Sarah Wolf/Catholic SentinelSister Teresa Harrell greets a former Portland State University student, Mark Kortbaoui, who will be going to medical school in the fall. Kortbaoui served at the PSU Newman Center even after he graduated.
Sarah Wolf/Catholic Sentinel
Sister Teresa Harrell greets a former Portland State University student, Mark Kortbaoui, who will be going to medical school in the fall. Kortbaoui served at the PSU Newman Center even after he graduated.
After walking into the Portland State University Newman Center house, Sister Teresa Harrell immediately goes to the adoration chapel to say hello to Jesus. Her housemate, visiting priests and some students follow suit.

Communication is important in Sister Harrell’s relationship with God. That’s one of the reasons she attends Mass daily. Not going would be like going a day without talking to a spouse, she says.

Sister Harrell, a Catholic campus minister at PSU, is part of the Society of Mary, a society of consecrated life dedicated to the New Evangelization. The group is the feminine complement to the missionary work of the St. John Society. Both societies were founded in Argentina.

During the school year, the house is frequented by students talking, hanging out, studying, praying, eating. Since most of the students at PSU have gone home for the summer, it’s quiet. Today, just Sister Harrell and her housemate, Sister Felicity Nguyen, are here. Sister Nguyen is studying and packing her things for the move to St. Patrick Parish, where the sisters will be going in the fall.

For Sister Harrell, most of today is spent running errands from the end of the school year: collecting bills to be reimbursed and bills to be paid and preparing for the following school year. She stops by St. Patrick Church and then a nearby food cart pod to pay an owner. Sister Harrell hired the food cart to cater the Newman Center’s end-of-year event.

At the food carts, she greets another former student who is headed to medical school in the fall. They talk about the food and the man mentions a friend. The sister says she wishes the friend could know Jesus.

In this city, Sister Harrell stands out — but surprisingly blends in. People have mistaken her for a wizard on her way to a Harry Potter convention, a patron on her way to the Renaissance Faire and a woman dressed in a nun’s costume. “Are you for real?” someone recently asked her at the Grotto in Portland.

Product of conversion
This is not the kind of life Sister Harrell ever thought she would lead. The devout woman didn’t even grow up Catholic.

She was raised in Portland in the Pentecostal faith and eventually moved to Salem to study at the Baptist college there. During graduate studies at Oregon State University, she began talking about faith with one of her professors, a permanent deacon in the Catholic Church. He didn’t push the faith on her, but he did invite her to go to Mass.

She was armed, she says. She was not looking to convert. But when the celebrant for the Mass, Bishop Kenneth Steiner, held up the Eucharist during the Communion prayer, Sister Harrell says she could recognize Jesus. She was certain.

She went home and wept. She was so certain of this truth that she started going to Mass every week in addition to her Protestant service on Sundays. Then she started going to Mass twice per week and by the end of her graduate studies, she decided to take the plunge and become Catholic. Despite this change, she was definitely going to be a wife and mother. Of that, she was convinced.

After becoming Catholic, Sister Harrell worked as campus minister at the Newman Center at Oregon State University. One day in adoration, she says, she was asked by God to give up the desire to become a wife and mother. After a mission trip confirmed her calling to religious life, she made her way to Argentina with the St. John Society and joined the Society of Mary in 2008. She will profess her final vows next year.

Evangelizing Portland
Today, Sister Harrell is fasting. So there’s no stopping for lunch or a snack or breakfast. Rather, at 12:30 p.m. she and Sister Nguyen pray the rosary. As the sisters recite the prayers, sounds of the city echo in through the chapel windows. The chapel, one of the bedrooms in the house, holds some folding chairs, a keyboard, religious artwork, an altar and a tabernacle. It’s humble and peaceful.

The university contrasts with the serenity of the adoration chapel. It’s a challenging environment for religious ministry. Many of the students at the school and in the city are indifferent. Most people here follow their own truth, she says. The indifference, she believes, is even worse than negativity toward religion. Indifferent people are harder to sway.

But the Newman Center provides something attractive — a group of happy people having fun. So, she’s hopeful that evangelization work here can have an impact.
As she talks about her life and ministry, a student walks in. She greets him excitedly, asking him how he is and if he has any news. He’s on the search for a house for some of the male students from the Newman Center to live in next year. In addition, the house that holds the Newman Center now will become a community living environment for some of the female students next year. The sister and the young man talk about his life, his recent trip home and then he heads upstairs to “say hi to the boss” — pray in the adoration chapel.

At 41, Sister Harrell is the oldest sister in the society. The society doesn’t advertise vocations. Rather, the women who join the ministry come out of the apostolate work. The sister says she’s glad of this.

Sister Harrell recently was chosen to be the director for the Society of Mary in the U.S. The team of women is made up of eight sisters serving in Oregon,  in both Corvallis and Portland.  Several of the sisters are studying at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.

“To be able to share the joys and challenges together, to pray together, to serve together, to grow in Christ together — it is a great gift. [It is] one that I have grown to value more and more as I grow in my vocation,” says Sister Harrell. “When I look at my sisters, when I see how they serve the Lord with their whole hearts, when I see their virtues and their love for Jesus, I am constantly challenged to grow in holiness.”

According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, there were 47,170 religious sisters in the United States in 2016 and 670,330 worldwide in 2015.

A calling
Joy — that’s the word to describe Sister Harrell. She says she never wants to retire. She wants to serve the Lord as long as she can and then die. On a recent trip in Argentina, she met a 92-year-old sister with upward wrinkles from smiling. The only disappointment the 92-year-old had was her inability to serve the Lord as much these days. Sister Harrell says she wants to be just like her.

“What I most love about being a sister is that my life is dedicated to Jesus, and he lets me share in his mission of salvation,” she says.

“I have experienced in my own life the really overwhelming beauty of his love — how beautiful he is, how good [he is] and how much love he has for me and how much love he has for others.

“It is such a gift to be able to share in that mission, bringing his love to others, helping others encounter him [and] accompany them as they begin to live the new life that Jesus gives.”

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