Last summer, Eugena Jacob tried something new: sitting in front of a stranger, and learning about her life.
She’d spent the week in a week in an Everyday Boston workshop, learning the mechanics of interviewing, from close listening to asking effective questions. So on this, the last day, Eugena, a 7th grade student at Saint John Paul II Catholic Academy in Lower Mills, Dorchester, was prepared.
She introduced herself to Sister Bárbara Gutiérrez, Director of Enrollment and Marketing for the Archdiocese of Boston’s Catholic Schools Office, her partner for the next half hour. She showed Sister Bárbara the questions she’d drafted—three things she really wanted to know about someone else’s life. Then, when the answers came, Eugena followed her curiosity down the road of Sister Bárbara’s life.
Here’s how it went, with Eugena’s questions in bold:
How was your life growing up?
My childhood was beautiful. I’m one of six children and I have very loving parents. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we never lacked the essentials and we never lacked love. I think that’s the origin of, I tend to be a very positive person.
Is there a time when your parents didn’t accept you for who you are?
I don’t think so. My parents were very accepting. But when I told my family I was going to enter the Congregation of Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, they were very surprised. My mother said, “Well, if that’s what God wants for you, what are we going to do?” But I don’t think they really understood.
They have this stereotype—you were talking about stereotypes during this week, right?—I don’t know what your stereotype of a religious sister is, but they had this stereotype that I was going to be inside a convent for the rest of my life. And although it’s true, there are congregations who are cloistered, and there’s a lot of value in their prayer, the congregation I joined is apostolic, so we work outside, with the people. And they didn’t understand that.
So it’s not that they did not accept it, but they were not really supportive at the beginning.
Do you know why they weren’t supportive?
My dad and I were very close, and he said to me that he was afraid that he wasn’t going to see me anymore. And my mother—I think there’s something in every mother that they want to see grandchildren. So my mom had this idea that that’s what I should be doing.
But the other thing that happened with my mother is, I was, you know, what people call “successful.” I had a good job. I was able to travel. And she was really worried that I was throwing away the fruit of my hard work. She was really worried that I will never use my critical thinking, or traveling, or my professional skills—that I will never use them again. That has not been the case. But she was very afraid of that.
When you were younger, did you think about being a sister?
What did you want to be?
When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a flight attendant. And then I wanted to be a Marine biologist, and I did. Then I had the opportunity to work for the Central Bank, and I ended up doing business consulting. And then human resources. So I was really open.
I really believe that if people prepare themselves, and they work hard, we are able to embrace new opportunities that come. As long as we feel passionate about it, things happen. So the same happened when I felt the call to religious life.
Why did you choose to become a sister?
I know this is going to sound bad, but I just felt called to do it. So there was a day when I was actually moving—I was working in a company, I had just taken a new job in Boston—and while I was packing, I got the call that maybe I could be a sister. And then it took me a few years decide to do so, because I will always be between “yes, I’m gonna do it”, “no, I can’t do it.”
So it’s something that arises in your heart. And I think the key for me is that I listened.
Do you like being a nun?
Yes, I do. Very much.
I believe in God, obviously, right? I’m deeply in love with the teaching of Jesus, and what does this teaching call us to do, which is to love others, to be kind to others. The Catholic Church has this Catholic Social Teaching, which is a powerful call to bring justice and respect the dignity of the people. And I just embrace that, so I’m happy to be working for that all the time. So that’s one of the things I like about being a nun.
The other one is that because I’m a religious sister, I can talk about God without apologizing. You know, sometimes you talk about God and people say, “Oh, what is she talking? Why is she talking about God?” But because I’m a sister, if I talk about God, then it’s okay, right?
I like the fact that people ask me questions about God and I can answer, and I might accompany people in a spiritual journey.
And just the fact that I’m a sister. So I know I’m going to spend the rest of my life working for the mission of my congregation, and I have the support of all the sisters, and I don’t have to worry. I can dedicate myself entirely.
Was there a time when you wanted to give up on what you’re doing?
No. But there are times when I feel frustrated. I feel frustrated when people say that we shouldn’t be receiving immigrants or refugees. I mean, if we see the images on TV of what is happening in Syria—I don’t know if you’ve seen, but there’s no houses standing anymore. How can we tell those children, “No, sorry, we can’t open the door to you?”
So it’s not that I want to give up, but I feel powerless. How can I convince more people that we have to open the door—especially to children? How can I bring a message to people that we have to work for each other? We have to be generous with others?
When was the happiest time in your life?
I’ve had many happy times because I tend to be very positive. But last April, I professed my perpetual vows. You know, you have formation, and then you’re a sister kind of temporary, but then you become a permanent sister, right? So I professed my final vows. And I was really happy that day.
I was very happy recently with one of the students from a high school in Lawrence where I worked. She’s an immigrant and she’s the first one in her family to go to college, and she graduated recently, so I was very happy about it.
Now this is not…this might not make a lot of sense. But my father died 18 months ago, and I spent the last three weeks of life with him, tending to him. He was very sick. And after he died, with the sad and sorry that comes with it, comes this joy that I was able to be with him in his last weeks—that I was able to show my love to him. That I was able to make him feel more comfortable. So there’s a lot of joy in that, and I’m happy and grateful that I could do that.
So I think I find happiness in many things.
Eugena Jacob is the first young person to contribute a story to Everyday Boston. In case you’d like to know more about her, Eugena lives in Randolph. She enjoys hanging out with her family and friends. Her favorite hobbies include listening to music and dancing. She also loves to watch TV- especially the Food Network.
Eugena’s interview was transcribed by Ray Mandelbaum, a Northeastern University student, and edited for length, clarity, and flow by Cara Solomon, founder of Everyday Boston, who wrote the intro and took the photograph of Sister Bárbara at her home.