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Nun makes vow to run Chicago Marathon

Sister ChristParrruns Thursday LoretConvent Wheaton.

Sister Christa Parra runs Thursday at the Loretto Convent in Wheaton.

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Updated: November 16, 2011 10:48AM

Christa Parra, 30, has made a vow to run 26.2 miles in Sunday’s Chicago Marathon. She has never run one before.

“I want to finish well, don’t want to pass out or throw up,” she said with a laugh over the phone Thursday.

She has had experience being a novice.

Pretty and engaging, the second-generation Mexican American has from the days of her Arizona childhood been deeply religious. So much so that high school classmates in 1999 voted her “most likely to be a nun.”

But it was not until after college, after getting engaged and then breaking it off, that she fully realized her vocation.

“I feel called by God to be a sister, to serve in this way,” she said.

And so two years ago, Christa Parra entered the order known as the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, became Sister Christa, and left her extended family in Phoenix to join the IBVMs in Chicago.

Her first assignment was to work at the St. Martin de Porres shelter for women and children in Woodlawn, a place I have come to know well over the years.

Sister Therese O’Sullivan, the 73-year-old nun who runs it, couldn’t have been more amazed.

“I asked myself, ‘Can she be real’?” Sr. Therese said.

That’s because “young” and “nun” don’t go together in many of the established Catholic orders of female religious in the United States. The average age of an American IBVM is 77. Two of Sister Christa’s roommates at the convent, where she lives, are 75 and 79.

“It’s been quite a while since our last sister entered,” said Sister Kay Foley, the Province Leader of the IBVMs, describing Sister Christa as, “the Energizer Bunny. She has such a passion for ministry, I’ve never seen anybody like her.”

Her arrival coincided with the Vatican’s decision to launch a two-pronged investigation of American nuns, long deemed too progressive and too outspoken for a conservative Curia. The probe generated an outraged response from plenty of people in the pews as well as from many sisters.

It did not, however, discourage the youngest IBVM. “We were one of the communities investigated. It’s unfortunate it had to occur,” Sister Christa said. “It wasn’t a just thing to do. . . . But we stood in solidarity with one another and showed them what we are about.”

When Mary Ward founded the IBVMs in the 1600s, she was a modern woman for the times, taking her ministry out of the cloister and believing that modest dress of the day was more practical than wearing a habit. Above all, she believed in the education of young women.

Five centuries later, Sister Christa Parra carries on the spirit of Mary Ward.

And the marathon is a metaphor for religious life. It requires commitment and discipline.

“You get up at 5:30 with the sun coming up along the lake,” Sister Christa said. “This is the kind of life I want to live. To get up early, to pray and meditate, to be healthy spiritually and physically. And to be present.”

Her fellow sisters will cheer her on from the sidelines Sunday, wearing bright pink “Go Christa, IBVM” T-shirts.

I say amen to that.

Run, young nun, run.

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