As the gentle children’s story unfolds, a young girl named Claire becomes more and more drawn to her faith in the Catholic Church.
As she becomes older, Claire learns about the lives of religious sisters and God’s love and Jesus’ teachings. Claire takes a leap of faith and pursues a journey to become “Sister Mary Grace,” the title of the book.
The recently published story, the second in a series, was written by Peggy Wertz, principal at St. Mary Help of Christians School, and the Rev. Jeffrey Kirby, vicar of vocations with the Diocese of Charleston and a former priest at St. Mary Catholic Church. The illustrator, Alice Judd, is St. Mary’s art teacher.
The series focuses on vocations – how those in the Catholic Church decide through God to live their lives. The first book, “Father Bob,” had a similar theme about a young boy’s call from God. The final book will focus on the vocation of marriage.
“I had been given a donation to find a children’s book about vocations but couldn’t find one,” said Wertz. “So I told Father Kirby in jest to some extent that we should write one. He has no lack of energy or inspiration, and so we did.”
The first book was written while Kirby was living in Rome, working on his doctorate in moral theology.
He and Wertz communicated mostly through email. Wertz also met with Judd during that process and did so again on “Sister Mary Grace.”
That’s unusual in children’s books in that artists tend to work separately and at different times than the authors. However, Wertz wanted Judd’s work in part to move the story forward through illustrations and not the text.
“Our mission is that we want children to understand normal people just like them and listen to what God has planned for them, becoming perhaps a priest or a sister,” Wertz said.
Kirby welcomed the opportunity to share the project with Wertz and Judd on both books and appreciates their creativity in “Sister Mary Grace.”
“While religious life has diminished, the book lets people know that God still calls young women to be religious sisters,” Kirby said. “It’s a great story about Claire and her place in the world.”
Yet “Sister Mary Grace” might not have happened if Wertz and Kirby had not established the St. Cecilia Vocations Club for Young Women at St. Mary in 2008.
Ten middle school girls became the charter members, and, to their surprise, Wertz formally dedicated the book to them.
In the tradition of St. Nicholas Day in Europe, the students received 300 pairs of shoes in December that year.
Along with candy and the legend of St. Nicholas, they delivered them to Children’s Place, the agency that provides services for kids and families in need.
“We needed to give attention not just to male vocations but to female vocations, too,” Wertz said. “We took the girls to Charleston and stayed at the county park and visited with the Sisters of Mercy. They were so interested in seeing how a young woman would be moved to become a religious sister led to ‘Sister Mary Grace.’”
Natalie Gorensek, now a high school student at Aquinas High School in Augusta, recalls the monthly meetings and discussions about vocations.
“It’s so exciting, and we’re honored to get a book dedicated to us,” she said.
“Father Bob” is based loosely on the life of the Bishop in Charleston – the Most Rev. Robert E. Guglielmone. He wrote a forward to each book.
In the second book, Mary Grace hears a story about hummingbirds – based on a homily that the Bishop had once presented at a teachers’ conference.
A large number of them had flown to a feeder, all of them fighting each other over the sugar water, even though ample amounts were available.
In the book, Father Bob says, “We are like that. We do not always understand that God’s love has no limits. God has enough love for every single person. He has more love for us than we can ever imagine.”
Judd relied on her sons as models in the first book and her daughters in the second.
“It’s a very dear subject to me,” she said. “I love working with children and love to tell them through my artwork the importance of being close to God.”
Kirby estimates the third and final book should be published in about three years.
“There had to be a third book on holy matrimony,” he said. “All three vocations are so essential to the church and society.”