By Maggie Downs
The Cincinnati Enquirer
CRESTVIEW HILLS - Maria Sally Willitzer, 23, found her home among sisters.
"They weren't the stereotype of people who sit around a pray all the time," said the Toledo resident, who has been with the nuns for two years. "They hung out together and had fun."
A spunky brunette in a blue jumper dress, white shirt and silver cross necklace, Willitzer doesn't look anything like the nuns in the movies.
"Some of my relatives thought I was crazy, because they know how hyper and wild and ornery I was as a child," she said. "But you need that kind of passion if you're going to help other people."
She was one of some 600 Sisters of Notre Dame who descended on Thomas More College Saturday for a regional conference, which continues today.
The sisters came from the four American provinces of their order - Covington, Chardon/Cleveland, Toledo and Thousand Oaks/Los Angeles.
Nationally, their group numbers nearly 1,000. Worldwide, there are 2,400 Sisters of Notre Dame in 16 countries.
Among attendees at this weekend's conference were nuns who represent the next generation of sisterhood - like Sister Cristina Marie Buczkowski, 42, of Long Beach, Calif. The former office manager for a chiropractor, now a novice sister, will take her vows in two weeks.
"The amount of peace, of freedom that I have - I've never been happier in my whole life," she said, smiling. "And now, to be around 500-something more sisters who all feel the same way - it's incredible."
The conference, "On Fire for Mission," is a chance for the sisters to reconnect with each other.
"Anytime we gather, there's that fire that happens," said Sister Michelle Kelly, 36, of Cleveland. "You need to have those opportunities to remember what your mission is and think about what you're doing. It gives you a chance to fall in love again."
Sister Louise Marie Hlavac, 46, found the gathering of sisters to be overwhelming. The Los Angeles nun recently transferred to the order from another, smaller, religious community.
"This (event) gives me a taste of what the larger community is like," she said. "Just having everyone around puts a zeal in me, like 'Let's go out and do this! We're on a mission from God!'"
The 153 members of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Covington are involved in various ministries around the Tristate - Notre Dame Academy, Bishop Brossart High School, Thomas More College, the Diocesan Catholic Children's home, St. Charles Care Center and many area parishes.
The mission work they do at home leads to complete satisfaction, said one Tristate nun.
"Why did I choose religious life? It's certainly not for the money," laughed Sister Judith Niewahner, 39, of Newport. "It's a fulfilling lifestyle for me to share my gifts and talents with people in my community."
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