The large, eight-point Maltese cross Sister Stephania D’Souza used to wear no longer hangs around her neck. Its replacement is a much smaller pendant that, with her black-and-white habit, continues to identify her as a nun.

The change symbolizes a permissible, but rare, switch within the Roman Catholic Church.

D’Souza — who spent decades with the Daughters of the Sacred Heart in her native India — has transferred to a new religious order, the Marianites of Holy Cross. That order maintains the Our Lady of Prompt Succor nursing home and the C’est La Vie Independent Living Center in Opelousas.

“Canon law” — the internal law of the Catholic Church — “allows it,” D’Souza, 60, said during a break from her work at the nursing home. “It doesn’t happen very often. You have to offer reasons to the congregation you’re leaving and the congregation you’re planning to join.”

“Congregation” is her word for religious order, an organization that unites women or men under a shared purpose and rules within the larger church.

The tasks in her old and new orders couldn’t be more different. In D’Souza’s earlier life, she was a teacher and a mentor to younger sisters. At one point, she was an elected provincial — a leader — of the Province of India of the Daughters of the Sacred Heart.

That order operates in India, Malta and other countries. That’s one reason it assigned her and three other sisters to open a new convent in Dallas, Texas, a few years ago. D’Souza already spoke four languages before she learned English, but despite her efforts and enthusiasm, the convent did not last.

The other three sisters returned to India. D’Souza received permission to take a sabbatical in Dallas. During that spell of spiritual renewal, she visited the Prompt Succor facility and the Marianite sisters in Opelousas — not only those who help to run the nursing and assisted living homes, but the 18 retired sisters who live there.

Something about the people and the place grabbed hold of her, she said. “I became fascinated with the Marianites of Holy Cross.

“I fell in love with these nuns,” D’Souza said. Whereas her perspective became clearer with additional visits to Prompt Succor, her energetic spirit grew restless.

“I am a doer,” she said. “I can’t stay still.”

The Opelousas sisters noticed that, too. Eventually, they asked her to stay on and work alongside her. That was in 2011.

“I had never worked with elderly people,” D’Souza admitted.

But she found that the work suited her. Eventually, she became assistant activity director — a bustling, smiling presence in the broad corridors of her new home, where she greets the occupants by name.

Soon she began to ask whether she might be able to join the order that operates the facility. There was canon law to study, and she did that with a single question in mind: “May I be a part of this group?”

In September the process ended with a song- and scripture-filled Mass in Our Lady of Prompt Succor’s sunlit chapel. During the ceremony, other Marianites renewed their vows as D’Souza took hers with the order for the first time — committing to poverty, celibacy and obedience.


Information from: The Daily World,