Sr. Charlene Herinckx
Sr. Charlene Herinckx
BEAVERTON — A woman who grew up on an Oregon farm that supplied milk for the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon has been a longtime leader in the U.S. Catholic vocations movement.

Sister Charlene Herinckx, who joined the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon in 1967, serves in Chicago at the National Religious Vocation Conference, an association that supports vocations directors.

Superior general of her religious community 2010-2020, Sister Charlene worked for the conference before, 1999-2005.

Still passionate about vocations work, she has felt such fulfillment in religious life that she wants others to know about it.

“I think it’s vital for the church that religious life continue and flourish,” she said. “And it’s really great fun working with vocations directors. They have abundant hope.”

The number of women religious has shrunk over the past few decades. But in the U.S. there are still more women religious (about 44,000) than priests (about 11,000 religious and 25,000 diocesan). There are about 4,000 religious brothers in the nation.

Sister Charlene has worked in vocations for decades. From 1988 to 1995, she was not only vocations director for her community, but was a co- director of the Archdiocese of Portland vocations office.

She was one of a team that began western Oregon vocations rallies, focusing on children who are age 11 or in 11th grade. Research showed that those are two crucial points in youth development.

Now, she wants to help vocations directors nationwide become more effective. “One of the things we really work at is to orient new directors so they are competent and confident in what they are doing,” she said. Rookies need lessons on canon law and psychology, for example.

It is easy for vocations directors to feel isolated and overwhelmed, Sister Charlene explained, holding out the association as a remedy. “It’s helpful to hear what other people are doing. It’s very life giving.”

Sister Charlene explains that good vocations directors are more guides than recruiters. The goal is not really to get big numbers, but to help the young person discern what God is asking. For example, when Sister Charlene led her community’s vocations efforts, she required that the young women also visit other religious houses.

Sister Charlene has three tips for vocations work.

First, the vocations director should have a strong connection with the superior of the community, or the bishop in the case of a diocese, and have constant dialogue about expectations.

Second, the director must have a clear idea what his or her role is and what is left up the discerner. Crossing the line can lead to disaster, Sister Charlene said.

Third, keep reading about vocations and current practices. The National Religious Vocation Conference has a magazine called Horizon.

Sister Charlene and other vocations workers know that the internet has had a major impact on how women explore vocations.

By comparison, as a girl in Roy, young Charlene was taught at St. Francis School by the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon, who also taught her parents. She recalls the women in habits walking down the road to the Herinckx family farm, asking to buy milk, which her father tended to give them for free. She later attended St. Mary of the Valley High School — now called Valley Catholic — and her vocation blossomed.

“I never gave a thought to another community,” Sister Charlene said. “These are the ones I knew. These are the ones I loved.”

Now, such relationships between women religious and girls are relatively rare. Young women who have an inkling go to the internet to discover communities.

After the digital introductions, Sister Charlene explained, relationships need to be built. That’s been tough during a pandemic. Online sessions replaced face to face meetings. But prayer, retreats, music, images, and especially video testimony have added to the communication between religious communities and discerners.

“Vocations directors have been so creative,” Sister Charlene said, adding that the times call for both innovation and hope.