Sister Mary Gemma Harris vividly remembers the day she visited Mt. Subasio above Assisi, kneeling before a bed of rock in the same cave where St. Francis often prayed. “I thought of how he must have known and loved God so deeply and met him in this place,” recalls Sister Mary Gemma of that profound moment during a trip to Italy while working as a campus minister for a study abroad program in 2016.
For Sister Mary Gemma, her call to religious life as a member of the Franciscan Sisters, TOR (Third Order Regular) of the Penance of the Sorrowful Mother, is very much a love story. A childhood piety nurtured by her devout Catholic parents would grow deeper when she attended Franciscan University in Steubenville (Ohio).
“I find it beautiful and mysterious how the Lord formed my heart for great love, and then slowly revealed that he is that great love,” she says.
That love would draw her to religious life and find expression in a community modeled aft er the example of St. Francis. “St. Francis knew the tension between the life of contemplation and the urgency of preaching the Gospel for the salvation of souls. He found peace in imitating Christ, and he lived both with just as much zeal and passion.”
Sister Mary Gemma brings zeal and passion to her prayer life and ministries, whether serving the poor with novices at a homeless shelter, counseling students as a campus minister, creating social media content, or cleaning and cooking in the community kitchen. More recently, her Franciscan spirit has found creative expression in music. The connection to music makes sense, given that Francis was known to sing and dance, even using two sticks to mimic a violin and a bow. “I imagine it was a way to express his very full and passionate heart,” says Sister Mary Gemma.
Encouraged by her community, she began songwriting early in her postulancy. After playing her music at a live-streamed benefit, a production company offered her studio time. The result is Go Forward, an album of original music released on the feast of St. Francis, October 4, 2021. The album is available on platforms including Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Music, and Pandora. More information about Sister Mary Gemma’s music can be found at FranciscanSistersTOR.org/News/Music.
Sister Mary Gemma says: “Music has always been an expression of my heart. It’s such a gift we have as human beings to give glory to God not only with our souls but also with our bodies. I feel most fully alive when I’m playing and singing for the Lord—even when no words are involved.”
‘An Old-Fashioned Girl’
Sister Mary Gemma’s musical and religious roots go back to her childhood, where she grew up “an old-fashioned girl” in a small rural town in the Columbia Basin of Washington State. She loved books, paper dolls, and classic movies. “My siblings and I would learn musical numbers and perform them for our parents and extended family,” she says.
“Music was an integral part of my childhood, from piano lessons to choir and community theater.” Her family life revolved around their Catholic parish. Her mom homeschooled all six children and would often take them to daily Mass; summer beach trips were always scheduled around vacation Bible school.
Sister Mary Gemma served in campus ministry from 2016 to 2019. She walks with two Franciscan University students who were part of the university’s study abroad program. The campus is near the famous Kartause in Gaming, Austria.
“My childhood piety was formed at our little home devotional corner with its statue of Mary and a bowl of rosaries,” she recalls.
She had rarely encountered women religious. That changed at Franciscan University, where she met the TOR sisters for the first time. From the start, she was struck by their “joy and authenticity.”
During a discernment weekend her junior year, she fell in love with the community.
“I could clearly see how joyful and free the life could be. The sisters were down-to-earth and relatable, and I could easily see myself there with them.”
The Rhythm of Religious Life
After graduating and working for about 16 months, Sister Mary Gemma entered the Franciscan Sisters, TOR of Penance of the Sorrowful Mother, on August 14, 2011. Founded in 1988 in Steubenville, the congregation is described on their website as “Franciscan contemplative penitents committed to works of mercy and evangelization. We strive to make known God’s merciful love through the rhythm of our life of prayer, work, and ministry.”
“Our founding sisters received a grace to renew the contemplative dimension of the life of the early Franciscan friars and sisters,” explains Sister Mary Gemma. “Concretely, that means we spend a good deal of our day in both silent and communal prayer, and we work only part-time.”
In her current ministry, she is a “sister servant” of novices. In that role, she helps plan their formation classes and meets with them one-on-one, essentially walking beside them as they discern. This past year, she and the novices have worked in a thrift store and a homeless shelter in downtown Steubenville.
“Basically, I’m here to be an encourager—to see the good in each novice, witness the process of growth, and not get in the way!” says Sister Mary Gemma. In turn, she has found encouragement in St. Francis, whose “radical love for God always inspired me. He set aside so many of the good things of this world in order to love Jesus and follow him more closely,” she says.
She carries with her the memory of Mt. Subasio and has felt the presence of St. Francis many times since. “I have felt Francis’ friendship, almost as if he walks ahead of me, taking my hands and pulling me forward.” Wherever that may take her next, she is prepared to follow with a wide-open heart.