Sister Katie Flanagan participates with her students at at St. John Neumann High School in Naples. (Courtesy Photo)

Visits to New Jersey cement vocation

WELLINGTON | A young Katie Flanagan vividly remembers having butterflies in her stomach the day she boarded the airplane at Fort Lauderdale International Airport that was taking off to fly to a destination to which she felt God was calling her — cold, damp New Jersey.

The trip was “top secret,” she explained, adding that only her parents and a handful of close friends knew what the trip was all about and what she was up to. “For the entire 167-minute plane ride, my earnest prayer was, ‘Dear God, please let me hate it.’”

However, the native of Fort Lauderdale, who grew up at St. Rita Parish and attended Mass there since her parents moved to Wellington when she was 4 years old, immensely enjoyed her trip up north to visit the Salesian Sisters of St. John Bosco. In fact, she went back a number of times, finally staying there when she entered formation August of 2012.

Now-Sister Flanagan professed first vows Aug. 5, 2016. “I am currently teaching at St. John Neumann High School in Naples and could not be more grateful for the gift of my Salesian vocation,” she said.

Sister Flanagan has two older brothers and a younger sister, attended public school all her life and was involved in a variety of school groups and activities. She described herself in school as “pretty typical. I danced all through elementary and middle school. In high school, I was student council vice president at Wellington High, on prom court my senior year, voted sweetest by my senior class. My friends and I were good kids. I’ve always loved to read ever since I was young. I don’t know normal teenage stuff, I think.”

It was at St. Rita Parish where the seed of vocations to the religious life took roots slowly growing and blossoming. Sister Flanagan was active in parish life, part of the youth group and enjoyed being around the parish pastor at the time, the late Father Walter Dockerill, fondly know as “Father D.” She also recalls good times spent with Dominican Sister Agnes Homes, pastoral minister.

“Neither of them ever talked to me about a religious vocation, but when I look back on it now, they were so accessible and fun to be around,” she said. “So in my mind, priests and sisters were regular people. I think that helped my discernment process. I also served on the diocesan Youth Council in high school under the direction of Sister Jude Ruggeri of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She was awesome. Again, she never talked to me about a vocation, but she was a joyful, energetic woman. I just loved to be around her.

“For years I had felt a gentle tug, a whisper, a desire deep in my heart,” continued Sister Flanagan. She also heard voices in her head saying, “You were made for more. Give yourself to me.”

“I told God that I was already doing so much for him. Hadn’t I given enough?” she recalled. “God’s response was clear, ‘I don’t just want the things you do. I want you. All of you.’”

Sister Flanagan said she ran and continued to run after high school and beyond the University of Florida in Gainesville, where she studied. “I had my own apartment, a great job, amazing friends, and a strong faith community. I had everything a girl needs to be happy and I was mostly, but at the end of the day, I had a longing, a yearning for something more. So, I finally told God that I would visit the Salesian Sisters. From the moment I met the sisters, I felt comfortable, like I could be myself. They were hilarious; the house was filled with joy. The prayer life was simple and practical, but with a depth that drew me closer to Christ. They even had espresso in the morning”

After her visit, she was still not ready to commit. “I’m much too hard-headed for my story to be that simple. I wanted a flashing billboard, a booming voice from heaven, a clear sign that told me what God wanted.”

She talked to friends and turned to a priest for guidance. “The most influential person would have been Father Brian King,” she said about the diocesan episcopal secretary. His home parish was St. Rita Parish, where he was ordained.

“He is a family friend and he attended St. Rita before he was a priest. He was essential in my vocational discernment. When I was first thinking about being a sister, I contacted him to ask for spiritual direction. He helped me wade through a great deal of fear and doubt. He was an excellent spiritual guide. I have known him since I was little. I remember when he entered the seminary.”

Sister Flanagan recalled sitting in the front row at St. Rita Church during Father King’s ordination to the priesthood in May 2000. “I think being able to witness someone discern their vocation, go through formation, and end up a happy and fulfilled priest was really encouraging for me.”

She visited the religious sisters three more times as she wrestled with fear and spent countless hours in prayer. “I decided to take the plunge and go where my heart felt at peace. On Jan. 31, 2012, I asked for an application to enter into formation to become a Salesian Sister,” she said. “I had no idea it was the feast of St. John Bosco, our founder. God finally gave me my flashing billboard.

“I have given my life to Christ in order to be with the young, to teach them, to play with them, to pray with them, to serve them, to love them,” she continued. “I love it. Most days I cannot even believe how incredibly blessed I am. It has been seven years since that first nerve-wracking flight to New Jersey. At the time it was a hard and scary decision to make, but some of the most incredible moments in life wait for us on the other side of hard and scary. Today, I laugh when I think about how afraid I was. Surrendering to God’s will has brought me the greatest peace and joy I have ever known. Thank you, God, for calling me to this beautiful life.”