“When I was growing up, I had many ideas of what I could do to save the world. For a time I wanted to be a teacher, to relay wisdom to the youth. For a time I wanted to pioneer journalism, to make the workings of the government more transparent. For a time I wanted to be a civil engineer, designing water systems in impoverished countries.”
Those were the plans Jessica Lambert of Elmhurst, Illinois had for herself. But on a mission trip during her junior year of college, another member of the work team asked if she ever thought about being a religious sister; she seemed to be the sort of person who would.
No, Jessica didn’t drop everything and run off to a convent. In fact, she went on to complete an engineering degree from the University of Illinois and started her career as an engineer. But a seed had been planted during that mission trip and it was trying to grow within her.
“I had this sudden realization that I had always told God what my plans were but never really asked him what his plans were for me,” she recalls. “I’d never given God the opportunity to tell me a vocation was possible. So, from that moment I couldn’t help but have an openness to the question…asking Him ‘what do you want for me’?
“It took two and a half years of fighting with the vocation question before reaching peace and acceptance and joy.”
On Sunday, September 8, 2019, she took her final vows as Sr. Jess Lambert of the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago.
“When I met the Franciscans of the Eucharist my fourth year of college, I immediately loved their charism—I loved who they were, and how the men and women Franciscans lived out their faith through their work,” Sr. Jess remembers. “As I grew in self-knowledge and the desire to work with God’s will (instead of independently of Him), my vocation as a Franciscan unfolded. After volunteering, a discernment visit, and lots of time in prayer, I discerned with the community that I had a vocation, and I entered the community in the fall of 2013.”
“I was struck by the sheer number of people that Sr. Jess has already touched in such a profound way that showed up to the profession of her final vows,” said Keaton Leach, a college friend of Sr. Jess who attended the September 8 service. “People from all the different stages of her life were present bearing witness to the beautiful journey that led her to this moment: the giving of herself fully in service to her Lord and Savior. She has been a witness for Christ in so many ways thus far and He will continue to reach the poor through her in this Vocation.”
Keaton’s wife, Adrienne, described the scene: “Sr. Jess and her parents stood in the front to welcome each person in with hugs and thanks. All the other sisters while not getting things ready were out front welcoming each guest. It was like going into your best friend’s wedding, which in a way it was. The vows themselves were beautiful and really brought the entire family of faith together. ”
Her millennial generation often is labeled as materialistic and self-absorbed. But as someone who has dedicated her life to working with the poor, Sr. Jess has a different take:
“Millennials have a good sniffer for authenticity,” she says. “The call to this religious life doesn’t come from the culture or other people – it must be from God.
“All of us do what needs to be done to serve the poor. I teach, cook, clean, answer, the phone and I’m working on my graduate teaching degree. I’m kind of a homebody doing lots of behind the scenes stuff.”
The Franciscans of the Eucharist are a new order in the Church. Perhaps, they will be a model for the future growth of religious life.
In 2005, Fr. Bob Lombardo came to Chicago at the invitation of the late Francis Cardinal George, then Archbishop of Chicago. The Cardinal wanted Fr. Bob to start a mission to serve the poor, evangelize, and maintain a Catholic presence in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. The site chosen was known nationally for a tragic school fire that claimed the lives of 92 children and three Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary on December 1, 1958, at Our Lady of the Angels School.
Since the fire, the neighborhood surrounding the parish had rapidly declined. When Fr. Bob arrived in 2005 it was one of the most desperate, needy neighborhoods in Chicago, known for tremendous poverty, gang violence, and drug trafficking. The Cardinal in his wisdom wanted Fr. Bob to establish a Mission at the former Our Lady of the Angels parish not only because of the history and the need, but also to let the neighborhood know that the Church had not forgotten the poor.
Sadly, the site of the Mission was in disrepair and Fr. Bob had to build a network of countless individuals, companies, and organizations to restore the site. He also started a vocation-discernment group for young people.
In August 2009, Cardinal George approved a live-in discernment community to begin at the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels. Three young adults moved in at that time and Fr. Bob continued to lead and direct this group. They maintained their regular jobs while participating in communal holy hours, Mass, and meals each day, as well as ongoing service to the poor. The discernment community flourished, and it was clear that the Lord was inspiring a new Franciscan community in Chicago to serve the poor, carry out the work of evangelization and teaching, and have a life centered around the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. The community also would witness to the complementarity of men and women (inspired by Bl. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body) by a strong commitment to the sisters and friars working together.
With a decree of September 1, 2010, Cardinal George canonically established the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago.