Dedicated to serve others as a Sister of St. Joseph

Thursday, November 07, 2019 - Updated: 4:56 pm

By MATTHEW PEASLEE Associate Editor

The more things change the more they may stay the same. That’s the belief of Sister Valerie Zottola, coordinator of vocation ministry for the Sisters of St. Joseph in Baden. Even though the world keeps advancing and becoming more tech-driven, vocation to vowed religious life is the same today as it was many years ago.

“I don’t believe the message has changed, what has changed is the way in which we deliver and communicate what vowed religious life is,” Sister Valerie said. “The development of various communication methods via social media and the internet have opened up vistas that were not available in the past.”

Sister Valerie’s experience with younger adults in this generation points to a deep hunger for God, for love, for meaning and for fulfillment in their hopes and dreams. They’re the same qualities that have always been needed for success in life and in fostering vocations.

“In fact,” Sister Valerie said, “these hungers may be a bit deeper today because of the increase in information that is available through technological means.”

Sometimes, getting back to the way things used to be can be refreshing. While it’s hard to avoid the necessity of cellphones and computers, today’s young adults can actually benefit from breaks in screen time. One such opportunity is coming later this month at St. Joseph Spirituality Center in Baden with a “Listening to the Spirit” retreat.

“More and more I am hearing young adults yearning to ‘unplug’ or ‘disconnect’ from 24-hour access. That is so wise,” said Kathy Wray, director of St. Joseph Spirituality Center. “What must I do to attune my life, my mind and my heart toward God and others? That is vocational living.”

On Friday, Nov. 16, through noon Nov. 17, young adults are invited for a day (and optional overnight) of peace and prayer that combines quiet time for reflection with one-on-one spiritual direction with the “Listening to the Spirit” retreat. Many voices offer their wisdom and advice to young adults who are contemplating what the future may hold for them, but how do we know what is best? How do we know what God wants us to do with our lives?

As director, Wray said it is her privilege to provide time and space for people to come and explore their deepest desires, their need for God and their most sacred questions.

“The reward is really the honor of seeing our God of love at work, inviting souls to greater love on a daily basis,” Wray said.

At St. Joseph, Wray believes all who encounter the sisters find a beautiful hospitality of place and presence that welcomes each woman for whom she uniquely is.

“What matters most is inviting someone to flourish as the woman God is creating her to be,” Wray said.

She finds it funny when people tell her how nice it must be to work in a quiet place, such as a motherhouse.

“Peaceful, yes,” Wray said. “Quiet, not really. Apostolic religious women and men are engaged, active people. Their purpose is about bringing about the reign of God, so their presence with others, and their tasks at hand keep them quite active.”

That’s what drew Sister Valerie, a native of Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood, to the Sisters of St. Joseph in the first place. She had considered working with the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps, but her restlessness as a young adult gave her a deep desire for something even more powerful. She identified with the passions and mission of the Sisters of St. Joseph because they met her spiritual needs.

“I realized that I most wanted to be a close follower of Jesus Christ, working with others — in community — to further Christ’s mission here on earth,” Sister Valerie said.

The majority of her adult life has been devoted to teaching and administering in elementary, high school and junior college education. She served 14 years as principal of Holy Rosary School in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood and helped to create the Crossroads Foundation that supports impoverished elementary-age students in their Catholic high school education.

Holding a bachelor’s degree in business education, a master’s degree in counselor education, a post-graduate certificate in Christian spirituality and spiritual direction, along with numerous graduate credits in theology, Sister Valerie meets regularly with college students at Robert Morris University. They are part of ESTEEM, a Catholic college leadership program that encourages students to reflect on themselves, their talents and their leadership calling.

Her work with children led to the establishment of a Peace Camp in New Kensington that focused on the principles of respect for one’s self, others and nature, courage, forgiveness, good communication and creativity. Sister Valerie is also the volunteer coordinator of Casa San José in Pittsburgh’s Beechview neighborhood, a support outreach for Latino communities on issues related to local integration and self-sufficiency with an aim to promote a culture of acceptance where Latino immigrants are treated with dignity, respect and kindness.

The love that the staff has for those whom they serve became clear to her when she first visited Casa San José, which is why she asked the leadership of the Congregation of St. Joseph to let her offer her services there.

To become a sister and enter into a life of service and involvement, Sister Valerie said one must be a baptized Catholic and open to entering into the formal discernment process. Completion of college education would be needed before considering becoming a candidate, however, women may begin a discernment process prior to having received their bachelor’s degree.

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