Two young people reflect on how their primary Catholic school experience fostered their vocations
ORLANDO | In a flurry of vocations around the diocese, two former graduates of St. Joseph Catholic School in Winter Haven add to the blessings, answering God’s desire for their lives. Thomas Hammen and Sarah Pack begin to fulfill that longing Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 respectively.
Hammen enters St. Vincent de Paul Seminary in Boynton Beach to eventually serve the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee. He graduated from St. Joseph in 2011. Pack, a 2019 graduate, enters the novitiate as a postulant for the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará in Maryland.
Hammen attended Catholic schools from kindergarten through 12th grade, first at St. Joseph then at Santa Fe High School in Lakeland. He recalled some great teachers who helped plant seeds of faith, including the late Jessica Bruchey, his third-grade teacher, whose joy was tangible as was “her love of God.”
“Teachers can’t underestimate the impact of their joy,” Hammen said, who also mentioned Charles Proctor, his eighth-grade math teacher. “His example and joy was really powerful.”
Despite being an altar server, active member in LifeTeen, Edge, and a Steubenville conference regular, he noticed his faith beginning to wane in middle school.
“I think my story is similar to many. I felt close to God as kid,” he recalled. “I come from an amazing Catholic family. We would pray the rosary together and go to Mass every Sunday. But once I reached middle school and high school, shame really tricked me into thinking I had let God down and He was disappointed in me. Things like being exposed to pornography, drugs and alcohol, the pull of dating relationships — all these things convinced me that I wasn’t the good kid I thought I was.”
College only exacerbated his struggle. As a freshman at Florida State University, he joined a fraternity and had an amazing internship in Washington, D.C. “I had all the things the world told me would make me happy and I felt very empty inside.”
About that time a St. Paul’s Outreach missionary invited him to the Catholic Student Union’s spring retreat. He figured he had nothing to lose.
“The first thing I remember is I felt loved and accepted in a way that was different,” he said. “I was 19 and we’re praying before the Blessed Sacrament, and I had this experience of seeing God the Father fighting for me throughout my whole life. Seeing all the mistakes I’d made and loving me, wanting me to be free. I felt this wake-up call.
“I’d been tricked into thinking I was too far gone,” he continued. “I wasn’t made for something good. I was made for something great.”
That was the beginning of his vocation call. He began to follow Jesus earnestly, praying and sharing his faith with others.
“From 19 to now, it’s been like a flame that’s burning more and more because, what I found, is that for the first time I was happy and satisfied,” he said.
In campus ministry he met the Brotherhood of Hope who taught him “how to walk; how to pray; how to overcome habitual sin; how to evangelize.” He said they helped him realize he could “be celibate, live for God alone and be super happy.”
Hammen joined St. Paul’s Outreach and spread the faith to college students in Texas and began discerning God’s will for his life.
“When I began to think about giving the Sacraments, how much people need the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Confession, and even more so how much people need a spiritual father just being present, that’s where my heart came alive,” he said. “Our culture is no longer Christian and the shows we watch, the music we listen to, they can slowly but surely wear down our faith and make us forget God. It’s like a river flowing downstream. If we just stand still, we get swept away. … I see Catholic schools like St. Joseph as solid rocks that stand against the current.”
Originally feeling the rules of the faith judging him, he said it was that unconditional, overwhelming love he found in Christ was the key to his conversion.
“My life has been changed,” he said. “How can I not give my whole life in return.”
Pack is a third generation St. Joseph student, following her grandmother and mother. Her great-great grandmother was among the first Catholics forming a community in Winter Haven and her great grandmother served on committees that assisted in the construction and design of the parish chapel, where Pack often participates in the celebration of daily Mass. It is there she often spent time discerning her vocation.
Pack attended St. Joseph from kindergarten through second grade before her family moved. Due to her father’s service in the U.S. Navy Pack lived in seven different states. Pack’s severe dyslexia prompted her mother, Stephanie, to homeschool her for the rest of her school years, but Pack recalled her brief time at St. Joseph’s.
Her favorite memory is learning to count money with a “real store” in first grade. She recalled her first-grade classmates lending her a hand. “Always one of the last people done with writing assignments, sometimes the girls next to me would help me after they were done,” she said.
The memory of that kindness endured along with that of loving teachers and receiving the Sacrament of First Holy Communion in second grade from Father Anthony (Tony) Bluett, who also married Pack’s parents and baptized her and her brother, Christopher.
Her mother, a teacher at St. Joseph Catholic School, said that loving environment “is a gift” to the students. That gift motivated her to send her daughter and son to St. Joseph’s.
“St. Joseph 100%, shaped my faith,” Stephanie said. “I am a practicing Catholic today because I was a student at St. Joseph Catholic School. If I had not been a practicing Catholic, I’m not sure (Sarah) would have been. … Our Catholic faith has been passed down on both sides. I love that our daughter is living it in such a loud, bold and courageous way. We need that in the world.”
Pack first felt the call to religious life in middle school, after attending Called to Holiness, a Catholic discernment camp in Georgia. Talks centered around vocations to married, single and religious life. There she met the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal.
“I liked how they prayed and their talks. I thought it was neat,” she said. After her second visit she thought, “Maybe this really is for me.”
Her discernment began in earnest. With no idea where to start, she began researching – calling different orders and learning
about others online. She first reached out to the Sisters of Life, then she saw the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará at a March for Life. It was not until sometime later that her best friend, who briefly discerned religious life, drew Pack’s attention to the young order, the female branch established in 1998.
In the middle of the COVID pandemic, the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará offered a ‘Virtual Come and See.” Pack was attracted by their primary charism, “the evangelization of the culture” through media, churches, schools, and more. Although some are highly degreed like one sister who is an astrophysicist in Italy and studies images from space, a degree is not required.
Pack worked over the past four years, but she did not attend college, primarily due to her dyslexia. She spent most of the time discerning her vocation.
Discovering they have a branch in Wauchula, not far from Winter Haven, she fervently desired to meet them in person. On the way to her grandparents’ house one day, she persuaded her mother to take her. There she met Sister Maria de Jesus, one of the first women to join the order. She soon began to volunteer in their ministry to St. Michael Parish, a poor community and the sisters invited her to their convent.
“What struck me when I met them was the feeling of being home. It felt very comfortable. These sisters are so lively,” Pack said. Although the order has a contemplative element, she was taken by their exuberant joy, love of family and beautiful prayers.
Pack is a person of diverse talents. She is an all-around athlete, having played several sports from boxing to archery. She also decorates cakes, arranges flowers, embroiderers and sews.
“I don’t think I’m going to miss any of it partially because they do sports. Cakes for birthdays. They make desserts. They decorate the chapel,” she said. “It will still be part of my life, in a way, but differently.”
In fact, Pack sewed her gray postulant skirt and will eventually make her own habit. It is the sisters’ custom. She will also embroider priest cassocks and altar linens in the evenings when the sisters gather after dinner.
She credited her decision to the Holy Spirit and a prayer to St. Thérèse of Lisieux (the Little Flower), to whom she is devoted. Pack asked St. Thérèse to “show up” in the order to which she was called.
“When I got to this order, she exploded everywhere,” Pack said with excitement.
She recalled St. Thérèse’s deathbed promise to spend her time in heaven doing good upon the earth. The sign of her continued care would be “a shower of rose petals.”
“I truly believe that’s what she’s done for me,” Pack said. “She has rained rose petals down upon me.”
By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic staff, August 31, 2023