Sister Maris Stella always knew God had a plan for her life.
But it wasn't until she served as an officer in the U.S. Navy that she realized she was meant to enter religious life.
After four years at the U.S. Naval Academy and five years of service, she professed her perpetual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience with the Sisters of Life, a Catholic community founded in 1991 in New York.
Sister Maris Stella, now 38, moved to Denver last year with three other sisters to start the group's 10th convent and its first convent in the West. The four women visit college campuses along the Front Range -- including the University of Colorado in Boulder -- each month to connect with students.
"During college and after college, people are asking the big questions in life," she said. "'What's the meaning of my life? What's the purpose of my life?' Young men and women are struggling with the challenges of our culture and looking for an authentic way to love and a way to live that's true to them."
Before she became a sister, Sister Maris Stella asked a lot of those same questions. Growing up in Ludlow, Mass., faith was an important part of her life, along with sports and academics.
In high school, she applied to the U.S. Naval Academy, but she didn't think she would get in. The naval academy is the most selective of the military service academies, accepting roughly 8 percent of students who apply.
A sophomore-year trip to the Holy Land served as an eye-opening experience for Sister Maris Stella, who realized during the pilgrimage that God wanted her to dedicate her life to him.
After going through intense military training while also earning a bachelor's degree, she graduated in 2001 and was commissioned to serve on a destroyer off the coast of San Diego.
She served for two years as the gunnery officer, which meant she was in charge of all small arms aboard the ship.
"Our ship spent hundreds of nights out to sea off the coast of South America chasing drug traffickers," she wrote in an essay about why she entered religious life. "While I was at sea, I came to know God and the beauty of His creation through the men and women with whom I served."
Aboard the ship, far from distractions, people began asking questions and looking for meaning in their lives, Sister Maris Stella wrote. Because the ship did not have a chaplain, she was assigned to be its Catholic lay leader.
"It is astounding to me when I think of how He stayed with me, and went out to sea with me," she wrote.
Sister Maris Stella was then stationed in Naples, Italy, where she served as a liaison officer. Not far from Rome, she saw how young and alive the Catholic Church was.
"I got to know some religious communities in Europe and I saw there were other young women entering religious life who were bright and talented and realized they could have a beautiful life no matter what," she said. "It's not like it was some last option for them."
After finishing her military service at the end of 2005, Sister Maris Stella entered the Sisters of Life convent in September 2006. She said she was amazed by the group's charism -- the gift that it had to offer to the world.
The community is primarily focused on the gift of life by helping pregnant women in crisis and through a post-abortion healing mission.
"When I met the Sisters of Life, I couldn't believe that it existed in the church and in the world, just this proclamation that all life is good, life is sacred, that each person we encounter is a masterpiece of God's love," she said.
Her friends from the military -- even if they weren't Catholic -- intuitively understood why she entered religious life. Many attended the ceremony in which she took her final vows.
"They understand the meaning of sacrifice," she said. "There was this recognition that if we're willing to give up our lives for our country, surely giving your life to God is something even more noble. He's a worthy cause."
'Joy and vitality'
Sister Maris Stella spent nine years in New York at a convent there before moving to Colorado in August 2015. Now, the four sisters spend a week each month at CU, Colorado State University and the University of Northern Colorado.
When they're in Boulder, the sisters attend mass twice a day and invite students to pray with them. On average, they pray roughly four hours each day, Sister Maris Stella said.
In addition to having private meetings with students, they also hold events, such as women's dinners and ultimate Frisbee games.
On campus, the women are very visible in their white veils, white habits and dark blue scapulars. Sister Maris Stella said she's had nothing but positive -- if not amusing -- experiences while visiting Colorado's colleges.
"I was in the (CSU) cafeteria with another sister looking for a table to sit down at for lunch," she said. "There were these two guys. We asked if we could have part of their table, and they're like, 'Oh sure.' We sat with them and after a few minutes they said, 'So, you guys nuns or something?' And we're in full habit of course, so we said, 'Yeah, how'd you guess?'"
In mid-October, the sisters also held a "nun run" to raise money for charity. Karna Swanson, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Denver, said those types of activities make people take a second look at the Catholic Church.
"They wear these whole white and blue habits, they're very conspicuous and they do things that continually surprise you," Swanson said. "People love seeing them. They love talking to them and they just bring such a joy and vitality to the community at large."
Though her journey to religious life is an interesting one, students rarely ask her about it. While her military service is behind her now, Sister Maris Stella said she's still grateful for the life she led prior to entering the convent.
"It was really a huge, reformative period of my life and I'm grateful for it; I'm grateful I had the opportunity to serve," she said. "The people who influenced my life, the gifts I was given, the training I was given ... those were all extremely valuable. They say grace builds on nature. The military gave me a certain foundation of formation and character and virtue that's been helpful in religious life."
Sarah Kuta: 303-473-1106, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/sarahkuta ___
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