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The unconventional nun

Sr Francalanza has been working with young people to “discover themselves in ordinary things, not just in prayer.” Photo: Chris Sant FournierSr Francalanza has been working with young people to “discover themselves in ordinary things, not just in prayer.” Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

MaryAnne Francalanza knew she would not fit in at a closed convent, and yet she wanted to live the Ignatian spirituality “full-time”.

So she logged on one of the first search engines at the University of Malta and looked up “Ignatian women”, where she discovered the FCJ Sisters (Faithful Companions of Jesus).

That was 14 years ago, when she was doing a Masters in Mathematics, and since then Sr Francalanza has been working with young people to “discover themselves in ordinary things, not just in prayer”.

“That’s what I do: I find God in the public sphere, not just in prayer or in churches,” the young woman says, basking in the sun just outside the university chapel.

Sr Francalanza misses the sun where she is based in Liverpool, but in Malta there is no FCJ Sisters community.

The 36-year-old is not your usual nun. She does not wear a religious habit, and spends most of her time out with people.

She explains that the FCJ Sisters are like the female counterparts of the Jesuits, following the same spirituality, with the three religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Their mission is to offer companionship where needed through every day events.

Sr Francalanza had always been active in chaplaincy events at Junior College and then at the University of Malta.

“I liked it there, but I realised I didn’t want to do it as a hobby, but work for social justice full-time. I wanted to live like the Jesuits but at the same time I knew I wouldn’t fit in a closed convent...,” she recalls.

She spent a “difficult” year thinking about something she wanted to do, which was also impossible. It was 1999 when the internet was still a novel idea.

That’s what I do: I find God in the public sphere, not just in prayer or in churches

After looking up “Ignatian women” online, she sent an e-mail not thinking this could be the turning point in her life.

When one day she returned home at 11pm and found a package with literature about the FCJ Sisters’ work, she read all of it overnight and decided to go to London to meet someone from the community.

“After spending some 10 days with the FCJ Sisters community, I felt this is it. Just like a jigsaw puzzle piece... it fit with a satisfying click. Everything fell into place,” she says.

She did a PCGE in the UK, giving herself more time to think about her choice. After her novitiate in 2001 she took her first vows in 2003 and last year she took her final vows. In the meantime, she was based in London, the Philippines and Liverpool, and read for a Masters in Theology.

Sr Francalanza recalls her experience in Bagong Silangan, in the Philippines, where she lived with people on a big rubbish dump at the FCJ learning and development centre, where the community builds water tanks and teaches computer skills among others.

There, she taught book-keeping to women who made jewellery and boxes.

Nowadays she teaches mathematics and is assistant head at the Bellerive Catholic School in Liverpool, which opened in the 1840s, just years after the FCJ Society was founded in France.

“You just do what you can. Our main mission is companionship, and we see God in every person – that’s why it doesn’t matter who the people are... rich, poor... we’re faithful companions of Jesus not just in prayer.

“Injustice breaks my heart, but God calls me to be compassionate and act on it.”

The school where she works raises awareness among children that there are even poorer kids, and they need to take action.

“Children have a great sense of justice, and prayer for them makes sense when they link it with practical things.”

She admits that just like any other human being she does sometimes get angry, confused and feels helpless. But she works it out by taking her time, reflect on it... and act.

“We have to understand that God cannot solve problems with the swish of some magic baton... we are needed as well.”

Asked about people that want to lead a life like hers but drop out during postulancy, she admits she does not think hers is the best life for everyone.

“I don’t think everyone should do this. Changing your plans because you realise your call is marriage is a success story as well.

“There is no point in doing something because you feel you should. I don’t see my life as a sacrifice – I’m really happy – this is what I want.”

To find out more details about the FCJ Sisters, go to www.fcjsisters.org.

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