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Church was the last thing on Sharon Heidland’s mind when she entered college in the fall of 1994. Now Sister Miriam James, she reflects on her transformation.
BY Trent Beattie
SEATTLE — Church was the last thing on Sharon Heidland’s mind when she entered college in the fall of 1994. Having received a full volleyball scholarship to the University of Nevada-Reno, she was living 800 miles away from home and pursuing her own path toward what she thought would bring happiness.
“My goal entering college was to succeed at sports and build skills for a successful career,” she explained. “I wanted to be either a businesswoman or a journalist. Above all, I wanted to do something great with my life, something extraordinary. I thought ultimate happiness would be wealth, prestige, glamour and power.”
With her parents no longer telling her what to do, Sharon stopped attending Mass, never went to confession, and was certainly not going to be found at any prayer meetings. Instead, worldly pursuits consumed her time. In addition to her scholarship, she had a boyfriend on the football team and a schedule full of parties. She was free to do as she pleased, which was supposed to bring her happiness.
Yet instead of being filled with happiness, she was empty. “After getting a taste of having everything the world says you should have to be happy, but finding my heart utterly empty, I began to deeply yearn for something more. The partying, boyfriends, school and sports didn’t fill me. When I was truly honest with myself, I had to admit that I was shattered within.”
It was the spring of her freshman year in college when she had this awakening. “I realized that when I died, God wasn’t going to ask me if my mom and dad went to church on Sunday. He would ask me, ‘What did you do with your life?’” This sobering thought led her on a slow journey back into the Church.
During this journey, Sharon met a priest from the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT). “As my heart began to awaken and my desires for something more began to grow, I met a priest from our religious community,” she related. “I was suffering immensely from the weight of sin and bad decisions and this priest knew that, but he never shamed me. He inspired me to grow by the example of his life — a life of true and authentic love of God.”
During her final three years of college, she started attending Mass sporadically, then every Sunday, and finally came to do so daily. “When I was a senior in college, my mother made a decision to entrust me and my life to the Blessed Virgin,” she said. “My mom literally got down on her knees and gave me away to Our Lady: She told Our Lady that I was her daughter now and to protect me and keep me safe.
“My mother also began to pray at that moment, completely unknown to me, that I would become a nun — and here I am. So yes, the prayers of my mother and father are the reason why I am a nun today. I believe in the power of prayer and am a living fruit of its efficacy.”
After graduating with a degree in communications, Sharon was invited to a SOLT retreat in New Mexico, where she discovered her call to the religious life. “I desired a life committed to Christ: daily Mass, daily Rosary, Liturgy of the Hours, daily Holy Hour, faithful to the magisterium of the Church etc. And I found that with SOLT.”
What she also found with SOLT was a unique model of “family teams” (also referred to as “ecclesial teams”) of priests, sisters and laity. “We have all three vocations in our community, and I love the witness of that reality. I also chose SOLT because I recognized that this community is committed to authentic discipleship of Jesus through Mary.”
Sharon became Sister Miriam James. “My father passed away unexpectedly while I was still a novice, and on my profession day, our founder, Father James Flanagan, gave me the religious name of Miriam James — Miriam, after our Blessed Mother, and James, after my father. To hear that proclamation at my profession Mass was one of the most touching experiences of my life.”
Sister Miriam spent formation time in such diverse locations as Rome, New Mexico and North Dakota. She then made her final vows at St. Alphonsus Parish in Seattle on the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 2007. Her main work in Seattle is the direction of apostolic novices (women in their first year of novitiate). During the last six years, she has helped to guide 17 women through the formation program.
She also has the opportunity to utilize her communications skills by co-hosting the radio program “Sisters in Christ” on Sacred Heart Radio in Seattle. Episodes of this informative and engaging show can be heard at SacredHeartRadio.org on Thursdays at 6pm and on Sundays at 8am, Pacific Time.
A New Family
Aside from radio appearances and other speaking events, Sister Miriam has the daily opportunity to share the Gospel without saying a word. This is because the SOLT sisters wear a distinctive gray and white habit, which St. Alphonsus parishioner Lillian Yamamoto appreciates. “It’s great to see the SOLT sisters in their habits; they’re so joyful and are an authentic witness to God,” she stated. “It’s a great example for the children who haven’t ever seen nuns in habits.”
“Wearing a habit is a deep honor for me,” Sister Miriam said. “When I wear a habit, I become a visible representative of the Catholic Church and a sign that God is alive and well. The habit is a sign to the world and a sign to me as well.”
It’s a sign that most people appreciate, but not all.
“Many people stop me on the street and ask questions, express gratitude or even become disgruntled when they see me. It’s a sign that goes far beyond me personally, and I have to remember that. Wearing a habit is a witness of the love and mercy of God and it brings hope and comfort to many.”
The visible presence of the sisters is appreciated by the administrator of St. Alphonsus, SOLT Father Danilo Abalon. “The family of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity is a congregation of priests, sisters and laity, including married deacons,” explained Father Abalon. “All the members share a common spirituality, mission and vision, as they strive to imitate and live the life of Christ.
“Each vocation finds the source of its identity in the Most Holy Trinity, and in their distinctiveness, they complement one another in the charism of ‘ecclesial teams’ modeled after the life of Mary. So, in any apostolate or parish ministry, if one of the components is not present, like the sisters, the witness of our charism would be incomplete.”
Charisms weren’t on the mind of college student Sharon Heidland, who sought worldly definitions of happiness, yet only found sadness. Today, however, Sister Miriam James is dedicated to poverty, chastity and obedience; and she is among the happiest of women. She says, “My goal now is to bring the message of Jesus’ authentic love and mercy to everyone I meet. Jesus came to set us free from sin and darkness so that we might walk in his marvelous light.”
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.