Few young women choose their 21st birthday party to announce to family and friends that they have decided to move to the other side of the world to enter religious life.
But for those closest to Sesilia Taufa’ao, who did just that in April, the announcement did not come as a shock.
Rather, it confirmed what those present already knew about this special young woman: that she is a woman of immense faith, devoted to sharing that faith with others.
Sesilia is one of seven children born to Tongan migrants and was educated at Trinity Catholic College, Auburn. It was here, in 2011, that she first detected a call to religious life.
“Sr Mary Rachel OP would bring the postulants into our religion classes,” Sesilia told The Catholic Weekly.
“They would tell their stories and I would be so fascinated at how God works in people.
While she asked herself how God would work in her own life, she wasn’t yet ready for that answer to include religious life.
“I would sit in class and think how God would use me, and that brought up the thought of me being a nun,” she says.
“But then as a teenager, I wasn’t open and thought, ‘That life is not for me, thank you!’
“God always made a way to bring the vocation of religious life into my thoughts, especially through the Dominican Sisters, but I always left the thought and went on with life.”
Sesilia went on to study education at the University of Sydney, but “God was definitely patient and consistent”, she says.
Her call to religious life grew stronger, and more defined. She felt called to the Dominican Sisters of St Cecilia in Nashville, Tennessee. “I often get asked: Why the Dominicans? Why not the Dominicans here in Australia?
“God gave me many options to explore where He wanted me, but with the Dominican Sisters of St Cecilia, it was a home run.
“When discerning, I wasn’t so fussed about what orders there were, or what their apostolate was. I was definitely amazed to see the many different orders, their works and their passion in serving Christ.
“My focus was whether religious life was for me and in taking that step God allowed everything to fall into place.
“In choosing the Dominican Sisters, I feel like God handed me a platter with everything I needed and later noticed everything I wanted. When I look back on my journey I cannot express the love God has showered upon me.”
In January 2015, she visited the mother house in Nashville to see the order on a larger scale than its community at Regents Park.
“Visiting the States allowed me to be away from family and friends to discern and listen to my own thoughts and to listen to what Jesus wants.”
While Sesilia knew her knew her parents would be concerned about the distance, they were “so supportive of the vocation and of God’s will for me”.
Next came telling her siblings, her five nephews and three nieces.
“It was hard for me to tell my brothers and sister as they would always joke about it and tease me, so I never really felt like the support was there.” They, of course, surprised Sesilia with their support and encouragement.
“Telling them all individually and at different stages brought happy tears and sad tears that had marked memories that I will cherish forever.
“When telling them they would respond with words that melted my heart like, ‘if that’s what you want to do, follow your heart because we will support you all the way’.
“Another brother said, ‘Do it for yourself, not Mum and Dad or anyone else but yourself’.
“This last comment hit hard when one of my brothers said, ‘You know what, you’re not only going to be our sister but you’re going to be everyone else’s Sister’.
“God definitely comforted me with their words of love and support. From then on it was like God was bringing me closer to them as they (became) more aware and acknowledged the faith within their lives and paths.” A week before her 21st birthday, Sesilia received a call from the Dominican Sisters’ vocation director in Nashville congratulating her on her acceptance.
“It had brought me so much joy and happiness but mostly relief and comfort, to know that trusting in God isn’t easy but is always worthwhile,” she says. She decided to share the news with family and friends at her birthday party.
“Since high school friends and family would question, here and there, why I’m so into my faith, why I’m so ‘holy’, and they saw that I had this great relationship with the Dominican Sisters.”
Sesilia is now preparing to enter religious life, “constantly being with the Dominican Sisters here in Sydney and praying with them as well as getting familiar with the lifestyle on a smaller scale”.
She is continuing to juggle several roles with Sefton parish youth ministry, the Catholic Society of Sydney University, and Tongan Catholic Lataki, along with study and part-time work.
While her schedule is demanding, “it brought me closer to Christ as I knew I was entering [religious life], and everything that I would do before I entered would be for Christ and Christ alone”.
“As Sr Mary Rachel would say, ‘Do the best you can, with the time you have, for the love of God’.”
Sesilia named Sr Mary Rachel as the greatest influence on her vocation. The Dominican Sister started out as Sesilia’s religion teacher and went on to become a friend, a spiritual director, and now family.
“Some would say that she is my second mother,” Sesilia says.
“Sr Mary Rachel did not give up on me. Regardless of the choices in life I made she was always there to give me good advice in leading me closer to Christ and guiding me on the right path.
“In high school Sr Mary Rachel gave me many opportunities to deepen my faith and explore the different vocations.
“She also gave me courage to love and serve Christ in the ways that I can and not be afraid or embarrassed among my friends and students in high school.
“It opened up a fire within me to share Christ in the little and big ways among everyone, not caring what they would think but to leave them with a sense of ‘there is a God, and He is a God who loves them’.
“Sr Mary Rachel is a woman of faith, perseverance and trust in the Lord, who by her example and way of life, influenced me in wanting to go through with religious life.”
Sesilia says the Dominican Sisters allowed her to see the beauty of their vocation.
“I want that,” she says.
“I owe my vocation to Sr Mary Rachel, otherwise I would be partying it up in a bad way.”
Sesilia will enter the Dominican community as a postulant for a year, “learning the apostolate, spirituality and lifestyle of a Sister”.
“After nine months I will be able to have my home visit and, God-willing, will be back in Australia to visit.”
Sesilia led a group to WYD last month where she continued to pray for her vocation.