy student retreat held each semester. I immediately felt drawn to the spirit of the sisters — their passion for prayer, mission and community and their joyfulness. … Over time, those nudges got stronger as I spent more time with the sisters. It became apparent that I was most joyful — and peace-filled when I spent time with the sisters.”
She spent about eight years discerning this call while pursuing social work and ministry opportunities. During the 2015-16 school year, the Diocese of Davenport selected Rachel as its Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) intern. She primarily served Quad Cities Interfaith during the internship. “I learned more in-depth about systemic oppression, particularly within the mental health system. This showed me how to put my faith into action in a new way.” The internship increased her passion to address oppressive and inefficient mental health systems and to facilitate increased wellness and healing.
After graduating from St. Ambrose, she spent two years ministering to immigrants in south Philadelphia, serving alongside and living in community with the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia. She graduated from Boston College in May 2021 with a Master of Social Work and a Master of Arts in Theology and Ministry.
“Even though I felt called to religious life for a while before I joined, I discerned that there were experiences I felt God was calling me to first,” Sister Rachel said. “Looking back, I am grateful that I trusted the timing.”
A service/discernment trip to New Orleans, where several Presentation sisters minister, helped solidify her desire to enter the community. “I was drawn to how they minister to unhoused women and children — with a compassion and respect for the guests that I, unfortunately, often do not see with many social service agencies. I was also attracted to the joy, prayerfulness and fun that I experienced each time I was with Presentation sisters. Most importantly, I feel a sense of being at home with my sisters.”
She worried about the things she would sacrifice as a religious sister but an “abundance” mindset gave her courage to move forward. “Our call is to make sure we are freely sharing (our) gifts and desires for the good of the world.”
Sister Rachel ministered as a mental health counselor at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Dubuque during her candidacy with the Presentation sisters. Currently, she is in Chicago with the InterCongregational Collaborative Novitiate, founded by the Religious Formation Conference. She lives with five novices and two novice directors from different congregations. “We will spend our next nine months deepening our discernment through prayer, theological studies, ministry, learning more about our own congregations and religious life and building community.” The group is intercultural, intergenerational and intercongregational, “which is exactly how the future of religious life will be. This experience is giving me great hope that although religious communities will be smaller in the future, the individuals entering religious life are deeply committed to community, prayer, ministry and justice in service to the Church and the world.”
Sister Cheryl Demmer, director of religious education and faith formation for Ss. Mary & Mathias Parish in Muscatine, is a longtime Presentation sister. She said she admires Sister Rachel’s spirit and positive energy. “She has an open heart that truly will allow the Lord to work within her! Her heart is also open to the global world, which is so needed in church ministry today.”
Deacon Kent Ferris, diocesan director of Social Action, supervised Sister Rachel’s CCHD internship. “Discerning a vocational calling is truly a holy undertaking,” he said. “Hearing Sister Rachel’s story reminds me of the incredible importance we all play in affording youth and young adults intentional experiences, like internships and field experiences. A new step or two is taken and, soon, ‘Thy will be done’ is not only spoken, but lived.”
Through sharing her story, Sister Rachel hopes others will know that people are still joining religious life and that it is a “very life-giving vocation.”