In the Gospel of Mark, Peter tells Jesus he has given up everything to follow him. Jesus reassures him saying, “Amen I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age” (Mark 10:28-30).
Sister Bethany Madonna, like Peter, left behind material possessions, the possibilities of career and family life for a greater purpose. On the feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, she and seven other young women professed their perpetual vows to Jesus Christ at the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist in Stamford, Connecticut. This journey was preceded by stepping-stones placed by Jesus throughout her young adult years leading Sister Bethany to answer the unfading call.
It all started when she was 17 and a senior in high school. She was Beth Burwell back then and a parishioner of Holy Name of Jesus in Indialantic. During a retreat with her youth group, she prayed in the chapel during Eucharistic Adoration, asking Jesus, “What do you want from my life?” “What do you desire for me?” It was the first time Sister Bethany realized his love is unconditional and felt Jesus knew her heart enough to propose something of her.
“It wasn’t a voice I heard with my ears, it was more like a thought within my heart,” Sister Bethany said. “I sensed Jesus say, ‘Consider being totally mine.'” For Sister Bethany, it was surprising and a little scary since she was not familiar with consecrated life and didn’t think it was a good fit for her. However, that experience caused her to seek closeness with the Lord. She changed her priorities to match that desire.
Sister Bethany continued her education at the University of Central Florida. Her major: Interpersonal Communications with the intent to go into law or counseling. Sister Bethany also involved herself with Catholic Campus Ministry, and was dating at the time. The desire in her heart to experience love and the possibility of marriage still resonated within her. It wasn’t until after her freshman year of college that Sister Bethany heard the call once again.
“With patience and persistence, the Lord asked me to consider giving my life to him. I decided I would go on a dating fast,” Sister Bethany said. “During this season of singleness I spent time discerning and not pursuing a relationship. If I am going to do this, I want to do it the right. So I decided I would go to Italy.”
During Sister Bethany’s semester abroad, she wanted to experience everything a young adult would experience: independence, romance, adventure and gelato. But, the Lord had other plans for her. Upon her arrival to Italy with her fellow classmates, the group discovered living arrangements for the girls would be relocated to a nearby convent. While Sister Bethany’s classmates were absolutely distraught over the outcome of their abroad experience, she had a different thought.
“Wow, the Lord just put me in the convent!” Sister Bethany said.
She spent her time traveling from Rome to Assisi; allowing herself to be guided by Jesus.
“Wherever I went he preceded me and was with me alleviating a lot of my fears,” Sister Bethany said.
After Sister Bethany’s return to the States her friend scheduled a “Nun Run.” This allowed Sister Bethany and other young women the opportunity to get a taste of religious life. She visited different convents and communities until the Sisters of Life awakened everything inside her.
“I literally walked into their convent and it was like I had been there before. It was an experience of coming home.”
The Sisters of Life are a contemplative/active religious community of women founded in 1991 by John Cardinal O’Connor. In any religious community, the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience are professed, however under a special fourth vow, the Sisters of Life are to protect and enhance the sacredness of human life. The Sisters serve pregnant women, host a variety of retreats, and accompany those suffering after abortion on the journey of healing.
She found herself visiting the chapel frequently asking the Lord about this final decision to either accept the call and join Sisters of Life or deny it completely.
“After recognizing all the desires I had, I finally heard the Lord ask, ‘would you let me love you as spouse forever and will you love every child as your own?'”
That loving and enthusiastic acceptance led Sister Bethany to the Basilica of St. John where family and friends watched as she spoke the words finalizing her commitment. Sister Bethany’s parents Bill and Rita Burwell are still parishioners of Holy Name of Jesus. Their joy for their daughter is overwhelming.
“Now I know why I was born,” Bill said, leaving Sister Bethany in awe of her father’s words. For Rita, her words are lighthearted and humorous. “I couldn’t have asked for a better son-in-law.”
Father Stephen Parkes of Annunciation Parish, Altamonte Springs, also witnessed Sister Bethany’s Profession. When Sister Bethany attended UCF, Father Parkes served as Campus Minister for Catholic Campus Ministry.
“It was a wonderful experience to now attend her final profession and see her incredible joy in her vocation of serving the Church,” said Father Parkes.
Prayer and a willing spirit assisted Sister Bethany since the moment she was 17 and first heard the call. It has been a joy-filled journey and the enthusiasm in her voice is infectious.
“I have lots of tears of joy and desire to have received this gift,” Sister Bethany said. “It brings me back to the promised 100 fold with Peter and Jesus. Like Peter, I had no idea what the Lord had in store for me. He has been faithful to his promises. He has answered every prayer.”