Humans of UD: Sr. Mary Angelica, O.P.

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Over a year ago, a viral tweet pictured a man with a nun in which the man explained his excitement for meeting a nun in real life because he had no idea that they were real. 

This endearing interaction was laughable to many Catholics who were fully aware of the existence of nuns outside of Hollywood’s portrayal of them, including UD students who see religious sisters on a daily basis.

Sister Mary Angelica Neenan, O.P., affiliate assistant professor of theology, however, shares the sentiment of being surprised by the sight of a religious sister, especially because she felt the same way when she was younger.

The Boston native knew that her grandmother’s cousin was a nun, but she was scared of her, and so she had never thought of the possibility of being called to anything other than “getting married and having twelve children.”

After being invited by a priest to inquire specifically about the Dominican Sisters in Nashville, Tennessee, Neenan decided to open herself up to the possibility for the first time.

“When I went to Nashville, I went to cross it off the list and then start searching around [the] Boston area. I got there, and I was really impressed,” Neenan said. “I felt very much at home, and I didn’t realize that that was a very good sign.” 

After praying about her vocation, she asked for a sign to figure out whether entering the convent was what God was calling her to. In lieu of a sign, Neenan said that God gave her understanding.

“When a man asks [a woman] to marry him, she’s free to say yes or no. And I understood that this was an invitation and that I was free to say yes or no, and I wasn’t going to be punished for saying yes or no,” Neenan said.

After saying her “yes” at that moment, she started the process unusually fast.

“Who knows what they were thinking when they allowed me to do that,” she joked. “They don’t let people do that, but they took a chance on me, and I stayed. I’ve been happy ever since and it’s been a wonderful marriage.”

Before making this big decision, Neenan was in art school to train as a Renaissance portrait artist and go on to teach K-12 art. If you visit her office, you may notice that several of her paintings are hung just as high as her religious statues and Boston Red Sox memorabilia.

In order to keep up her art teaching certification, she is currently taking History of Art and Architecture I with Dr. Estelle Fonteneau, adjunct instructor of art history, which Neenan says reminds her of her freshman year of college, especially since they are using the exact textbook she used in 1985.

Neenan said: “A lot of my current and former students are in [the class], so I’m a student with my students, and I love it. It’s really fun.”

Though she noticeably stands out in a crowd, she doesn’t mind the typically pleasant interactions she has with people who are either familiar with religious sisters or not at all.

“In Walmart, every time I go there, someone will want to pray with me. I’ve had so many beautiful statements like one woman said to me ‘I just really needed to see you today.’ And it’s really just a sign from God, and a gift from God, to live this life and to wear this habit and to be able to be his witness in the world,” Neenan said.

The faith of members of the Church that wear habits can often feel impossible to reach for the typical lay experience of the majority of Catholics, but Neenan holds that holiness is possible for and available to everyone.

When it comes to discernment, she points to the unique plan that God has for each one of us, and that is impossible for us to mess up.

“It is a matter of trust and we can fail to trust God, [but] He’s not going to hold it against [us],” said Neenan. “He doesn’t force us, so there has to be no coercion otherwise it’s not a free gift of self … I don’t think it’s real easy to mess up God’s Will. I think He does place us in situations and He puts Himself out there in order to lure us to Him [and] what He wants us to do.”

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