Often the seeds of our future careers and endeavors are planted in us from a young age, and we draw inspiration from the people around us that we admire most. For Sister M. Petra Nielsen, Sister of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration and Vice President of Mission Integration for Franciscan Health Michigan City, that seed was planted back in elementary school. She has been a Sister since 2008, but knew she was drawn to the religious life from the time she was in the first grade.
“In first grade, my teacher was a Sister of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration. I remember how much I loved Sister Kathleen and I wanted to be a ‘Franciscan teaching nun’ just like her,” Sister Petra said. “Since I was taught by our Sisters in elementary school, when I realized God was calling me to religious life it seemed natural to join the community that was such an important part of my faith formation.”
Despite her strong feelings of being called to this vocation, Sister Petra initially tried pushing them aside in favor of pursuing a different kind of lifestyle.
“In high school, I pushed the thoughts of a religious vocation to the back of my mind, partly because I was made fun of for it, and partly because it didn’t fit with my plans for life,” Sister Petra said. “I wanted to be married, raise a family, travel, have an interesting job, etc.”
Sister Petra spent a period of time pursuing many of the things she thought she wanted in her life, traveling, living overseas, and holding jobs she would have considered to be dream jobs. Yet, in spite of her best efforts to ignore God’s will in her life, the thought of religious life never went away completely.
“Throughout high school, college, graduate school, the beginnings of my career, and even during a period when I was not practicing my faith, the thought would creep into my mind,” Sister Petra said. “I would keep pushing it away, telling myself I wasn’t good enough or holy enough for religious life, and that it was something I wanted to do when I was little but not anymore.”
Then, when she was living and working in Vienna, Austria, Sister Petra lost both of her parents to cancer. It was during this painful time of grieving that she realized how empty her life was without God.
“I returned to the church, and allowed the thoughts of religious life to come freely to me,” Sister Petra said. “Instead of pushing it away this time, I tried to discern why it would not go away.”
Through much prayer and guidance from her parish priest, Sister Petra realized God was calling her to give herself totally to Him and the Church alongside the very Sisters who first planted the seeds of a religious vocation in her elementary school classroom. Now, she lives out that vocation daily, and remains fully committed to her calling.
“I realize daily that my vocation is a gift from God, and I need to embrace this gift and follow wherever He leads,” Sister Petra said.
Sister Petra and her fellow sisters keep a 24/7 prayer vigil at their Adoration chapel in their Motherhouse in Mishawaka. There, they pray for the needs of the Church, the world, all of their ministries, and for the many prayer requests that are sent to them each day.
“As Sisters, our primary charism is our prayer life,” Sister Petra said. “The fruits of our prayer life are lived out through our active ministries of health care and education.”
The sisters sponsor Franciscan Alliance as part of the healthcare ministry of the Catholic Church.
“We are missioned out to one of our active ministries,” Sister Petra said. “I have been assigned to our healthcare ministry since 2011, and have been missioned at our hospital in Michigan City since September 2018.”
For Sister Petra, what sets Franciscan apart is their mission and values. Particularly influential is their value of respect for life, which maintains that the gift of life is so valued that each person is cared for with such joy, respect, dignity, fairness, and compassion that they are consciously aware of being loved.
“We see each person, whether a patient, guest, or co-worker, as created in an image and likeness of God,” Sister Petra said. “Each has an inherent dignity that we are called to respect and protect.”
Sister Petra is humbled daily by the beautiful examples she sees the Franciscan Health staff living out, each one of them a living testament of their mission and values.
“Each member of our team is such a beautiful gift to our mission and our Franciscan family,” Sister Petra said. “They truly embrace our values, and this has become even more apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, when staff has stepped up to meet the challenges with a mission spirit.”
Being surrounded by such a dedicated, selfless group of individuals has been a true blessing in the eyes of Sister Petra, one she continues to cherish.
“The best part of what I do in my work with our healthcare ministry is getting to know our team and the communities we are privileged to serve,” Sister Petra said. “All of them, clinical and support staff, are true heroes!”