Sister Lisa Polega is transferring her vows from the Congregation of the Sisters of the Living Word to the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. This ceremony will take place on Saturday, August 4, 2018 at 2:00 p.m. at Nazareth, Kentucky.
(The remarks of this interviewer are in italics.
Sister Lisa Polega is in her third year of an integration process to transfer her vows from the Sisters of the Living Word Congregation, based in Chicago, Illinois, to the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. It seems helpful as she and the SCN Community make this commitment together that, as she has spent these years learning about SCNs, we learn a little more about Sister Lisa. We remember that Sister Lisa is a perpetually vowed religious and, as did other valued SCN transfer members, has been moving through the process of transferring those vows.)
She was born in 1966 in suburban Chicago to Raymond and Edith Daniello Polega. Her Italian ancestry from her mother and her German ancestry from her father are of great interest and importance to her. Lisa had three older siblings; Sandy, twenty years older, Marilyn, eighteen years older and Gary, five years older. Smilingly she says, “I had a set of four mothers- Sandy, Marilyn, Carmella (My maternal aunt who lived next door) and my mother herself. That meant a great deal of caring in my early years……sometimes too much caring!”
Lisa’s parents owned a pizza parlor not too far from their home. She knows firsthand the hard work a restaurant business entails. She and her double first cousins (Her mother’s sister Carmella was married to her father’s brother Clarence.) would sometimes have the fun of using a ball of pizza dough they would make into a soft ball She reminisces, “It seems as if we grew up at the restaurant as well as at home. We spent hours playing games with ‘pizza dough balls’ and helping around the restaurant. My childhood job was to grind the homemade mozzarella cheese. I would have to stand on a stool to reach the electric grinder. I then moved up to opening large cans of tomato sauce to be used in the pizza preparation. Because my closest playmates were a brother, a male cousin and a male nephew, I soon learned to love sports and the outdoors. I was a tomboy who loved to go to Wrigley Field with my father to watch the Chicago Cubs play.”
Lisa attended St. Simeon Grade School where she was happy to be at the top of her class. Next came Immaculate Conception High School, where she graduated in 1984. “I appreciate very much the sacrifices my mother made for me to attend high school,” Lisa shares. “An unhappy time for me during these teen years was the divorce of my parents. I learned forgiveness from my mother. If she was able to forgive, then so was I.”
After high school Lisa took two years off and worked in order to help with household expenses and to save money for college and a car. Enrolling at Elmhurst College was a step toward satisfying her love for learning. Her special interest was in environmental study which she combined with business for her degree. Lisa lived at home and commuted to her classes. She worked throughout her college time but was very grateful in her senior year to receive a scholarship based on academic achievement, community service involvement and financial need. She reflects, “I began to come into my own and see that my adult life was unfolding and I needed to take the necessary steps to get there.”
During the last year of college Lisa, without anyone of her family or friends’ knowing of it , became an affiliate/first year candidate of the Sisters of the Living Word. She had come to know Sister of the Living Word Marie McKenna who was the assistant pastor in the parish. This Sister was so different form the nuns Lisa had known in grade and high school – no habit, good sense of humor, openness to her and others. She witnessed a whole different way of living. Lisa was invited to attend several SLW events and found the life of the Sisters pleasing and attractive.
But it wasn’t the time for Lisa to make the choice of religious life. After graduating from college in 1991, she knew there were so many life choices before her and she was not ready to make a life commitment. The next nine years were exciting for this independent, educated and capable young woman. She became an environmental consultant for several companies. Some were large engineering firms, others smaller. Near the end of these years she became a self-employed independent consultant. This meant extensive travel to various locations, especially in the Midwest and the West Coast.
(Interestingly, for a less expensive fare, she flew numerous times in to Louisville and rented a car in order to get to Cincinnati where she had many job assignments. She had no thought that one day God would bring her back to Louisville for life and ministry.)
In 1999 Lisa‘s mother died suddenly, just nine days before Christmas. With sadness Lisa shares, “Our family was distraught because our Mother had been the loving center and foundation of our family. At that time I was twenty six years old and living on my own. My brother, thirty one and starting a family, invited me to spend the holiday season with them. I stayed with them for four months and we shared our grief together. Now, years later, I still spend every Christmas with my brother and his family. My nephew and niece, now wonderful adults, still look forward to ‘Aunt Lisa coming for Christmas’.”
Lisa’s important environmental work encompassed environmental site assessments of industrial as well retail and multiple family dwellings. She had the responsibility of, determining whether the manufacturing activities of the facility were affecting the soil or ground water. She did asbestos surveys, as well. (At this time it would seem that Lisa’s path was set to climb the corporate ladder but we will see that God had something else in mind.)
All was not work. Lisa had many special friends and relationships. She found time for parties and great fun. Of particular interest to her was involvement in the bicycle club to which she belonged. Besides bicycling in Chicagoland twice a week, the group biked various Caribbean countries when they enjoyed a cruise. Others on the cruise would go shopping; her bicycling friends would tour the island.
Life seemed good for Lisa with her sense of freedom and enjoyment. All was not well, however. After her mother’s death Lisa struggled with the reimaging and existence of God. She felt she was in a “dark night of the soul.” She indeed even read St.John of the Cross’s book, “Dark Night of the Soul”. This struggle lasted four years. She shares, “It was during this time when I began to experience the connectedness between physical exertion, such as bicycling, and the spiritual.”
(She remarked recently after her first sprint triathlon, “For me, physical exercise is a physical form of prayer. It allows me the space and energy to come to a clarity of vision and see the balance between the physical and the spiritual.”)
Peace finally came to Lisa when she began to see the face of God in the faces of others. An adult image and experience of God began to take root in Lisa. She could now see that she was a part of God’s Divine plan.
Her attraction to religious life returned, although she was reluctant to answer the call. She knew it would be the end to the lifestyle, her career, some of the friendships she enjoyed. Finally, she contacted Sister Marie McKenna, SLW, with the plea, “Tell me a little more about becoming a Sister.” She was invited to several SLW events, including their Assembly and began to feel at ease. Two weeks before her day of return to the SLW Community, Lisa shared the important news with her family.
She returned to the SLW Congregation in 2000. Lisa shares, “I was fortunate to have a good formation with directors who walked with me on my journey. It was not easy to move from an ultra-independent, career-minded, take-whatever-hard-knocks-that come young woman to someone who would find her greatest meaning in the mission of a group of dedicated women.”
Her candidacy and novitiate were in Chicago where she attended the Inter-Community Novitiate. She had the opportunity to take courses at Loyola and Dominican Universities and volunteer at the 8th Day Center for Justice as part of her formation experience. Another ministry experience was to work at the Chicago Archdiocesan Office of Conciliation which served as mediator in disputes between parishes, schools, even religious congregations. (Five years later Lisa would serve on the Advisory Board of this Office of Conciliation.)
She shares her regard for her novice director, “I loved Christella Carbaugh,SLW. She was a novice director who knew how to give me direction and guidance in a tough but gentle manner. Years later we would live in the same apartment building, and this allowed me to be with her when she died after a sudden fall.”
At thirty five Lisa made a life changing decision “to something larger than herself”. Lisa pronounced her vows on May 1,2004 in Chicago.
Lisa’s first ministry was at Trilogy Behavioral Healthcare. She shares, “I was able to utilize some of my previously learned business skills. More importantly, I learned to appreciate and respect persons who were carrying the burdens of schizophrenia, or bipolar and personality disorders. I began to recognize the embodiment of our God in the mentally fragile and the physically disfigured.”
My next ministry was with Sacred Heart Southern Missions in Holly Springs, Mississippi. There Lisa was engaged in the important task of empowerment for women and men seeing to belter their lives but not always having the needed skills. She comments sadly, “I began to empathize with those who experience system injustices of under employment because of race and gender. I realized in myself a strong desire to challenge systems of economic oppression. A challenge in Holly Springs was learning to live and work with the same Community members, a new experience for me.”
In August 2008 Lisa returned to Loyola University in Chicago to complete studies for a Master of Arts degree in theology with a concentration in ethics. In between classes and study she assisted with SLW Community services.
Lisa’s next ministry was at the Diocese of Joliet(Illinois) Peace and Justice Ministry Office, Employment here gave her the opportunity to approach environmental, economic, and gender issues in a systematic and organized way. She reported to two bishops and,after the collaborative experience at SHSM, she found the tightly controlled diocese environment quite challenging. A special blessing experienced during this ministry was the opportunity to form a peace and justice group within in a few parishes.
An involvement that captured Lisa’s heart and ministerial spirit was the plight of undocumented immigrants. She worked for the Chicago Archdiocesan Office for Immigrants Affairs and for the Office of Religious. Lisa reflects, “My responsibilities included working with lay leadership in non-immigrant parishes to educate and advocate for immigration reform and to accompany undocumented immigrants. I again experienced the joy of entering into the lives of many parishioners and together we struggled toward justice for our immigrant brothers and sisters.”
When Lisa was in Holly Springs, 2006-2008, in ministry at Sacred Heart Southern Missions, she first met SCNs and admired their values and spirit. She learned that any Catholic Sister will be accepted in Holly Springs because the town remembers the witness of the SCN Yellow Fever Martyrs. Lisa shares, “Starting in 2011,I again experienced the SCN spirit when I came to Nazareth for retreat and learned to appreciate the person of Catherine Spalding as lived in her Sisters.”
“At a time when many religious communities are facing closure, I sensed that the SCN mission is very much alive. Prayer, discernment and some wise mentors led me to seek transfer to the SCN Community.”
The support and caring of the SLW leadership has made the process much easier for her. She very much cherishes her ongoing SLW friendships.
Lisa is now in the third year of the SCN transfer process. She admits, “These years have been a time of blessing, challenge and growth.”
“My first year of integration consisted of a move to Louisville, where I lived with the Eastern Parkway house and began my ministry at Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). I entered into a time of meeting Sisters and learning the charism and culture of the SCN Community.
My second year I continued with my CASA ministry and moved to the Breckenridge house. I participated in various SCN activities, including the Western Province Assembly.
This third year has been a time of deepening relationships and finding ways to be more deeply involved. I serve on the Ecological Sustainability Board and am the SCN representative on the Nativity Academy Board. It’s important to me to give back when the SCNs have given me so much.”
Lisa now awaits the transfer of her vows to the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth on August 4th. She has a strong desire to live that part of the Mission Statement that calls SCNs “to work for justice in solidarity with oppressed people.”
(It seems to this interviewer that this belief inspires Lisa. “I want to lean into life‘s unfolding.” In Vincentian terms this seems another way of saying , “I want to live relying on Divine Providence.” )
Interviewed by Sister Maria Vincent Brocato, SCN