Chattanoogan: Sister Margaret Mary Sallwasser – A Continuous Habit

Thursday, August 15, 2013 - by Jen Jeffrey

When a woman takes her vows to become a sister, she is given time to make sure that it is the direction she knows she should take. Sister Margaret Mary Sallwasser recently decided to make her habit ongoing.

Born in St. Louis, Mo. to Steve and Donna Sallwasser, Margaret Mary was just an ordinary child and the older of her two siblings, Karen and Trish. She expected to one day wear a long white dress and veil somewhat different than the one she wears today.

In fact, when Margaret Mary was just four years old, she wanted to be a Rockette.

“I saw them on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and I told my mom that I wanted to be a Rockette. Mom suggested that we go to the Parish where they had a dance studio and watch a recital to see if that was what I really wanted to do,” Margaret Mary says.

For the next 14 years she took ballet, tap and jazz. Margaret Mary began babysitting and she loved being around children. She decided to study secondary education in college.

“The most exciting thing I've done is to spend a semester of college studying abroad in Austria.  I travelled all across Europe, including a couple of trips alone to visit friends,” Margaret Mary says. “I had always wanted to go white water rafting until my students told me how often people fall out of the raft!” 

Her parents had taken her to church every Sunday sharing their faith with her, but it wasn’t until she attended a youth retreat in the eighth grade that her own faith took on a personal significance.

“I asked God what He wanted of my life, where I should go to school and what I should major in. He was my best friend and I wanted Him to be a part of that. My teacher was a young sister and I thought to myself, ‘I think I want to do that’,” Margaret Mary says.

“It kind of shocked me at first,” she expresses.

Pondering if she really wanted to make the sacrifices or even wear the dress and veil each day, Margaret Mary was led to visit the community of Sisters in Nashville when she was 25 years old.

“I felt very much at home at the Mother House and suddenly everything fell into place. When I was 18 I had seen the desire of my teacher giving her life entirely to God. Part of me wanted to do that… to give my life entirely to God. And not just as a missionary, not as a youth leader would, but to be totally dedicated without raising a family or concerns with financial matters and to just give everything,” she voices.

Though she had a divine calling placed on her life way before she came to realize it, Sister had a normal upbringing, going to school, taking dance and playing with her friends. She even dated and had thoughts of marriage. Fortunately, when she had dated a young man she considered marrying, the couple mutually decided it was not God’s direction for them.

When she entered the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, she stayed six years until Mother sent her to Chattanooga to teach at Notre Dame.

Mother is the head of the community of about 300 sisters in which the majority are teachers who teach at over 30 schools across the United States as well as other countries.

“My parents were surprised that I was still considering becoming a nun after thinking about marriage and then sad because they knew that this would mean I would no longer be able to call or visit whenever I wanted,” Margaret Mary admits. “At the same time, they were supportive of what I thought would make me happy and they became super supportive once they met the sisters and saw how happy I was.  My dad likes to say now that he has not lost a daughter, but gained hundreds more.”

After a year of being in the community wearing a simple black skirt, white blouse and black vest, Margaret Mary received her Dominican habit and her name. Her given birth name (which she does not wish to disclose publicly) would change - just as tradition would have a woman in marriage take her husband’s name.

The new sisters are to submit three name choices of saints or a particular virtue they admire to Mother or she might choose the name herself.

“For me, I loved St. Margaret Mary because of her love for Jesus. That was my first name choice,” the sister says.

When she entered the convent with 13 others, they were called ‘postulants’ (which means questioner) as the young women decided if the life of being a sister was for them.

“We sold all our belongings, we gave away all of our clothes and we came to the convent. A year after all of us received our habit and our religious name, we made our vows another year later. After the two years we make temporary vows to live in poverty, chastity and obedience for a certain amount of time. Our possessions are in common, so I don’t have a car… we share one car between four sisters who live together,” Margaret Mary declares. They drive a minivan that was given by the community.

The vow of chastity means they will not have a family of their own, sacrificing marriage and children.

“It wasn’t easy to make the decision, because it is such a natural desire of a woman’s heart to love another man and to be loved by him - to have that intimate relationship in marriage. But we give that up for a greater freedom to love God and to be loved by Him and love the people we serve,” Margaret Mary insists.

“St Paul describes how an unmarried woman is freer to serve the Lord. We are fulfilling that New Testament ideal of remaining single with the purpose of giving our hearts to God alone. It is the greatest of all romances …and I have the perfect husband!” she beams.

It is tradition in the community to call each other ‘Sister’ as a reminder of the consecration they have chosen. Sr. Mary Evelyn, Sr. Mary Celeste and Sr. Mary Herman, along with Sr. Margaret Mary, live together in a house called a convent which has a chapel.

“At home we take turns cooking meals. Sr. Mary Evelyn is our superior. She is who we all go to - I guess she is like a ‘big sister’ or a ‘mini-mother’,” Margaret Mary chuckles.

She discloses that she wears pajamas to sleep in, but for the rest of the time, Margaret Mary consistently wears her habit. “This is what I put on throughout the day - even when we play ultimate Frisbee with the kids outside on the field. We do cut our hair when we receive the habit, but as for the details - that's for Jesus to know,” she grins.

Mornings at the convent begin with silent prayer followed by morning prayer in which the Catholic Church unites with others across the globe, praying together. The sisters then prepare class at Notre Dame and will later have Mass.

“When I get home, I usually take a few minutes for private prayer and we pray together again at five. We pray the Rosary together and then have dinner together. We will have a time of recreation in the evenings, playing cards or talking about the day. A couple of us like to work on crafts and every once in a while we will go out somewhere and go hiking or to the walking bridge. We also come to sporting events at the school,” Margaret Mary says.

New students may be intimidated by the sisters at first, but they soon learn with the rest of the students that the sisters are not unapproachable.

Just a month ago, Margaret Mary made what is called her final and ‘perpetual vows’.

“It was the best day of my life! I felt as though I knew what it must be like for a woman to get married and to know that she is committed. Love seeks to be definitive and to make that final commitment - it was a glorious day!” she expresses.

Margaret Mary plans to continue serving the community in whatever way God leads, whether it is teaching or working in school administration. “We never really retire because we are still serving the community in whatever way we can. And when we cannot serve the community physically, we are still serving the community in prayer. Our retired sisters back at the Mother house, pray for us every morning,” Sister says.

When advising young girls who are thinking about their own commitment she tells them not to be afraid. “God has a much bigger plan for our lives than anything we can ever imagine or even desire. Check it out, talk to a sister, visit a community… and pray about it. Jesus is the good Shepherd, He knows His sheep and they know His voice,” she says.

Sr. Margaret Mary followed the voice of her Shepherd. “I have fallen in love with God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and He has invited me to this life. How can you say ‘no’ when the creator, redeemer and sanctifier of the universe has invited you to be entirely His?” she says. “I found in this life, a joy that I didn’t know existed before.”

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