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Gaylord woman seeking to ‘empty self to Jesus’ enters convent
If Anastasia Bragg were on Facebook, the 18-year-old says her social profile would read something like this: “I’m pretty energetic most of the time; I’m pretty athletic, I like sports and stuff; I love my family a lot; I love my faith a lot.” Oh, and she likes working with animals, having spent this August morning showing her hog, Xavier, at the Otsego County Fair.
In a matter of days the young woman in pigtails would add “aspirant to the order of Salesian Sisters of St. John Bosco” to that profile, trading her blue jeans for the uniform of a woman in formation, discerning whether God is calling her to become a religious sister.
“I started thinking about religious life the beginning of my junior year,” said Bragg. Then she met Sister Colleen Clair, vocations director of the Salesian Sisters, at an event for the Mystical Rose Daughters of Faith, a diocesan group for seventh- to 12th-grade girls. The two began emailing, and Sister Colleen visited her at home and encouraged her to visit the provincial house and convent in Haledon, NJ, north of Newark.
“I don’t remember a defining moment,” said Bragg of her decision to say yes to God’s call. She experienced moments of denial. “It’s been scary to think I’m actually thinking about religious life … but ‘scary’s’ not the right word. My friends are all going off to college, starting to date, and I’m just going in such an opposite direction. It’s so crazy.
“When I finally decided to enter, I had a much deeper peace than I’d felt definitely. I’d said, ‘God, I’m willing to serve you,’ but not actually ready to commit to being a sister, and when I finally said I would, a really deep peace came with that.
“My parents were, I think, shocked,” she said. “It definitely took them some time to get used to it and they’re very, very supportive, very wonderful. I can’t imagine what I’d do without them.”
Rod and Cathy Bragg have home-schooled Anastasia and her eight brothers in rural Otsego County. “Home-schooled” is not synonymous with “sheltered,” said Anastasia, who graduated in June and was first runner-up in the 2012 Miss Otsego County Fair pageant.
She said that homeschooling centers on the family unit, which by design is the heart of socialization. “We definitely have a lot of experiences with community and socializing with family and friends who are homeschooled.” The Braggs are part of a home-school co-op and active in the fair and life at Gaylord’s St. Mary Cathedral parish. Anastasia, who has served two years as president of Teens4Life, has traveled to five March for Life rallies in Washington, DC. She taught drama to the home-school co-op, has tutored students in writing and is a competitive runner.
“Homeschooling gives you a lot more freedom to explore things, especially religious life,” said Bragg. “My family was very open to it. I didn’t have to worry about other influences.”
Her home-school environment “maybe gave me more opportunity to hear God speaking,” she offered. He spoke to her through Adoration, daily Mass, the Rosary and Reconciliation.
“We’re really excited to see God working in her life this way,” said her mother, Cathy. “We appreciate all the prayers from parishioners and the prayers for vocations, and appreciate Adoration because I feel like that’s played a large role in giving Anastasia a time and place to discern her calling.”
Anastasia is likewise grateful for those prayers, and for her family. “My family has been a great blessing to me,” she said. She chose the Salesian order because its apostolate is youth and it emphasizes family. She will be able to communicate with her family and won’t be “sealed away in a little box.”
Along her 10-year path of discernment, she will become a teacher, which has long been her goal. She could be assigned anywhere in the world, though it’s likely she’ll remain within the Eastern Province, USA.
“When I visited the sisters, one thing that struck me is how many said ‘I love my life’ and their joy in surrendering to Jesus. On days I’m able to surrender my will to him I find a lot of joy in just abandoning myself to him.”
Bragg said the examples of her parish priests, Fr. James Bearss and Fr. Peter Wigton, also have inspired her. “I’m so blessed to have them as pastor and priest,” she said. “They’re amazing … seeing their joy and how they’ve lived out their vocation is pretty awesome.” Her mother echoed that sentiment.
Society convinces people “we can make ourselves happy by filling ourselves up,” said Anastasia. “In fact, I find I’m actually happier by emptying myself.” She recalled telling her mom, “I am never going to be happy and my heart will never be satisfied as long as it’s mine and I do for me. When I give it to Jesus in service to his people, that’s when I will find peace and joy.”
Religious life does not come without sacrifice. She will miss her parents and brothers: Carey, 20; Elijah, 16; Isaiah, 14; Seth, 12; Mike, 10; David, 8; Zakiya, 6; and Jesse, 3. The boys haven’t said much about her leaving. The three youngest, including David and Zakiya who have Downs Syndrome, don’t understand. “My pride wants them to miss me,” she said, adding she’s given her dog, Sparky, to David.
Still, the sacrifice pales in comparison to what awaits her. “Jesus is basically offering me the world, asking me to come and be his bride,” said Bragg. “Any reluctance I feel pales in comparison to that.”
As the second oldest and the only girl, Bragg has long prayed for a sister. “We pray the rosary daily as a family, and since I was maybe 4,” she said her mother reminded her, “I started my litany of intentions praying for a little sister.” As a member of the Salesians, she will have 14,000 sisters. “Be careful what you pray for,” she laughed.
To anyone attempting to figure out his or her path in this world, Bragg said this: “Spend time with God. Prayer is very important … Create space to hear God’s voice. We’re not always going to hear God’s voice, even if we’re listening, but trust and seek to do his will.”
He has a plan, as her favorite Bible passage says: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.” (Jeremiah 1:5)
Bragg has been surprised by the interest in her choice to enter the convent.
“I’ve definitely gotten a lot more attention than I would’ve liked,” she said. The Discovery Channel was in Gaylord for two weeks in August filming her and the rest of the Bragg family for a docu-series focused on her decision to become a Salesian sister, though she was not at liberty to discuss any more than that.
“I don’t think I feel any more (worthy) of attention for doing what God’s asked of me than someone else who is doing what God’s asked of them,” she said.
Did the media experience make her feel like she was a rock-star for Jesus?
“Basically, I’m just trying to let God use me in whatever way will bring him glory,” she said, having developed that attitude in a discussion with St. Mary Cathedral Rector Fr. James Bearss. “Hopefully … this will bring him glory.”
— By Chris Grosser. Chris is a freelance writer and editor based in Gaylord where she is a member of St. Mary Cathedral Parish. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.