From Speed Skating to Religious Life

Former Olympian on the Call to Join Franciscan Order

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By Ann Schneible

LONDON, JULY 27, 2012 (Zenit.org).- With the London summer Olympics commencing today, a former Olympian – now a sister with the Community of the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal in Leeds, England – shared with ZENIT her journey toward answering the call to the religious life.

For CFR Sister Catherine Mary of the Holy Trinity the Olympics were a family affair. The Wisconsin native -- whose legal name is Kirstin Holum -- is the daughter of Dianne Holum, who gained international fame by becoming the first American to win Olympic gold in woman's speed skating, competing in the 1968 and 1972 games. She went on to coach three consecutive Olympic teams, and later would contribute as a commentator for the sport.

"It was very natural for me to get involved in speed skating," Sister Catherine told ZENIT, "and really the Olympics in our family has been such a focal point."

Kirstin began competing as a young child, with her mother as her coach. "When I first started skating I was like any other kid. I didn't excel in any direction. But as I grew up and started maturing, there was a lot of gifts that the Lord had given me, and a lot of talent in the sport, and a lot of determination and excitement about competing. By the time I was 13, I had already qualified for the national junior team, and had started traveling all around Europe and North America."

In spite of the strict schedule that comes with competing, Dianne Holum would ensure that she and her daughter nonetheless made it to Sunday Mass. "Even when we were traveling my mom and I would first of all find a Catholic church where we could get to Mass on Sunday. Usually there was some way we could get to Mass, no matter where we were, and fit that into the speed skating event schedule. That was really important to me growing up: our faith, and the priority of that."

First seed

When she was 16, her mother decided to send her and her cousin on a 10-day pilgrimage to Fatima, which was significant in light of her strict training schedule. It was here that young Kristin first experienced the call to religious life. "The first day that we were there," she recounts, "I was walking into the Cova where Our Lady appeared, and I was linked arm and arm with my cousin Jennifer, and this voice came out of nowhere. I don't know if it was in my head, in my heart, if it was a man or a woman's voice, but it was very clear that it wasn't a thought in my mind. I heard, very clearly: 'You're going to be a sister.' There was this peace and this joy that came just rushing through me. I didn't know what it meant to be a sister, I didn't know what that looked like. I didn't know anything about what that meant. But the experience and the feeling of it, and the clarity of that which was so strong, the experience filled me with such peace and joy. I can look back now and see that it was a seed that the Lord planted in my heart at that time as a teenager."

Also during this pilgrimage, Kristin received what she describes as "a very powerful, affirming experience of knowing Jesus' true presence in the Eucharist. … The relationship with the Lord became very personal, and very deep, and very real."

After this experience, she began to be more devoted to her prayer life, and decided to make a consecration to Mary for her speed skating career. She quickly made significant advances in her career, competing with women twice her age and receiving the bronze medal at the Berlin world cup, and finishing in the top eight in the world for the rest of the year. It was the following year that she qualified for the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

The year in which Kristin competed in the Olympics proved to be a challenging one. For starters, she was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma the previous year, which made training difficult. She was also graduating from high school with the hopes of going to university to study art. The prospect of sacrificing the university life that most of her peers would have began to seem less appealing. "I was really seeing that, in the deepest part of my heart, I knew that I was not going to be a professional speed skater the rest of my life. I was at the beginning of my career, but I just didn't have that desire for the long haul."

"It's a mystery, God's work in our lives! I can see that the Lord was at work so powerfully, giving me the gift to be that successful at my career at such a young age, and then giving me the grace to step out of it, to move on, so that he could really lead me to what he really desired in my life."

Kristin retired from speed skating following the 1998 Olympics, graduated from high school, and eventually went on to receive a bachelors of fine arts in photography from the Art Institute in Chicago. Although she remained a practicing Catholic, her commitment to the faith waned in the absence of a Catholic community, and she had forgotten about her call to be a sister by the time she graduated.

Witness

While visiting her mother in Colorado, Kristin encountered a group of young people who were doing a pro-life walk across America with a movement called Crossroads. "It was the first time in my life I had ever met young people who were living their faith so radically, and beautifully, and attractively, and with such zeal. Their witness to me was just so powerful."

Two days later, feeling strongly that it was God's will, she joined the Crossroads pilgrimage, eventually ending up at World Youth Day in Toronto. The environment of the pilgrimage fostered a renewal in her faith, as well as a rekindling of the call to religious life that she had received years before.

It was at WYD that she encountered the CFR sisters for the first time. "There was just this immediate connection that I felt in my heart that I could see myself doing that; I have a desire to do what they're doing."

After discerning and visiting other religious orders, she made the call to the CFR sisters. "As soon as I got off the plane and saw the sisters waiting for me at the airport, I felt this tremendous peace, and knew that I was home. It just felt like I was meant to be there, like this was the community that I was meant to join."

Kristin joined the CFR sisters in September 2003 in New York City, where the order is based, and made her final profession of vows in 2010. Shortly after she was sent to Saint Clare's Convent in Leeds, England, where she continues to work with the poor and the homeless.

Sister Catherine spoke of the certainty that has come from "reflecting on the London Olympics and reflecting on my life as an Olympian and what God has done with that, and really seeing how this has been such an opportunity, that it's all God's work. Everything in my life has been God's work."