Franciscan sister preaches gospel of life, creation at UST
May 12, 2015
HOUSTON — It was a sight that stopped her in her tracks. While the brilliant rainbow of colors shimmered and danced across the northern Norwegian sky above her eyes, all she could do was silently sit in wonder and awe, and then open the Bible.
"I looked up at the sky and it was alive with color," Sister Damien Marie Savino, FSE, Ph.D. recalled. "I realized I'm seeing the Northern Lights. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would see the Northern Lights and they were so beautiful. I felt so small because I was alone at that moment."
A friend had given her a Bible before she left on a research trip to Europe, an act which Sister Savino questioned because at the time she wasn't all that interested in her own Catholic faith.
"But I opened up the Bible because that was the only thing I could think to do in those Northern Lights; the beauty of it, how small I felt and how in awe I was of that beauty I was privileged to see in that moment. I just opened up the Bible and started reading, that was my impulse, just to read the Bible. I knew it was something of God. I knew there was a God in that moment."
Years later, Sister Savino now chairs the Environmental Science department at the University of St. Thomas and is one of two Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist on the college campus. She teaches classes that explore environmental issues from a moral perspective in light of the Catholic intellectual tradition.
Vocation to steward creation
"I have always felt a certain call to train young people how to look at our vocation to steward creation that's truly Catholic and both pro-creation and pro-life," Sister Savino said. She also serves as the adviser to the UST pro-life student group, Celts for Life.
"Ever since I was little girl, I've always had a sense of God in the created world. I love creation. I want to train our young people how to care for it. Part of our nature as human persons is from Genesis 1:28, to be fruitful and multiple and be stewards of the created world. And how we do that as faithful Catholics is very important."
Even though her convent is in the middle of urban Houston, Sister Savino finds that she needs "to get out and just be surrounded by things that aren't man-made" and is "very inspired" when out in nature and feels "the presence of the Creator beside me."
Her community wanted her to stay in the sciences because of the need for sister trained in various areas, and if you can speak to scientists as a Catholic, that's very important, she said.
After working as an environmental consultant for American companies, Sister Savino approached her community seeking permission to get her doctorate. Soon at Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., she blended her doctoral studies in environmental engineering and theology, equipping her with the abilities to teach on the university level about Catholic theology and the environment.
"There's many extremes in the secular environmental field," she said. "And I've been exposed to all of that, like those who minimize any need to steward resources and then those to almost divinize nature. I think that the Catholic approach is a beatuiful 'both-and' that comes down in the middle. I feel a responsibiliy to train our young people into that Catholic approach to creation and the environment. We've been aided by then-Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis."
Understanding the call
But finding her vocation wasn't the easiest thing Sister Savino has done.
"I learned along the way that I can't create my own call, but that God had one for me before I was even born," she said. "It's not the idea that you figure it out all by yourself, but rather I needed to figure out what the call is that God put there and then if I was willing to say yes or no to what it is."
During a visit with the sisters at their mother house in Connecticut, a younger Sister Savino had moment of clarity sitting under the shade of a tree.
"I had this distinct sense that, ‘Wow! God, are you calling me to this religious life?' I kept saying, I can't do this, this would be too hard for me. I'm the oldest daughter of an Italian family, I always presumed I was going to get married, have a house in the woods, and have a lot of children. It was a revelation that I thought, "Is this what You're calling me to?"
And, like other religious on their journey, Sister Savino was dating before she joined the sisters.
"Through the process of discernment, I'm glad I wrestled (with dating, having a husband and children) and didn't just push it out and not look at it. I realized as a religious we come to God by reaching out to many. If you're called to be married, you come to God through your husband, then the fruit of that love and your children, it's more through the one and each other. But with God and the religious life, it is a spousal relationship as well. We're dedicated to our sisters and community life, but it's a direct relationship between the sister and God, as opposed to a husband, wife and God. I came to realize that I think that's what God wants for me, to be one for the many, for students, to patients if you're a nurse and the like, and the Church needs people who are like that, who are willing to be for those who need to be cared for in a bigger sense."
It's in those relationships, both in humanity and creation that inspires Sister Savino.
"People that I really care about who are very self-sacrificing and giving inspire me," she said. "And the foundresses of our community. They're both special, holy and joyful women, along with other sisters in the community."
Committed to Catholic Higher Education
This sense of creation and its Creator, is what encourages her to be a witness as a religious sister on the Houston college campus.
"I do feel it's important for young people to engage with religious, many young people never see a sister or a priest," Sister Savino said. "At UST we have the opportunity to and I think that's wonderful. I really am very committed to Catholic higher education. The kind of holistic vision it has is so important for young people today with the kind of complexity we have to deal with in the culture. I feel honored to be working in Catholic higher education and be able to bring our community's Franciscan charism into society."
In 2011, Sister Savino led a group of UST students on a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in Spain, then to World Youth Day in Madrid with then-Pope Benedict XVI.
"I do hope that I meet more students who are not there in their faith but have a sense of a Creator and that I could help them because of my own experience, but I might be sensitized to their struggle. I do hope that some of my students will come to a deeper appreciation of God through their study of environmental science and creation."
With travel comes grace
"I was able to backpack through Europe after college and it really made me realize that I was searching for something. I wasn't going to find it by traveling to different places, that it was something inside myself that I was looking for and it really was God that I was looking for. While I was searching I met so many nice people. I realized that no matter where you go, everyone is struggling with life questions. It really confronted me, you're meeting all these people and they're talking about their life questions, what is your life question? What is it that you're looking for? It's good to travel, but you still have to come home and face yourself. And that's how God speaks to us, we look a lot of places looking for Him."
Sister Savino's eyes glitter when she speaks about the Northern Lights.
"I remember thinking, I have my bachelor's degree, I'm pretty educated and I really don't understand what this Bible is saying," she said. "But I know I have to read it. It was what I needed at that point. I wondered, 'Why did you put me here God in this moment and show me this glory?'"
To learn more about the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist, visit franciscan-sisters.org and for more about the UST Environmental Science program, visit stthom.edu/environmentalscience.