Thankfully for the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph, the U.S. Navy lost a recruit in 1961.
A woman offering some skin treatment to Evelyn Gomez that year told her that she had returned from a tour in the Navy and received much valuable training. Evelyn thought joining the Navy sounded like a wise career choice for her as well.
“My uncle told my parents I would do better going to college,” said the woman now known as Ursuline Sister Sara Marie Gomez. “When they didn’t let me go to the Navy, I went back to thinking about becoming a sister. There were so many sisters I liked. My grandparents talked about the sisters and the good they were doing.”
Evelyn was born in Pagosa Springs, Colo., but she considers herself a native of New Mexico. She was born in 1943, nearly a generation after the first Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph came to minister in New Mexico.
“My eight aunts and dad and uncle went to school with the Ursulines,” at Sacred Heart Academy in Waterflow, she said. “Whenever we had fiestas at the ranch, the sisters would come. The priest said, ‘What the Mount doesn’t know won’t hurt them.’”
“We had Vacation Bible School in Pagosa Springs, there were always Sisters of Mercy, Ursuline Sisters or Sisters of Saint Joseph for a week or two,” she said.
The hospitality her family showed to the sisters and priests had an impact on young Evelyn, whether she realized it or not.
“We lived 35 miles from the church,” she said. “Once a month the priest would come have dinner with us, spend the night and hear confessions for those nearby. I thought my vocation came from the sisters, but I was told by a priest that we were probably influenced most by our parents and family.”
Sister Sara Marie knew she wanted to be a teacher from the time she was 5 or 6, she said. Knowing the sisters personally helped her to see them as human beings and role models.
As a high school student at Sacred Heart Academy, the principal, Ursuline Sister Ambrose Martin, offered her a partial scholarship to attend Brescia College in Owensboro, Ky. Her best friend and classmate, Michele Morek, also received a scholarship to Brescia, but she turned it down because she planned to join the Ursulines.
“Michele told me if I was coming with her, I needed to let Mother Ambrose know,” Sister Sara Marie said. The two entered the postulancy on Sept. 7, 1961, along with their classmate, Sister Sheila Anne Smith.
“I probably would have gone home the first week if I hadn’t been afraid to travel alone,” Sister Sara Marie said. “It was so different here. The three of us are still here, I guess it was meant to be.”
Sister Sara Marie chose her grandmother’s name for her name in community. She got her opportunity to become a teacher, much of that time teaching students with special needs. She was a teacher for 30 years in Kentucky and New Mexico, with seven years as a pastoral minister in Aztec, N.M., nestled in from 1990-97.
Since 2002 she has served as director of religious education for both St. Joseph Parish in Aztec and Holy Trinity Parish in nearby Flora Vista, N.M. She continues to teach religion at Sacred Heart School in Farmington, N.M., to the younger children. “That keeps me going,” she said.
She has served continuously in New Mexico since 1990, something she never dreamed she would get to do. Ursuline Sisters have served in New Mexico since 1919, but Sister Sara Marie is now the last sister serving there.
“Many of the priests today in the San Juan Deanery talk about the deep faith the people have because of the Ursuline Sisters,” Sister Sara Marie said. “It makes me proud to be an Ursuline.”
She’s happy she made the choice to become a sister.
“The best part has been learning more about my own culture,” she said. “God knows the best place to put you.”
She has agreed to help the community with attracting possible vocations to religious life in New Mexico. She is now living alone, except when her sister comes by, so has offered her home to any of the sisters who might need a break to enjoy the peacefulness of New Mexico and the faithfulness of the people.
“I feel like my faith has really deepened a lot in ministry to the people,” she said. “It’s been very rewarding, the people accepting who you are and what you do. They support you in any way they can.”