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Clergy's Got Talent Funds Meris' Journey to Convent

Meris Chaumont sips a tall iced chai latte at her local Starbucks. She wears a grey dress, a pink scarf looped around her neck and silver glitter canvas shoes. Visiting Starbucks is one of her favorite things, but she’s about to give up spur-of-the-moment trips to the coffee house and glitter accessories – along with all of her worldly possessions – to join the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, a teaching order in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Chaumont, who earned a bachelor’s in theology from the University of St. Thomas in 2008 and graduated from UST’s GRACE program with a Master of Education in 2010, has been working as a Catholic school teacher for three years.

Debt and a Dowry
As part of the condition for joining the convent, Chaumont must pay all of her debts, including student loans. She will also bring a $2,000 dowry to pay for her books, habit and support during the first three years at the convent.

Chaumont hopes to raise $10,000 to pay off a portion of her student loans during a priest talent show called “Clergy’s Got Talent” at 7 p.m. on June 17 at St. Theresa Catholic Church, 6622 Haskell St. The requested donation is $50 per ticket and can be purchased online.

Most of the priests who are performing are personal friends of Chaumont from schools and churches where she has worked. Some of the acts and video submissions include dance numbers, skits, piano, singing and perhaps a stand-up comedy routine. There will also be Native American flute playing.

“Priests are normal people; they just have extraordinary jobs to do,” she said. “So, I guess they might get to see the priests in a more ordinary way.”

Guests will enjoy jambalaya cooked by Chaumont’s parents, and there will be a silent auction of her personal belongings. The items for sale will include art, both purchased and made by her; a new 27-inch flat-screen television; a Play Station 3; an extensive DVD collection and more. “Gotta sell my stuff! Poverty, yo!’” she wrote on her blog, Meris Wants to Be  A Nun.

There is also a list of 150 items Chaumont is required to bring with her when she arrives in August, many of which can be pricey.

“You need snow boots that are $150,” she said. “I have created a wishlist and, and some friends are throwing me a bridal shower.”

Years of Discernment
Chaumont said she’s known she wanted to join the religious life since she was 10 years old.

“I told my mom I wanted to be a priest,” she said. “But then I was properly catechized and realized that would never be possible.” So now she has lots of priest friends. “I’ve always had a special respect for people who are religious. I think their lifestyle is really glamorous in a strange sort of way. Poverty, chastity and obedience -- I think it’s very beautiful.”

The Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist are an apostolic order of sisters – non-cloistered religious women are called sisters, while only cloistered women are called nuns. They are an order of preachers, following St. Dominic. They focus on contemplation and giving the fruits of their contemplation to others through teaching.

At 25, Chaumont is one of 20 young women from around the country entering the convent in August, ranging in age from 17 to 30. The order was recently featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show because it is expanding rapidly with many new aspirants each year. The average age of the women who enter is 21, and the average age of each sister is 26.

Meris said she was attracted to the joy of the sisters she has met. “You can see their joy,” Chaumont said. “They say that what we’re doing is not tangible, but I think that their joy is something you can see. It’s alluring.”

“Ultimately, it is a process of discernment,” she said. “It’s an eight-year process of praying and thinking and asking God if this is what you should be doing.”

One of Chaumont’s role models while at UST was Sister Clare Hunter, a Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist, who served as Director of Campus Ministry and recruited her to attend the University.

Sister Clare said Chaumont has a love for God and energy for spreading the life of Christ and the teaching of the Church.

“I think Meris has a tremendous capacity to love, to love deeply and to love many people,” she said.  “I think that’s a quality that’s needed. She’s very creative and very desirous of wanting others to grow in Christ.”

Sister Clare, who is now the director of the Respect Life Office at the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, agreed that joining a religious community takes years of discernment. She said while a young woman announces that she is joining a community, postulancy is only a first phase.

“It’s really like dating,” she said. “It’s like sending out a wedding announcement on her first date.”

Sister Clare said she has known Chaumont since she was 16, and it gives her a lot of joy that she is exploring the religious life.

“Taking this initial step can seem so frightening for people,” she said. “It really becomes a wonderful opportunity to opening the door to the mystery of what God’s call for us is.”

“I’ve always been a fan of Meris, and I continue to pray for her,” she said. “I, myself, am anxious to see what God has in store for her.

Life in the Convent
Chaumont’s first year of discernment at the motherhouse includes six months as an aspirant and six months as a postulant, living, praying, eating and studying with the sisters.

Chaumont will sew her aspirant clothes from a pattern the sisters mailed. The clothing  consists of two navy blue skirts, two navy blue vests and four aprons, with the blue symbolizing Mary.  She will wear the skirts and vests with Oxford-style white shirts and black shoes. “Go for comfort, not style,” the sisters suggest.

Chaumont describes shopping for shoes for the convent on her blog.

“I’ve asked the sales associate who offers to assist me if they have any ‘nun shoes.’” she wrote. “I normally get a blank stare, and then I clarify, ‘You know, nun shoes -- black, ugly, like something my grandma might wear?’ Then they know what I’m talking about – sorta.”

After a year at the convent, she will become a novice for two years, and wear a habit that includes a white veil, which she will also sew. The white habit signifies a wedding dress, as she will eventually be a bride of Christ. She will take a new name, decided by the mother superior. Two years later, she will wear a black veil and make her first temporary vows, which can be renewed three years later. Then she can take her final vows, celebrated with a wedding cake.

Chaumont as a Teacher
After three years with the Dominican Sisters, Chaumont will get a job, likely as a teacher, and all of her income will go to the order. One of the reasons she was attracted to the community is because it is a teaching order. 

Chaumont first started teaching through UST’s GRACE program, one of 15 similar programs in a nationwide initiative to support Catholic schools. GRACE cohort members complete a master’s degree while living in community and teaching in a Catholic school.

“I think it really confirmed my call to be a teacher,” she said about the program. “I love living in community, that’s one of the pillars of the GRACE program. It also focuses on growing spiritually and professional development.”

Meris taught for two years at Queen of Peace Catholic School, and after graduating from the GRACE program, worked for a year at St. Theresa Catholic School in Memorial Park, where she taught kindergarten through 4th grade religion. “I loved working there, she said. “The children were just so open to receiving Jesus and learning about their faith. I was able to take some of them to adoration, literally bring them to Jesus.”

The Vow of Poverty
When she becomes a sister, Chaumont will take a vow of poverty. She said she has already started giving up her belongings.

“I’m slowly detaching myself from the things of the world,” she said. “Somebody told me I had nice earrings the other day, and I took them out of my ears, and handed them to them.”

While leaving everything behind would be difficult for some people, Chaumont said giving up her possessions is extremely freeing. “There’s a thrill, she said. “There’s a certain amount of freedom that comes with getting rid of everything I own. It’s exciting.”

To raise money for her debt, Chaumont will also have an estate sale later this summer to sell her personal belongings.

Saying Goodbye
Although she romanticizes the religious life, not everything about saying goodbye to her old life is easy for Chaumont.  Her younger sister Alida is getting married in January, a few months after Chaumont enters the convent.

“I don’t get to go,” she said, and her eyes start welling up. When asked why she doesn’t wait a year before joining the convent, Chaumont said, “Even if my heart wants to be here, I would be unhappy waiting a year. God’s timing is perfect.”  

Chaumont said she is glad to have the support of her family and friends. While she will miss going to Starbucks, Facebook, traveling, going to the movies and the color hot pink, she said she is looking forward to the adventure with the other aspirants and finding fulfillment with her new Dominican family.

“You’re dying to your own will and giving in to someone else’s will – the will of God,” she said. “I’m still going to be Meris until I become Sister Someone Else. Soon it won’t be about me, it will be about something bigger than that.”