Olympian Becomes a Sister

London 2012 feature from our July 15 issue. Sister Catherine Holum says, 'I think this is a fantastic opportunity for England and all the Catholics in this country to really utilize the Olympics to share their faith.'

It has been said that Blessed John Paul was the world’s most famous — and perhaps unlikely — soccer goalkeeper, but even he never participated in the Olympics.

But a speed-skating sister has. A speed-skating sister may seem like a novelty, but she is certainly a reminder that sports and Catholicism have much in common.

Sister Catherine Holum of the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal in Leeds, England, represented the United States at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, when she was a teenager.

Her interest in competition came from her family.

“My mother, Dianne Holum, was an Olympic speed skater and Olympic speed-skating coach,” says Sister Catherine. “She has four Olympic medals, and she coached for 25 years, including three Olympic teams. So, very naturally, I grew up in the sport of speed skating.”

And she continued her mom’s legacy: “I was the youngest ever national junior champion, breaking lots of records. And the following year I competed in the Winter Olympic Games in Japan at the age of 17. I placed sixth in the 3,000 meters and seventh in the 5,000 meters.”

The whole experience “was a very exciting time for me, especially being so young,” recalls Sister Catherine. “Being a young person, the exciting parts of it were just being in the Olympic Village, seeing the Olympians you would see on television. One incident in the cafeteria: My favorite hockey player was breaking bread with me at the same time. As a 17-year-old, it was just very exciting!”

But the excitement was combined with challenges.

“There were a lot of challenges, with it being my first Olympics — it was mentally hard to prepare for my events, even though I had a little bit of experience. But I can look back now and really see that it formed me, in preparing me for religious life and as a person.”

The athletic endeavor paved the way for her current life as a religious.

“The Olympics as an experience has helped me now, in terms of the effort and the discipline. Even the attention that was given to me at the time has allowed me to use that, in terms of vocation: that experience of being able to share things about myself — now being able to share things about my faith specifically.”

Having performed so well at her first Olympics, a speed-skating career looked to be her future.

But Sister Catherine announced her skating retirement because of a pilgrimage. When she was 16, her mother sent her and a cousin “on a pilgrimage to Fatima, and it was there that I had two very powerful experiences: the first being where I received my religious call — I really felt the Lord speaking to me, calling me to be a sister, even though at the time I didn’t know what that meant or how it would pan out. I also had a very powerful experience of encountering Jesus’ presence in the holy Eucharist. So it was very much a life-changing pilgrimage. But I also asked the Blessed Mother to pray for my speed-skating career.”

After retiring from skating, she earned a degree in photography at the Art Institute of Chicago — and fell away from her faith and her religious vocation.

“During that time, I was very much swayed away from my Catholic faith. I didn’t have any Christian friends, let alone any Catholic ones. So, by the time I graduated, I had completely forgotten about my call to be a sister. I moved to live with my mother after that, not knowing what the next step in my life would be.”

The pro-life movement reawakened her calling. “The pro-life movement has always been very much a part of my family, and we’ve always been involved in a lot of pro-life activities,” she says. “When I finished studying and went back home, my mum was outside the abortion clinics praying the Rosary every week. I wasn’t really in my faith so strongly when I graduated, but my mother was going to daily Mass. She invited me, but I wasn’t that interested in going. But the pro-life movement was something I was interested in and looking at getting involved in. I began to go and pray on the weekends. And it was there that I met this group of young people.”

The young people were on a pro-life walk across America. Sister Catherine was “struck by their witness of being young, joyful, zealous Catholics. I had never experienced it before, and I knew it was their love for Jesus that was making a difference to their lives and bringing them so much joy. I really wanted that in my life, so I decided to join them and walk across America.

“I met them on a Friday and began the walk, living in a caravan with 12 strangers, on a Sunday. It was completely life-changing because of their witness of being young Catholics leading a sacramental life: going to Mass every day; praying; going to confession. I felt I was being drawn to join this group of young people, but I have a really impulsive personality, so the Lord was working with that as well.”

That summer, the walk ended at World Youth Day in Toronto, where she met the religious community she subsequently joined. With the sisters, she felt the “same kind of attraction I felt in my heart to those young people.”

Sister Catherine joined the order a year later, in 2003. “It was a big deal for me to move to New York. I never imagined myself living in the city. I never would have pictured being in the Bronx, so I knew it was the Lord. As soon as I got off the airplane and walked into the convent there, I immediately felt at home — just everything about the life: I felt I was created to live this way and that God had created me for it. This was my path to holiness — just the beauty of being a spouse of Christ and desiring that so much in my heart and feeling that was the way to sanctity, to holiness and to draw others to Jesus. What attracted me to the community was their joy and radical Gospel living, the simplicity of the life. I didn’t have any experience of working with the poor, evangelizing or anything, so it wasn’t the apostolate that attracted me. The day-to-day life was very beautiful to me.”

For the past two and a half years, Sister Catherine has been part of the community in northern England, the first community of the order to be founded outside of the U.S. With the London Olympics starting July 27, Sister Catherine says the young people with whom the order works are fascinated by her background. After all, it’s not every day that one sees a former Olympian in religious habit.

“Yes, there’s quite a shock on their faces,” she says with a laugh. “But it’s been a great way to begin to share the faith and say, ‘Look, you see me as a sister, but I had a different life before.’ It’s a way of share the faith in a new manner and get their attention.”

She hopes that the Olympics promotes discussions about faith and sports.

“I was speaking at an all-girls school,” she says. “We’d been asked to come in during a retreat on Olympic spirituality. I did a little game with the girls: comparing sport with our goal of getting to heaven. It was a wonderful way of saying that there is so much we can learn from sport — discipline, motivation, commitment, perseverance, hard work and sacrifice — all these things we need to learn to get to heaven.

“But heaven is eternal glory, where the Olympics — winning a gold medal or what not — is brief glory. Our goal should be to get to heaven and to really share that. To learn from sport how to get to heaven is a really great way to open up for them (the faith) and to look at their faith in a different way, to see what is the goal and purpose of our life. We can learn from the experiences we have on the way.”

Sister Catherine sees the Olympics “as an opportunity for the Church here in England, the beginning of the linking of sport, athletics and our faith and using that as a platform to build up the Kingdom. I think this is a fantastic opportunity for England and all the Catholics in this country to really utilize the Olympics to share their faith.”

James Kelly is a columnist for The Universe.