When they couldn’t find vocation stories for children, Father Jeffrey Kirby and Marguerite (Peggy) Wertz decided to write their own.
In 2010, they published Becoming Father Bob for boys, which quickly became a success.
But that was only the start.
This January, during Catholic Schools Week, they released their latest book, aimed at elementary and middle-school girls: Becoming Sister Mary Grace.
“Principal Peggy Wertz and I worked alongside a great illustrator and saw Becoming Sister Mary Grace come alive,” said Father Kirby, vicar of vocations for the Diocese of Charleston, S.C. Wertz is principal of St. Mary Help of Christians School in Aiken, S.C., where illustrator Alice Judd is an art teacher.
“We want this book to be attractive to young girls, as well as middle-school girls,” Wertz said, explaining how the cover pictures Claire, the focus of the story, with her little sister. (Claire also has three older brothers.)
The little sister is the cause of Claire’s excitement as the story opens. With their mother expecting a new baby, this is Claire’s chance to become a big sister.
“We felt all of the youngsters in the country would identify with becoming a big sister,” Wertz said. It was also a nice way to talk about perhaps becoming another kind of “sister” someday.
South Carolina Connections
Not to spoil the story, Claire grows up and is introduced to the possibility of a religious vocation.
“We took the vocation story of several religious sisters and merged them to tell this story of the young girl Claire,” Father Kirby explained, noting the stories have South Carolina connections.
So does Claire’s name. The French spelling is used because St. Claire’s Chapel is the name of the adoration chapel at St. Mary Help of Christians Church.
“The communities we chose were the communities in South Carolina who wear habits,” Wertz said. “That was intentional and not meant to exclude anyone, but to include the sisters in the Diocese of Charleston.” The illustrations present the different religious communities Claire considers.
The story also presents the sacraments.
In Becoming Father Bob, first Communion, confirmation and ordination are addressed. In Becoming Sister Mary Grace, baptism and the anointing of the sick, when Claire’s mother faces an operation, are discussed. (Confession and matrimony are waiting for the next book, as the authors intend the series to be a trilogy.)
“The illustrations are special because they provide a visual opportunity for parents and teachers to talk about sacraments,” Wertz noted.
In addition, as with the first book, which had a pet dog that trotted along from page to page, this book has an animal companion: a hummingbird.
Charleston’s Bishop Robert Guglielmone’s vocations story was the inspiration for Becoming Father Bob.
This time, the bishop’s homily about hummingbirds inspired the presence of hummingbirds in Becoming Sister Mary Grace. “That day at that homily I knew that hummingbirds and his homily were going to become part of this book,” Wertz said.
“He told a story of hummingbirds and the importance of helping one another,” added Father Kirby.
The homily is paraphrased in the book when one of the sisters, a mentor to Claire, talks about a homily that meant something to her.
Wertz also credits the Nashville Dominicans as a resource to her when she was trying to describe the postulant and novitiate stages in the text.
The book is dedicated to the girls who were part of the St. Cecilia Vocation Club at St. Mary Help of Christians School when the book was begun. Those girls are now juniors and seniors in high school, and most were present at the book launch this winter.
One of the girls in the original vocation club is Natalie Gorensek, a junior at Aquinas High School in Augusta, S.C.
“I was really excited when my mom told me they were writing the book,” she said. “I think it’s a beautiful book.”
She likes the story and is “excited for people to read it and see that being a sister is pretty cool and not out of the ordinary.”
“Everyone knows about marriage and priests,” she added, “but not everyone knows about nuns. So it’s important we have vocation clubs to get the word out that being a sister is interesting and cool. … Knowing other options (of vocations) is really helpful in spiritual development.”
Wertz noted that the discernment process for girls is somewhat different than for boys.
“For our situation and for many Catholic-school situations, the presence of religious sisters is very much lacking. Through the vocation club, I found that it was critical that we brought in sisters.”
Religious sisters come to visit the school often, talking to students and even playing volleyball with them at recess.
“We have to make an extra effort to expose young girls to the religious vocation for women,” Wertz said. “We are constantly bringing in sisters. And the girls have to see them as real people and (religious life as) a viable option.”
After one such visit by sisters at the school, a student told Wertz that she wanted to be a sister when she grew up.
The authors hope this book inspires others in their vocations as well.
As Father Kirby put it, “The purpose of the book is to tell the story of faith and one young girl’s journey to find her vocation — which should be a mark of our way of life as Christian believers.”
With that in mind, Sister Mary Grace has the potential of touching the hearts of many young girls.
Joseph Pronechen is the Register’s staff writer.
Becoming Sister Mary Grace is available through SignoPress.com.