APPLETON — When Sr. Therese Izzo Nemec professed vows as A New Genesis sister on June 10, they were the standard vows: poverty, obedience and celibacy.
However, as a cancer survivor, Sr. Therese has found new meaning to those vows.
It was fall 2017 and Sr. Therese — who works as director of Instructional Excellence at Fox Valley Technical College (FVTC) in Appleton — was completing her dissertation for her doctorate in education administration and leadership from Marian University in Fond du Lac. She was ready to defend that dissertation in November. Then came the diagnosis of Stage 3 ovarian cancer.
She moved up her doctoral defense to the end of October and had surgery the next day. A long recovery followed, including six courses of chemotherapy. She didn’t return to work until May of 2018.
In the experience of cancer, she found many challenges, but also moments of grace.
“No, (cancer) is not a blessing,” Sr. Therese told The Compass, “but now I can look back and see blessings in it.”
Those blessings include a whole new understanding of her religious vows.
“Poverty of money is something I had experienced to a slight degree,” Sr. Therese said, pointing to events in her life, such as divorce and being a single mother. “I struggled a little bit,” she said, adding that it was “not abject poverty” such as she has seen in her work with some students at FVTC. However, money is not the only poverty.
“Poverty of health,” she said, both of herself and about others she met in cancer treatment. “That’s abject poverty. So I feel I learned the meaning of poverty on a whole new level.”
“I tend not to be super obedient to doctors and such,” Sr. Therese admitted. They told her to stay home, but she thought: “No, I can work, I can do anything.”
“I got to the point where I could not do anything,” she said. “I had to listen to the doctor. My blood counts, white and red, were so low that I ended up in the hospital during each of my last four treatments getting blood transfusions. I could not be in public, because I had no immunity. … So I learned obedience and I had to listen. And then, I became completely reliant on God.”
Sr. Therese notes that, in vowed life, celibacy means “to love everyone and to be inclusive.” Her illness added dimensions to that, too.
“Again, I could not see people; I was completely isolated,” she said about chemotherapy. “And again (I) had to completely rely on God. … So I often would be home praying for people and sending notes to people. I received over 400 cards, tons and tons of flowers, hundreds of meals. It was amazing. I would write to all these people and tell them how much it meant to me. That was my experience of celibacy.”
So cancer, while a frightful experience, somehow also became a path to God.
“I found a whole new meaning to the vows,” Sr. Therese said. “They would have had a different meaning to me if I had not had that experience. (The vows) are (always) meaningful, but there is a depth there now that I think I would have missed.”
Professing her vows fulfilled a vocation path that started in high school at Niagara, Wis. Its first nudge came while growing up in St. Anthony Parish and having two aunts in religious life. However, Sr. Therese chose instead to get her degree in education from Mount Mary College in Milwaukee and start a career. Marriage followed, and then her son, Joe. Then came divorce and single parenthood.
The call to religious life persisted, but, as she grew older, she thought that no community would want to take her.
‘It’s too late’
One Sunday her pastor, Fr. Jim Lucas of St. Thomas More Parish in Appleton, spoke at Mass about vocations. “If you feel called,” she remembers him saying, “talk to somebody.”
His words saddened her.
“I remember sitting in the pew and thinking, ‘It’s too late for me, Father. I feel called, but it’s too late,’” she said.
However, a friend soon told her about Sr. Mary Peters, who had been married and widowed. Sr. Mary had entered A New Genesis in 2011. A New Genesis is a public association of the faithful, based in the Green Bay Diocese. That changed everything and Sr. Therese entered the community in 2014.
Now she wants to tell other women about A New Genesis, women who may be older, widowed or divorced. The community of 28 members also accepts married and non-vowed women as equal partners in its ministry and leadership.
Five years ago, when she entered formation, Sr. Therese’s plans for ministry were focused on social justice — a central area for many New Genesis members. That focus continues for Sr. Therese, but with a unique angle. Now she wants to organize and lead retreats for “women who are either struggling with cancer or who have gone through cancer treatments to try to find peace.”
“For years after diagnosis and treatment,” she said, “with every (medical) test, there is anxiety: ‘What are they going to find?’” She wants to help ease that anxiety.
Fund to help women
Sr. Therese plans to start a fund to help women get tested for BRCA1 or BRCA 2, a hereditary gene mutation that can lead to breast and/or ovarian cancer. While Sr. Therese had health insurance that allowed her to be tested — she found she has the gene and will undergo a double mastectomy later this year — not all women have that coverage.
She credits her son, Joe, with the fund-raising idea. Joe — who bought the ring his mother now wears in religious life — had already started checking with companies that do tests “to see what kind of deals are out there” when he suggested this to his mother.
Her job at FVTC will play in as well. “I teach grant writing,” she said, “so I can write grants and do fund-raising” for these tests.
Sr. Therese also intends to stay at her job at the college.
“I love it,” she said. “It’s so wonderful; I can hardly wait to come to work every day.” And it gives her an opportunity to minister in the secular world.
Plans for ministry
Fr. Dan Felton, diocesan vicar general, recently asked about her plans for ministry and she told him about the retreats and the genetic testing. However, she also told him how she ministers where she works.
“I said, ‘I know I work in a secular organization, but I believe I’m doing ministry there every day. I do reach out to people: I listen; I try to be supportive if I notice somebody is struggling — students, coworkers,” Sr. Therese said. “I do what I can. I am one of the founders and leaders on our ‘Seeds of Hope Fund’ which helps students with emergency needs. I feel like I’m doing ministry every day, even if I am in a secular situation.”
Despite the challenges she’s faced on her path to religious vows, Sr. Therese said that taking those vows has given her a deep sense of peace and security. It’s a sense she wants to share with others, especially those who are poor and/or sick.
“I feel so sad for those people who have not had all those,” she said, speaking of insurance, medical leave and even the care of a support network. “And if there is something I can do to help them deal with it going forward, then I want to do that.”