Pax Christi nominee Mary Joan Sutton stands with Bishop James P. Powers at the joint conference for the Council of Catholic Women for both the Superior and Duluth dioceses. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Anita Draper
Catholic Herald staff

From vocational discernment to thick-skinned career woman to charismatic Catholic and volunteer, Mary Joan Sutton’s journey through life has been as varied as her journey of faith.

An active member of St. Bridget, River Falls, Sutton was a finalist for the Superior Diocesan Council of Catholic Women’s 2018 Pax Christi Award for being “a living example of genuine strength and femininity.”
Sutton’s story begins when she was a young girl. A transplant to Hudson, she attended St. Patrick Catholic School during her elementary years and there felt the pull of a religious vocation.

“At a very young age, I had thought that was the direction I needed to go, and I left (for the convent) after eighth grade,” she said.

Sutton went to live with the Sisters of St. Agnes in Fond du Lac, where she remained through high school and two years of college – through postulancy and the novitiate, almost long enough to take her first vows.
But, after a period of discernment, she realized religious life was not her calling. Sutton left the sisters in her early 20s to pursue other goals.

Honestly, she said, “I had a really hard time surrendering.” She had come to the conclusion that the convent might be where she needed to be, but “I needed to be me.”

“I got disillusioned,” she added. Sutton had a career path in mind, but it didn’t match the one the Sisters of St. Agnes had in mind for her.

Looking back, Sutton sees a world in transition. It was the middle of the Vietnam War, she said, although Pope John XXIII was attuned to what was going on, Sutton felt nothing was changing in the congregation. There was an expectation that sisters would conform.

Things did change, though, she added. About five years after she left, “they began to open the door to the individual,” and now those who stayed in the congregation live out their vocations in individual ways.

When Sutton left, she remembers, “I was in rebellion.” She rode with a motorcycle gang for a couple of years, got pregnant and got married, had two sons and divorced.

She then met her second husband; they’ve been married 38 years. She describes him as “the best dad ever,” an “awesome, wonderful human being.”

Sutton’s career path began with nursing school, and she went back to college and earned a business degree when she was 40. For a period of seven or eight years, Sutton said she lived the hard-edged corporate life – an $800 suit, a thick skin and a heartless attitude – and it took two firings before she began to reflect on her life.

Part of what God was telling her was that she wasn’t on the right path, Sutton said. She began to think, “What am I going to do? Who am I? This has to change.”

“’You’re just not the same person,” her brother told her. “I really don’t like you.’”

After much reflection, soul-searching and time, Sutton laid her corporate persona to rest.

“Life is so full of joy and peace since all of that has changed,” she said. Nowadays, “the nurse is back.” As her husband battles stage 4 cancer, Sutton responds with compassion, and they are “grateful for every morning.”

Her faith journey has included similar revelations. The first time she attended a charismatic Life in the Spirit seminar, Sutton was “a pew-sitter.” But something about the message she heard – “Even though I’m a sinner and I’m sitting here, God loves me so much” – touched her deeply, and when she went a second time, she felt her heart softening.

When her pastor, Fr. Gerald Harris, gave a presentation to the city council on the needs of the homeless, Sutton joined the team that created Our Neighbor’s Place, the local homeless shelter. It was an unpaid, 60 hours-a-week job, she said.

She’s helped with many volunteer projects over the years, and she has also become more involved with the charismatic core team in the Diocese of Superior. But Sutton doesn’t dwell on the time and effort she’s given; instead, she talks about her gratefulness.

“I’m blessed,” she said. “I’m lucky … to have the opportunity to wake up to what this life is all about.”