Home » Features » JoAnn Gates, Susan Classen Make Vows to God and Loretto

JoAnn Gates, Susan Classen Make Vows to God and Loretto

Posted on December 1, 2017, by Eleanor Craig SL

Loretto Community members and guests honor, from left, Susan Classen and JoAnn Gates during their Nov. 4 vow celebration in the Loretto Motherhouse church.
(Photo by Peg Jacobs)

JoAnn Gates and Susan Classen celebrated their vows to God in the Loretto Community at Loretto Motherhouse Nov. 4. The celebration lasted all day, incorporating elements intimately warm and solemn, familiar and fresh. It was Loretto doing something entirely new, yet the whole day embodied a deep continuity with Charles Nerinckx’s open-ended mandate to Loretto to “provide any spiritual or corporal service that might be needed.”

Loretto President Pearl McGivney, at the lectern, invites JoAnn Gates and Susan Classen to become vowed members of the Loretto Community during the Nov. 4 vow celebration in the Motherhouse chapel.
(Photo by Peg Jacobs)

The day set aside for the vows dawned late, grey and chill — a typical early November day in Kentucky. At 9 a.m. we gathered in the Motherhouse church, a setting peopled with a festive mix of familiar and unfamiliar faces. Loretto members and friends walked about comfortably greeting one another and the celebrants: Susan Classen, co-member since 1997, whose presence with Loretto began with a retreat at Knobs Haven in 1988; and JoAnn Gates, co-member since 2000; JoAnn’s relationship with Loretto has been a lifelong family affair as she is a niece of Francis Louise Ritter.

On this day, Susan and JoAnn intended to affirm in public their vows to dedicate their life energies to God, committing themselves in love and service within the Loretto Community.

We were gathered into silence for each of three sessions by the sounding of a large crystal singing bowl. At the start of the first morning session, Cathy Mueller, a member of Loretto’s Committee on Emerging Forms of Membership, established the purpose and process of the day as an opportunity for each one present and for all of Loretto to explore and renew our personal commitment to the longing within us for the Divine.

Cathy invited us to consider ourselves as participants on a very long journey, beginning with humanity’s earliest “longing for something more.” This journey, she said, encompasses the birth pains of renewal which Loretto has been living for 50 years, a challenging new journey “in which the creative Holy Spirit is inviting us from the future … to take some steps and keep space open for what will evolve.” Cathy highlighted the opportunities that this day offered to all of Loretto: “Within the celebration of vows … each of us renews our own commitment, our response to that longing deep within us. This longing is a universal experience and at the same time is totally unique to each of us.”

Two morning sessions of reflection helped to prepare the way for the afternoon vow ceremony. For those of us who had made eight-day retreats in preparation for our vows, a full day of reflection seemed fitting. The sessions were full of fresh images and concepts that stretched beyond the familiar religious context. But it was a mentor, Elaine Prevallet, who facilitated our morning preparation. Elaine drew for Susan and JoAnn a context within which they articulated the meaning of their commitment with self-revealing depth and simplicity. The context may have surprised some, for Elaine spoke primarily about the chakra energy centers, a way of understanding human longing and energy which originates in Eastern thought. Elaine explained that the chakras and “energy work” have been part of Loretto workshops, retreats and individual experiences for many years, and that the chakras have proved valuable as a broader framework for understanding the balance of needs and wants addressed by the traditional religious vows.

Elaine introduced and characterized each of the first three chakras: the center of one’s security and rootedness, the center of one’s sensuality and connectivity, and the center of one’s identity and power. She said that each of these centers expresses a most basic aspect of life, akin to but much more inclusive than the aspects of life addressed by religious poverty, chastity and obedience. Following Elaine’s description of each chakra, JoAnn and Susan spoke, each illustrating ways she experiences in her daily life her energies flowing easily or being blocked depending on how she handles challenges to her sense of rootedness, connectivity and power. By committing to ongoing conversion of rootedness, connectivity and power, Susan and JoAnn seek to free their life energy from self-serving tendencies and place it consciously and lovingly in the service of God.

Discussion of the chakras helped clarify the content and function of the vows as Susan and JoAnn would state them. Other parts of the celebration, spread throughout three sessions, gave eloquent voice to the spirit of their vows and evoked the longing that animates the dedicated lives of all Loretto members. Through songs, prayers of the faithful, the lighting of candles and the intensity of silent reflections, we celebrated throughout the day the life energy and the deep desires flowing through the gathered community. With the afternoon session, this celebration of life reached a crescendo in a meditation on life’s great arc through evolution: “We, each of us here, connected to Loretto and connected through our shared 14-billion-years-old ancestry, still live inside the Big Bang. Energy is still expanding. The original flaring-forth continues as this moment … and now as this moment, it continues as every moment.”

Loretto President Pearl McGivney offered this invitation: “JoAnn and Susan, you have shared with us your experience of the energies of life, your longing for the face of God and your ongoing conversion to seeking a committed life. We are grateful that you each offer to us your life … to be lived within this Community of Loretto. Together with you, ‘forever we will proclaim the goodness of our God.’ We invite you to become vowed members of the Loretto Community.”

JoAnn and Susan stood before us and in simplicity committed their life’s energies, each in turn saying:

“Humanity, and Earth our home, are experiencing great suffering, largely due to human misuse of resources and energies intended for our common good. Believing that all life is an expression of the life energy of God, aware that my life is not given for me alone, and desiring to touch suffering with compassion and love, I freely and consciously place my life in the service of the One Life.

* Knowing our human need for security,
I vow ongoing conversion toward rootedness in God.

* Knowing our human longing for connection and generativity,
I vow ongoing conversion toward a living communion.

* Knowing our human propensity to control and dominate,
I vow ongoing conversion toward cooperation with all life.

I ask you, Loretto Community and friends, to gently hold me
accountable to these intentions.
May this offering of my heart, joined with the longings of all humanity,
serve our collective emergence into Divine Love.”

The gathered community responded with blessings, including a reading by six elders of a poem written for JoAnn and Susan by Cecily Jones, followed by a great Amen, much clapping and hugs all around.

A quixotic conclusion: Susan remarked in the morning that the chill grey day seemed a fit image for our time and place — Loretto in the fog of uncertainty about the future. Before the afternoon of vows was over, the sun had emerged in the on-again, off-again way of a November day in Kentucky. We set our clocks back that night, gaining an early hour of sunlight the next morning. Loretto life continues.

The videos of most of the day’s sessions are available now on the Loretto member website and will be available more broadly in time.

Above, from left, Mary Ken Lewis, Jean Kelley, Mary Peter Bruce and Angelus Caron, and below, from left, Rose Colley and Antoinette Doyle read a poem by Cecily Jones written earlier for JoAnn Gates and Susan Classen during the Nov. 4 vow celebration. (Photos by Peg Jacobs)


Eleanor Craig SL

Eleanor has been a Sister of Loretto since 1963 and an educator since birth. She graduated from two of Loretto's best known St. Louis institutions, Nerinx Hall High School in 1960, and Webster University in 1967. She taught mathematics at Loretto in Kansas City, where her personal passion for adventure history inspired her to develop and lead treks along the historic Oregon Trail. From 1998 to 2010 she created an award-winning program of outdoor adventure along the Western trails for teens who are visually impaired. Eleanor claims to have conducted more wagon trains to the West than the Mountain Men! From 2012 to 2021, Eleanor led a talented staff of archivists and preservationists at the Loretto Heritage Center on the grounds of the Motherhouse. She recently retired, but still serves in the Heritage Center as Loretto Community Historian.
Cupola Cross 2-Icon

Loretto welcomes you

Learn more or plan a visit to the Motherhouse!

Cupola Cross 2-Icon

Loretto welcomes you

Learn more or plan a visit to the Motherhouse!