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A Foundation Forged With The Light of Christ

By Mary D. Dillard | Photography By Mary D. Dillard

A Foundation Forged With The Light of Christ

How Family Fostered One Benedictine’s 54-year Vocation

Anyone who has ever met Sister Janet Marie Flemming, O.S.B., can attest to her happiness, for she has this infectious smile that will brighten any room. When tasked with explaining her inherent joy, she simply states, “You can’t help but be happy if you are in love with God.”

Her parents raised her and her three siblings according to their values, which meant God and family were the priorities in life. Staying true to those core values nurtured a love for the Lord in Sister Janet Marie’s young heart. “God was so present in our lives,” she says proudly. “I can remember kneeling down at the bed at night with my great-grandmother when she was visiting us to pray the rosary, [but it was] not burdensome, it was just what you did as a family.”

Growing up right after World War II equated to modest means for the Flemming family; however, that reality didn’t stop her parents from doing what they could to ensure a Catholic education for all their children. She and her siblings first attended Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic School, and from there, they went to John Carroll High School. Although she admits that a lot of her young life “revolved around the Church and school,” she contends that, like praying the Rosary with her great-grandmother, it was “not burdensome” in any way because “there was so much love.”

After graduating from John Carroll, Sister Janet Marie decided to attend Sacred Heart College in Cullman, which was established by the Benedictine Sisters of Sacred Heart Monastery in 1940 as a two-year college for girls. It was at this college that she felt a comforting familiarity. Undeniably, the closeness to the Benedictines stemmed from her great-aunt being a member of the order, but it also derived from the sisters playing a large part in her formation at John Carroll.

Feeling at ease around the Benedictine sisters led her to an experience she had never had before: prayer with the sisters. “Living at Sacred Heart at the college, you could kind of drop into the chapel. Being in the chapel when the sisters were praying the Divine Office spoke to me,” Sister Janet Marie reveals. In those moments of prayer, she realized that the “call” was always with her.

“Everyone in my college class was very shocked that I entered because I was a trouble-maker,” she jokes. She enjoyed life fully, and yet she also had this overwhelming feeling to find out the answer to the question, “How will I ever know if I don’t give God a chance?”

In her mind at the time, she thought that if she were dating men to see if they were “the one,” then maybe she needed to “date God” to see if He was calling her to the religious life. There wasn’t any “surety” about the outcome, but she still felt compelled to open her heart. She thought, “God has been so good to me, I need to give God, at least, that much attention to see if it is right.”

On June 15, 1968, she was received as a postulant by the Benedictine community of Sacred Heart Monastery. After six years of discernment, she made her final profession on Aug. 4, 1974.

Over the next five decades, Sister Janet Marie would obtain a Master of Educational Administration, become a successful teacher and principal, earn her Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) diploma to care for infirm sisters, work in adult faith formation, act as sub-prioress, lead her fellow sisters for two terms as prioress, and serve as pastoral associate.

Sister admits, “I’m not saying there’s not a struggle,” but she counters that statement by asking: “We have the promise of salvation. We have the joy of God loving us so intimately. Why not smile?”

“Happiness is a witness to God’s presence. It comes from the daily space with God. When I realize how much God loves me and how much God has done for me, I have to smile.”

Given the opportunity to engage others in conversation about the Lord, Sister Janet Marie encourages prayer. “Go to God in thanksgiving, adoration, praise, and petition,” she instructs. “That’s what prayer is about!”

“God knows more than we will ever know about ourselves, so our difficulty is being open to God leading us by the hand where we might not have ever imagined we needed to go. … Following the Lord is never going to be easy. If it’s too easy, you’re following your interpretation of the Lord, not the Lord … hush and listen to God in the quietness of your heart. … be open to God challenging you.”

Being able to “hush and listen” is somewhat foreign in today’s world: silence is a most uncomfortable state, especially for young people. This unfortunate reality causes some unease for Sister Janet Marie. “I am concerned when I look around … and realize how few people are willing to open their hearts to God and respond to the call.”

So, what can be done to open more hearts to God’s challenge?

Sister Janet Marie can answer that question from experience: family. With Christ as their flame, her parents forged a strong foundation for their children. Such a foundation is not a heavy burden; rather, it has a lightness about it that comes from the certainty of God’s love. 

Although there may be added obstacles to navigate, parents today can do the same. Pray as a family. Don’t be afraid to talk about priests or to pray for them. Talk about sisters, the lives they live, and the work they do. That fabric of love for God will soon clothe our children as they set out on their journey to a place they never imagined: where God wants them to be.


Where does God want you to be?

Has the thought of being a priest or a religious ever crossed your mind? If your heart is open to the Lord’s call, don’t hesitate any longer! The staff of the diocesan Vocations Office will help you take the next step on your discernment journey to find where God wants you to be. To contact the office, call 205.838.8322 or email vocations@bhmdiocese.org.

The Flemming family gather for a family picture after Sister Janet Marie was received into the Sacred Heart community as a postulant on June 15, 1968. Pictured with Sister and her parents, Thomas Anthony and Rita Grace, are her siblings, Thomas, Daniel, and Rita.

Sister Janet Marie with her mother after being received into the Sacred Heart community as a postulant on June 15, 1968.