By Tanya Connor and Margaret M. Russell
As a child, she wanted to be like the Virgin Mary.
As a teenager, she experienced doubts and tried to skip a Catholic youth conference and go to the beach.
As a youth leader, she considered a peer crazy for wanting to join a group of “old ladies” (nuns). But now she’s doing that herself.
Sunday a special Mass at St. Ann Parish in North Oxford celebrated 18-year-old Emily Chandley’s decision to enter the convent.
More than 200 people gathered for the Mass at which Bishop McManus presided.
“Isn’t it amazing that the Lord still calls those who love him into service,” said Father Michael N. Lavallee, her pastor, in his homily about vocations.
“God made us for a specific purpose,” he said.
It is common for people to ask youngsters what they want to be when they grow up. But Father Lavallee said the better question is: “Have you asked God what he wants you to do with your life?”
“The Lord speaks to our hearts,” he said. And that is something to which Miss Chandley can attest.
“I’m extremely proud of her,” said her mother, Kelly Chandley in an interview Monday. “I am humbled by all the support and love that she’s been shown and I’m at total peace with her decision, because I think I’m gaining family (the Sisters) not losing family.”
Her husband, James Chandley agreed. Miss Chandley is their only child.
“She’s really not our daughter,” he said; Sunday he sensed she was daughter to everyone there.
Sister Beth Ann Dillion told the parents at the Mass that their nurturing helped Miss Chandley find the “perfect spouse” – Jesus. And as a Daughter of St. Mary of Providence, the order in which Miss Chandley is to become a postulant, she will find the “joy of doing God’s will.”
The day after the Mass, Miss Chandley and her parents reflected on her life journey, so far.
“She never fussed in church,” Mrs. Chandley said. “She would shush us if we were whispering after Communion.” After young Emily asked to play Jesus’ mother in a Christmas pageant her mother wondered if she might become a religious sister.
“All I want to do is be like Mary,” the child explained.
Teenage years came and Mrs. Chandley dragged her daughter to a Steubenville East youth conference at the University of Rhode Island.
“I was at a really weak point in my faith; I didn’t know if I believed in God,” Miss Chandley explained. Seeking an alternative to the conference, as temperatures soared, she told her mother, “The beach is just a few miles away.”
After the conference “she was reading the Bible, she wanted to start a youth group, and random acts of kindness crept into her life,” her mother said.
“I knew something was different about Emily,” interjected her father, retelling a story he told to those gathered after Mass Sunday. “Three or four years ago we were walking through Boston. We came across a homeless man. She didn’t say, ‘Dad, can we buy him lunch?’ She said, ‘Dad, we have to buy him lunch. We can buy his lunch with my own money.’
“We gave him lunch and he was so happy. And I was so impressed with my own daughter.”
Miss Chandley returned to the Steubenville East conference – and its youth leader training LEAD (Leadership, Evangelization And Discipleship). There she had a roommate who planned to become a religious sister.
“She could’ve been a model; she could’ve gotten any guy she wanted,” Miss Chandley said. She thought, “You’re joining a bunch of old ladies? What’s the matter with you?”
But Miss Chandley couldn’t dismiss the idea of religious life from her own mind. At Holy Name Central Catholic Junior/Senior High School she talked with her theology teacher Robert Heald, a former seminarian.
“He knew about the stress of discernment and he was very helpful to me,” she said.
Others supported her too. Her mother spoke of the Holy Name and LEAD communities, Father Michael J. Roy, her spiritual director; Father Lavallee, her pastor; and the people they worship with at 6:30 a.m. weekday Mass at Our Lady of Czestochowa Parish in Worcester.
Derek Mobilio is one of the morning Mass-goers who said his first interaction with Miss Chandley was about a year ago. He said he was praying after Mass and felt a presence in the pew in front of him. When he opened his eyes it was Miss Chandley offering him a rosary. “I was touched by it,” he said.
Mr. Mobilio said he later learned that she was discerning a vocation and that another girl who attends the morning Mass there was also discerning. A teacher at St. Mary’s School, Mr. Mobilio said that in the fall he is going to St. John’s Seminary in Brighton as a seminarian for the Worcester Diocese. He credits the intercession of Saint John Paul II, whose relics are kept in Our Lady of Czestochowa Church, with the vocations. Father Lavallee referenced Saint John Paul II several times in his homily.
Support for Miss Chandley has also come from St. Ann’s St. Vincent de Paul Society, with which Mrs. Chandley is involved, and the Oxford Knights of Columbus, for which Mr. Chandley is Grand Knight.
These two groups helped Miss Chandley go to the Way of St. James in Spain and World Youth Day in Poland last month.
Miss Chandley has served her parish as an altar server, lector, teacher, eucharistic minister and sacristan.
Sarah Lombardi, who attended Sunday’s Mass with her daughter Abby, said Miss Chandley taught 5th-grade religious education classes with her this past year. “It’s cool to see someone so young” want to be a religious sister, she said.
Santina MacGregor, 16, an altar server at Sunday’s Mass, said Miss Chandley is “an inspiration.” Miss MacGregor has been an altar sever since the age of 9 and said it was an honor to serve with Miss Chandley. But, she added, it’s not nearly as important a ministry as the one Miss Chandley has chosen.
Making the decision to become a sister left Miss Chandley “super stressed” at times. She wondered whether she was called to religious life or should apply for college.
“I literally would come home and call nuns,” she said.
By the time she joined a diocesan pilgrimage for Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia last September, she had some clarity. Asked what she was going to do after graduation in the spring, she replied with joyful confidence, “Convent.” She just didn’t know which one.
“I went to see the pope one week,” Miss Chandley recalled. “The next week I went to Nashville (on retreat with the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia). The week after that I went to Chicago,” for a second visit to the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence.
She begged Jesus for a sign.
Visiting the Daughters of St. Mary in Chicago she was still talking, not listening to God, she said.
“Just tell me what you want me to do,” she told him. “I could hear him say, ‘Shut up; this is the right place.’” She said she was at peace there.
She was accepted March 2 six days before her 18th birthday, and felt “like a weight had been lifted,” she said.
One of the sisters’ main ministries is running a home for mentally handicapped and autistic women, Miss Chandley said.
“I’m named after my great aunt,” who’s in her 70s and is autistic, she said.
Mr. Chandley said his daughter is most comfortable when she’s with her great aunt. “I think Emily was called not only to become a sister, but called to that order, because she’s such a good fit,” he said.
She is on her way to Lake Zurich, Ill., to go through formation with two women in their 20s. She is to become a postulant on Aug. 15, the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Miss Chandley said the congregation has many retired sisters, but they’re really not an “older order.”
So much for her early perception of nuns.