On July 8, 2022, Sister Elizabeth Anne Allen, OP, and Sister Jean Marie Warner, OP, of the Congregation of Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia didn’t just celebrate 50 years of religious profession, they also celebrated a half a century of friendship.
And it was a friendship that Sister Elizabeth Anne said was by the “grace of God.”
“In this case, it was the family God chose for us,” Sister Elizabeth Anne said. “We’ve never taken each other’s friendship for granted. We worked at it and have been grateful for it the whole time because God didn’t have to do that.
“It was just something where we had a call in common and a life in common, but, by definition, friendship is a mutual thing, and we’re very blessed,” she said.
It truly was divine providence that brought them together because besides that mutual call, their journeys to that call were on opposite ends of the spectrum.
‘The 9/11 of my generation’
Sister Elizabeth Anne grew up in Murfreesboro with her parents William Harold and Jean Lamb Allen and her three sisters, and they were members of a Protestant church. But then, when she was a junior in high school, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and the very next day, she stepped foot into a Catholic church for the first time.
President Kennedy’s assassination “was kind of the 9/11 of my generation,” Sister Elizabeth Anne recalled. “My friend and I were both Protestant, and we just went to (St. Rose of Lima Church in Murfreesboro) to pray because it was the only church that was open.
“When we were in there, there was not anything organized but it was full of people praying, very quiet. There was something just very prayerful, and you could tell something very meaningful was happening,” she said. “I had never experienced that same sense of (divine) presence before.”
After that day, Sister Elizabeth Anne said the feeling stuck with her, and she finally attended Mass for the first time in 1964, accompanying her friend to the Easter Vigil.
“If you’re going to start, you might as well start with the big one,” she said.
Before going in, she made one thing clear to her friend.
“I remember telling her before I went in, ‘I am not kneeling. You kneel at your bedside in your room. I’m not going to kneel,’” Sister Elizabeth Anne recalled. “She said, ‘You don’t have to kneel. Just do what you feel comfortable doing and pray.’”
But the Holy Spirit intervened.
“That night during the Mass, which was in Latin, I realized two things at the consecration. First, I realized that I was kneeling, and it was like my body responded to it even though, in my mind, I thought, ‘What am I doing? I wasn’t going to do this,’” she recalled. “Then, I realized that I believed that that was the Real Presence, and I thought, ‘You know what, your life just changed.’ I didn’t realize how much, but I knew it had changed because I knew I could not stay where I was because of Communion.”
That night began a four-year journey for her as she continued to go to Mass but waited to convert at the request of her parents who wanted her to wait until she was 21 as they thought it would cause division in the family. Meanwhile, while studying history in college, she recalled one teacher, who only had negative things to say about the Catholic Church.
“He was looking at the Church in the worst possible light,” Sister Elizabeth Anne said. “I found myself defending it and reacting to it.
“The girl sitting next to me happened to be Catholic, and I said, ‘This thing that he’s criticizing makes perfect sense to me,’ … and I didn’t like how he was treating it lightly,” she explained.
So, at the suggestion of her classmate, she went to speak with the pastor of St. Rose, and she started instruction the very next week, and eventually came into the Church in December of 1967 at St. Rose, at the age of 20.
“My parents agreed and weren’t going to make me wait one more year,” she said. “I wasn’t doing it for any reason other than belief” in the Catholic Church.
Following her graduation from college, she took a job at St. Rose School teaching 7th and 8th grade, and in 1969, she was introduced to the Dominican Sisters for the first time, as they came in as teachers.
“As soon as I met them at the end of August that year, I immediately thought, ‘This is what I’m supposed to do,’” and, with that, she entered the convent in 1970.
‘No doubt I was going to be Dominican’
Sister Jean Marie’s journey to religious life was much different. She was a cradle Catholic, and she also grew up around the religious life. When she was in grade school, living in Atlanta, Georgia, she was around the Sisters of Mercy, and also knew several of the Dominican Sisters, even prior to her family’s move to Tullahoma when she was a sophomore in high school.
“I had already known the sisters because Mama (Catherine Seigenthaler Warner) went to Church of the Assumption and my father (James Warner) went to Holy Name,” Sister Jean Marie explained. “Then, my grandmother was big buddies with one of the sisters, so I grew up coming to the Mother House and knowing the sisters.
“I became really solid about my sophomore year in high school that this is what I wanted to do,” she said. “There was no doubt I was going to be a Dominican. I didn’t even consider any others.”
And, along with Sister Elizabeth Anne, she entered the convent in 1970 “right out of high school,” she said. And from then on, having begun their discernment period together as well, just a few months prior, a 50-year journey began.
‘Always had a friendship’
On the surface, there was no other reason outside of their shared call that they would’ve begun a friendship. They lived in different cities, they were four years apart in age, one had job experience and the other had just finished high school, one grew up Catholic and the other was a recent convert.
But they made their journey together, calling upon each other for help during the discernment process, going to summer school together, shopping together, making their first profession of vows together on Aug. 15, 1972, and then making their final profession of vows together five years later on Aug. 15, 1977.
“One thing is neither one of us are competitive, and that has made it easy,” said Sister Jean Marie. “I’ve never tried to compete with her, and she’s never tried to compete with me.
“We’ve done different things, but then we’ve done things together,” she said. “And through it, our friendship has deepened, as well as grown and evolved.”
Through the years, even when they were separated by various teaching positions both in Tennessee and other states, they “always had a friendship,” Sister Elizabeth Anne added. The Sisters of St. Cecilia are dedicated to the apostolate of Catholic education, and the community of 300 sisters serves in 53 schools throughout the United States and abroad.
As they reflected on their recent Golden Jubilee celebration, they knew the call for which they’ve dedicated more than half their lives, wasn’t just possible because of the support of each other, but the support of the entire Dominican community, both past and present.
“I wouldn’t have been faithful for 50 years if it hadn’t been for the prayer and help of the community,” said Sister Jean Marie. “The really neat thing about the jubilee was that it was a celebration of community, … and that’s what we wanted it to be.”
“You don’t get to heaven by yourself,” Sister Elizabeth Anne added. “We both said the same thing. We have immense gratitude to Almighty God, to the sisters who have gone before us, whatever side of eternity they’re on, because they lived this life so we could have it to live.”
The Dominican community “provides a structure that supports a Christian journey … and yet you’re totally free to be your best self,” Sister Elizabeth Anne continued. “We’re not a cookie cutter kind of group. There is a saying, ‘if you’ve met one Dominican, then you’ve met one Dominican,’ and we’re kind of living proof of that.”