A “forever yes” from Sister Lola Ulupano
FORT WORTH — They’re usually called perpetual or final vows. But, after 11 years of religious formation that included time spent in Brazil tutoring children, earning a college degree, and becoming a U.S. citizen, Sister Lola Ulupano referred to her lifetime commitment to the Sisters of Saint Mary of Namur (SSMN) as a “forever yes.”
“I’m ready to go wherever they send me,” said the congregation’s newest member who professed vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience during a Mass celebrated August 10 at St. Michael Parish in Bedford. “I’ve had the desire to be a sister since I was a child.”
Imbued with many of the traditions and customs of her native Tonga, the liturgy featured uplifting music and a solemn procession of the Gospel. Four men, dressed in ta’ovala mats tied with kafa rope, carried a float with a young girl. In the youngster’s raised arms was the Book of the Gospels, which was slowly lowered to Deacon Sangote Ulupano, Sr. Lola’s father, who waited at the foot of the altar.
Father Kapiolani Kakala, the Tongan chaplain to the U.S., concelebrated the Mass with Pallottine Father Balaji Boyalla, St. Michael’s pastor. The chaplain is related to Sr. Lola’s mother, Suatapu Ulupano.
During the ceremony, the cradle Catholic thought of her paternal grandparents who raised her in Tonga.
“My grandma and grandpa planted the seed [of a religious vocation] early in me,” she remembered. “I’m so grateful to them for that.”
Sr. Lola arrived in the U.S. at the age of 19 and spent her first three years in the country learning the language and American customs. Once she felt comfortable in her new surroundings, the eager daughter asked her father for help.
“I never went to a vocation awareness weekend,” she disclosed. “I just asked my dad to call and find a convent for me. I wanted to see what life as a sister would be like.”
Dcn. Ulupano reached out to the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur — a Belgian-based order who came to the U.S. in 1863 to work as missionaries. After establishing a school for immigrant children in Lockport, New York, a second team of sisters traveled to Texas where they pioneered education in several cities located near railroads. In 1885, the congregation opened St. Ignatius Academy in downtown Fort Worth and later welcomed students to Our Lady of Victory Academy and College. It exists today as an elementary school.
Visiting the Shaw Street convent, the young Lola was impressed by an overwhelming sense of joy.
“That’s what attracted me, and I knew right away it was the right place for me,” she explained. “They were serving God’s people, with what they have, joyfully.”
According to the order’s Texas vocation director, Sr. Lola’s profession of final vows adds an extra element of hope and joy as the international congregation, founded in 1819, celebrates its 200th Jubilee.
“Her presence in our community, along with her unique cultural richness and spiritual groundedness in faith, broadens our vision of welcome, our spirituality, and helps deepen the work of our charism,” extolled Sister Yolanda Cruz, SSMN. “She is a great witness of religious life to young people.”
As part of the vocations team for the SSMN western region, Sr. Lola will share with youth of all ages what it means to be a religious sister in today’s world and how to listen to God’s call in their own lives.
“We are so grateful for her ‘yes’ to God and for the generosity of her family and Tongan community who supported her on this journey,” Sr. Yolanda added.
Encouraged by her parents and five siblings, the St. Michael parishioner joined the congregation as a postulant then completed two and a half years as a novice. Part of that time was spent in Brazil where she learned Portuguese and tutored school children in reading.
In 2013, she professed first vows during a ceremony inside St. Michael Church and received a simple brown cross on a string necklace symbolizing her membership in the SSMN community. The cross, imprinted with an image of Christ, belonged to the late Sister St. John Begnaud who wanted it given to the order’s newest vocation.
Sr. Lola wears the religious article as she continues one of her congregation’s most recognized missions — teaching. After taking a year-long sabbatical to prepare for final vows, the enthusiastic educator returned to the second grade classroom at Our Lady of Victory Catholic School Aug. 12.
The discernment process included a month-long retreat in Colorado and a visit to the congregation’s headquarters.
“It’s been a very busy year,” Sr. Lola admitted, “but I felt God’s hand in all of it.”
OLV Principal Linda Kuntz and fellow teachers attended the Aug. 10 Mass.
“It was beautiful to witness the vows she made, with love from the heart — not only to God but her congregation,” Kuntz said. “I was moved by her words and willingness to serve wherever the sisters need her.”