Category: News & Information
A Devout Disciple
Photo Courtesy of Heidi Wagner
Many don’t think of religious sisterhood as a possible career path for University of Delaware graduates, but Heidi J. Wagner, AS82, who recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of taking her vows, would describe her vocation as more of a spiritual calling. She credits her experience at UD for not only deepening her faith and preparing for a leadership role in her community but also providing her with global experiences that help her connect with people across the world.
“During my time at UD, I grew in my personal relationship with God and learned to discern His voice, said Wagner. “I desired to become a religious sister in thanksgiving to Him and to share the Good News with others.”
Growing up in both New York and New Jersey, Wagner wasn’t raised in a Catholic household. She was, however, a bright and ambitious student and completed her public high school coursework early. Eager to begin college, she chose to attend UD in 1978 as part of the freshman Honors Program, now known as the Honors College. At the time, Honors Program at the University was new, beginning in 1976 as a small one-year program designed for exceptional high school students to finish their senior year while simultaneously starting their college career. Among the first cohorts of UD Honors students, Wagner was able to benefit from more rigorous classes, enrichment opportunities and a thriving community.
During her undergraduate experience, Wagner certainly took advantage of all the University had to offer and met some important figures along the way that helped to alter the course of her life. It was at UD where she was introduced to the Catholic Church through the influence of a young man she was dating. She joined in his family’s daily rosary, and at 18, she was baptized, confirmed, and received first Communion—sacraments of the Catholic Church.
Wagner was able to practice her newfound faith and gain a deeper understanding of Catholicism through her involvement in campus ministry. After moving to the main campus in Newark, she became active in the St. Thomas More Oratory, home to Catholic Campus Ministry Center.
“At the Center, I learned how to play guitar at church and have continued to do so ever since,” Wagner shared. “As a musician, I play guitar and sing at retreats as well as in our community prayers.”
Along with joining like-minded faith groups, Wagner also enjoyed taking part in multicultural experiences. She remembers fondly how Wesley Foundation at UD hosted weekly international lunches at the Newark United Methodist Church, which featured a meal cooked by students from a different country each week.
In order to fully immerse herself in a vibrant cultural community, Wagner also decided to live at the German House, one of UD’s former on-campus language houses that were home to international students. This experience in a tight-knit living-learning community helped to ignite her personal growth as well as enhance her studies in international relations.
“I realize now that back in the early 1980s UD was already on the cutting edge of education in international relations,” Wagner said. “I loved the interdisciplinary aspect of the program, as well as befriending the many international students.”
One of her mentors was William Wren McNabb, an instructor in German who was a leading advocate for study abroad programming at the University for more than 30 years and passed away in 2018. Wagner spent a semester studying abroad in Vienna, Austria, with Professor McNabb and a group of 20 other students.
“It was one of the highlights of my life!” Wagner said. “We learned about the history, music, art and architecture of Vienna and took the train out every weekend to explore the country, studying and practicing German the whole time. As an 18-year-old, seeing and learning about the centuries-old history of that area put my life and my country into a bigger perspective which has stayed with me ever since.”
When she was finishing her time at UD, her advisor encouraged her to pursue a master's degree, and she attended Catholic University in Washington, D.C., earning a master’s degree in international politics. Upon graduation, she committed to three years of volunteer work with Covenant House, working with disadvantaged youth in New York City and Panama.
Even though Wagner felt she strengthened her relationship with God throughout her time at UD and Catholic University, she wasn’t ready to devote her life to Him until she pursued other opportunities abroad.
“It was in Panama that I discerned the call to the consecrated life. Coming to know God's personal love for me changed my life, and I wanted above all to share this with others,” Wagner said. “There I met an American woman who told me about the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ (DLJC), a contemplative and active community in the Franciscan tradition. I was drawn to the twofold focus on prayer and community life and going out to share God’s love and presence with others.”
Since taking her vows, Wagner has been on youth and adult retreats and parish missions all over the western hemisphere. Celebrating the 30th anniversary of her vows in 2020, she began her term as local superior at The Ark & The Dove Retreat Center in Pittsburgh, PA.
Although her community consists of only 40 sisters, there is diverse representation from all corners of the globe, including Mexico, Canada, India, the Philippines, Vietnam, South Korea and Tanzania.
“My time at UD, international study and travel certainly prepared me for living in an international community, enjoying the richness of different cultures as well as the challenges of communication,” Wagner shared.
Reflecting on her 30 years of service, she finds fulfillment in being an instrument of change for others around the world.
“My greatest joy is watching people open up to God's love and healing and seeing them come alive with new hope, peace, and joy as they discover that God is real, trustworthy, and on their side,” Wagner said. “I see their lives change as mine did.”
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