If there is a typical path to answering the call to religious life, Visitation Sister Marie Augustine Hutton didn’t take it.
Sister Marie Augustine professed solemn vows with the Visitation Sisters at the Monastery of the Visitation of Holy Mary in Rockville, Tuesday, May 8. How the 50-year-old native of Greenback, Tennessee, arrived at that commitment is reminiscent of the conversion undergone by the saint whose name she bears.
“I started out as Southern Baptist — a very Calvinist version of Southern Baptists,” the self-described “free spirit” told The Catholic Virginian, Thursday, April 26. “At 16, I came to conclusion that Calvinism was evil. I had this completely false image of God. I believe I hated God.”
She turned away from the God the Calvinists were preaching — a God, in her words, “who arbitrarily decides who will be saved and who will be damned.”
“I rebelled in a big way,” Sister Marie Augustine said with the laugh. When she went to the University of Tennessee in 1985 to major in history, Sister Marie Augustine began her “years of being an atheist.”
Searching for truth
Her studies took her to Italy. As she learned history, she also learned where the truth could be found.
“One night I happened upon the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Milan — one of the most beautiful churches in the world,” she said. “I looked at it and had this conviction that anything, any set of ideas, that inspired the building of something that beautiful had to be true.” What followed was not elation or contentment that comes when discovering that for which one is searching. Instead, she was angry.
“Searching for the truth was always important to me,” Sister Marie Augustine said. “I didn’t want that (Catholicism) to be the truth at that time. … I wasn’t going to look in the Catholic direction.”
Her exploration took her to the Episcopalian Church and into paganism — “I had a different philosophy ever six months,” she said — but did not find the truth she was seeking.
Her close friend who had also been raised Southern Baptist discovered St. Augustine and Catholicism. But the future nun “wasn’t interested in the theology of the Catholic Church.”
Her friend would not relent.
“She was determined she was going to share it with me whether I wanted it or not. She kept feeding it to me,” Sister Marie Augustine said.
Exploration of the Episcopal Church continued, including what it believed about communion, which she saw as arbitrary — “We’re in communion with someone because we said we were,” was her recollection of it.
Sister Marie Augustine started reading Catholic theology, in particular the doctrine of the Real Presence.
“Once I understood the Real Presence, all of a sudden everything about Catholicism made sense,” she said. “I was 32 at this time when I came into the Church.”
What sparked Sister Marie Augustine’s interest in religious life — something “which I knew nothing about,” she said — was celibacy.
“I thought, ‘I can’t believe people live this way.’ I thought about it for a while and said, ‘I want to live that way.’ It’s the most freeing thing in the world,” she recalled.
At 35, she entered a religious order, but she and the community parted ways.
“It was the wrong time, wrong place,” Sister Marie Augustine said. “God had a lot more work to do on me before I was ready.”
For the next six years, she helped a friend with health problems by home schooling her children and caring for her. She called that time “my real conversion.”
“This brought me to an understanding of the love of God,” Sister Marie Augustine said. “Truth and beauty were wonderful, but the essential thing was love.”
When her friend died in 2010 at the age of 45, she was willing to continue to take care of the children, but the woman’s husband declined the offer.
“Everything I was close to was out of my life. I no longer had a place to live,” Sister Marie Augustine said. “I was completely free and began looking into my vocation.”
Finding a good fit
Throughout her life, she had “worked in a lot of different jobs,” i.e., working with the elderly, doing some accounting, working in a bookstore, and writing, including as a columnist for the East Tennessee Catholic. And even though it took her nine years to earn her undergraduate degree, she thought her calling might be in academia — to the point where she completed the application for admission to Yale. She also earned an associate’s degree in electronics because “I did whatever interested me during the first part of my life,” she said.
At the recommendation of a priest, Sister Marie Augustine visited the Visitation Sisters and found it a good fit, even though her personality and that of the Visitation Sisters might not have appeared to be in sync.
“I’m not a naturally humble and gentle human being,” she said. “But that is what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a humble, hidden person — a person more of love.”
That hiddenness, she said, is what St. Francis de Sales intended when he and St. Jane de Chantal founded the order in 1610.
“He wanted a group of sisters that wouldn’t make noise in the world; he wanted us to live for God alone,” Sister Marie Augustine said of the community’s contemplative, cloistered life.
Another thing attracted her to the Visitations.
“St. Francis de Sales did not want us to take the typical 18-year-old vocation, but to take older women, even those with health problems, to provide a place for people no one else would take,” she said.
Sister Marie Augustine entered the community in June 2012. She was a pre-postulant for three months and a postulant for a little more than six months. Postulancy is a time for acquainting oneself with religious life. In 2013 she became a novice and received the religious habit. Two years later, she professed her first vows and received her religious name.
Sister Marie Augustine spoke of the contentment she is experiencing in religious life.
“I hope people will understand how good, how loving God is, how good he has been to me, how he has given me such joy,” she said. “I want people to see the way God has changed people, the good that God can do in their lives. You can never give up on anybody.”