By Sarah Kuper
Growing up, Sara Burress was one of many faithful Presbyterians in her small Mississippi hometown.
“Whenever the church doors were open, our family was there,” she said.
In fact, Burress’s Presbyterian roots run deep; one of her Scottish ancestors journeyed to colonial America to found a Presbyterian church in South Carolina.
That’s why it is surprising to hear her referred to as Sister Sara.
“I never, ever would have imagined I would be Catholic, let alone a Benedictine sister,” she said.
In 2006, Burress joined the Benedictine Sisters at the Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman. She was 66 at the time.
Although her conversion to Catholicism is fairly recent, her life has always centered around spiritual education and identity.
In college, Burress was part of an interdenominational ministry and even served on staff for the group. She continued on to attend a Presbyterian seminary in Atlanta, earning her master of divinity.
Burress spent years as a Presbyterian minister, but over time she began to feel disheartened by the divisive atmosphere among the Protestant denominations.
“I became more heartbroken over the constant division. There was an inability to come to terms with each other, and the church would keep splintering,” she said.
The way she saw it, the Catholic church had the right approach.
“In the Catholic church, you try to work things out. The idea is you stay in the fight. Where I was, I felt like I was living in a society and a church that didn’t know how to do that.”
Burress said she yearned to get back to the roots of the church. She began to admire the way the Catholic faith reveres the past but doesn’t live in the past.
“If you go back to the very beginning of Jesus giving St. Peter the keys, the church has always been reforming itself. I like the firmness of teaching but the understanding of gaining wisdom over time.”
Burress was also fascinated by the rich history of the church.
“The Catholic church has 2,000 plus years – a treasure trove of spirituality. Teachings from the early fathers and saints who wrote and lived exemplary lives,” she said, “And I love that all five senses are engaged in worship.”
In the years leading up to her conversion, Burress became close with the Benedictine sisters in Cullman and she began attending retreats at the monastery.
Burress made the decision to join the order and then, she said, she faced the hard part.
Benedictine sisters take vows of obedience, stability and faithfulness. Essentially, sisters vow to live a life without personal possessions or pursuits outside of the work of the church.
Burress, who joined the sisters as a middle-aged woman, owned her own home, had her own income and had the freedom to spend her time and money how she saw fit.
“It was difficult. It was like the grief process you go through when you lose anything,” she said, “It was hard to let go, not only of my Presbyterian heritage, but also of a way of life; no credit card or bank account. It’s frightening to suddenly not have those things that prop you up.”
While perhaps confused at Burress’ late-in-life decision to convert to Catholicism and become a nun, her two sisters were supportive.
Burress does not downplay the weight of the sacrifice to become a Benedictine sister. But she said she feels she has gained more than she ever gave up.
“What I was receiving was what I really wanted to embrace and be embraced by, the Benedictine way of life,” she said. “I felt like I was suited for it, I was meant for it.”
Burress spends her time pursuing the basic occupations of a Benedictine sister: prayer, work and study.
She is currently on mission in Birmingham serving as the director of pastoral ministry at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church.
It is Burress who visits sick and housebound parishioners and guides grieving families after the death of a loved one.
She said she always stays busy, and she never gets tired of her work.
“It is an important ministry to be with people during happiness and sadness,” she said
Whether it was as a Presbyterian minister or now as a catholic nun, Burress said she has always felt God was close.
“Although I haven’t always made myself fully present to God, I’ve come to understand that God has always been fully present to me,” she said, “God never gives up on us.”