In the three years Oleander has been there, many have asked us, "What exactly is this aspirancy/school she is attending?" In researching what an "aspirancy" actually is, I've found many different definitions depending on the vocation and the order. In general, it is a period of discernment prior to making any sort of vows, and for convents this means a period of living in the convent before actually becoming a postulant. For the school Ollie attends, the aspirancy is a program designed for spiritual formation and discernment for high school aged girls that feel a call to the religious life. This formation is provided alongside a regular high school academic curriculum. This seems very counter cultural, and is often met with skepticism when we try to explain her experience.
To set the record straight, Ollie was not recruited by the SSVM (Sister Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará) to attend this school. We have family friends, whose son attends a minor seminary school run by the IVE, brother order to the SSVM. He encouraged Ollie to pursue finding a similar type of school. Why would he encourage our daughter to pursue this avenue, one might ask? Since she was very little, our Oleander has ALWAYS wanted to be a nun. At first we thought this was typical catholic girl childhood dreaming, but over the years this desire persisted and became more evident in the way she pursued personal holiness. As Ollie researched, the only SSVM aspirancies she could find were in foreign countries, and there was no way we would have sent her so far from home. She did not give up, and soon heard the SSVM was planning to open a school in Pennsylvania--only 2 hours from our home at the time. We were still very hesitant to send our daughter away. Knowing she was more of the shy-shrinking-violet type, we told her that if this was what she really desired, she would have to make it happen. You might imagine our surprise, when by her own devices, she obtained the name and phone number of the sister that was working on getting the US aspirancy up and running. Not only did our daughter obtain the information on her own, she put her information to work, contacted M. Ephesus and got the ball rolling for her application. As it became more clear Ollie was indeed serious about becoming an aspirant, we began researching and asking our own questions. We would not go about this blindly. We established and have maintained a very active and informed role in Ollie's life as an aspirant. The SSVM would not have it any other way, as they adhere to Church teaching regarding parents as the first and primary teachers when it comes to the spiritual formation and education of their children.
Of great importance to Wingnut and I was the continued academic progress and achievement of Ollie while living in a house of formation. The aspirancy's mistress of studies is a certified teacher and SSVM sister that oversees the girl' academic studies. The girls are all enrolled in PA Cyber school and take live cyber classes alongside several self paced classes provided by the state of Pennsylvania. The classes are academically rigorous, follow the state educational guidelines for high school academics, and are designed to give the girls an education geared toward further education; yes, even college if they so desire. Wingnut and I have access to all class material, teachers, and grades as desired and we have been consistently consulted about our desires for Ollie's continued education. We are confident Oleander is receiving a first rate education, very similar to what we would have had her study at home.
Not only does our aspirant receive wonderful spiritual formation and academic instruction, she has had some of the most wonderful opportunities for travel and experiences we certainly could not have provided for her ourselves. The aspirants frequently travel to convents and missions within the order throughout the United States. They have traveled several times to the SSVM's cloistered convent in New York. How many of us have been inside a cloister and gotten to know what life is like there? They have enjoyed Ignatian spiritual exercises, retreats, mission work, hiking, camping, boating, biking, swimming, etc. The girls do regular work with their local parish, including assisting with CCD classes. And in the end, when Ollie graduates, the decision to pursue the religious life or not will still be hers to make. No expectations and no strings attached, but with a much clearer idea of what the life of a religious might be like.
The question has been asked, "Are the girls brainwashed or coerced to stay?" The evidence suggests otherwise. Ollie is asked on a regular basis by her spiritual director, M. Ephesus, and us if she is happy where she is; is she homesick; is this where she feels she needs to be. Her answer is always yes to all three--yes she does get homesick, but she also gets homesick for the aspirancy when she is home with us. In the three years, since the school opened, several different girls have enrolled and a few have stayed and a few have returned home at their own choosing. If at any time Ollie felt this was not where God wanted her, I know she would be encouraged to come home without question.
Counter cultural? You bet. The right choice for every girl dreaming to be a nun? Absolutely not. The right choice for our girl? Amen!