Prayer is top priority for diocese’s newest ‘bride of Christ’

By: By Jennifer Willems

PERU — Prayer is the first priority of a consecrated virgin and that seems to fit Jeri Gerding to a T.

“I feel a really strong call to the life of prayer. I am definitely more of a contemplative,” said Gerding, who was consecrated by Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, at St. Mary’s Cathedral on May 2.

That is only natural for a “bride of Christ,” she said in discussing a vocation that is not widely understood.

“When I was first called to it, I didn’t know what it was either,” Gerding said, noting that the vocation dates back to the time of St. Paul. Any list of Christian heroes reveals there were virgin martyrs and virgin saints in the early church.

In the second century consecrated virgins were veiled, like a bride would be, because there weren’t nuns then. She said the first recorded consecration was in the fourth century.

While the vocation faded out a bit in the Middle Ages, Gerding said there has been a resurgence in the last 30 years. Of the 150 to 200 consecrated virgins in the United States, the Diocese of Peoria now has four — Julie Enzenberger in Hennepin, Linda Frickey in Pontiac, and May Kay Pangrcic in LaSalle, in addition to Gerding.

Prayer is such vital part of a consecrated virgin’s life because that is how one cultivates a relationship with Jesus, she said.

“I think our role is to be a witness to how important that is. Being in relationship with Jesus is a witness for people to see that this is the first task for all Christians,” she said. “We hope to draw all people into a prayerful relationship with him.”

Their model, according to Gerding, is the Blessed Virgin Mary, who demonstrated fidelity to God in a powerful way. Consecrated virgins also share in her motherhood by supporting the spiritual growth of others, she said.

Dependence on God is another aspect of this vocation, Gerding explained.

“We don’t have the support of a religious community,” she said. “A woman called to this must demonstrate that she can live alone and support herself. She must have a capacity to depend on God alone.”

That wasn’t always easy for Gerding to do.

The daughter of Bill and Pat Gerding of Ottawa, she attended Catholic schools. In the eighth grade, however, she decided that she didn’t believe in God.

“I wasn’t open to God then,” Gerding said. “I didn’t have the gift of faith.”
Gerding went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in art education at Northern Illinois University and master’s in social work at the University of Illinois and worked as a mental health therapist for 20 years in Wisconsin. A year after moving there, she had a conversion experience at a wedding she attended.

“There was a sculpted relief of Jesus’ head on the wall and when I was at the service I heard him say, ‘Follow me,'” Gerding recalled. “I didn’t believe in God or anything but I knew it was Jesus. I saw myself in a bridal gown, holding the hand of God.”

She also had a strong feeling of being loved. She started a search that would lead her back to the Catholic Church and discernment about religious life.

“I spent a lot of years visiting religious communities,” Gerding said. “They say when you find the right community you’ll know it, but it didn’t happen.”
One prioress suggested that Gerding didn’t seem to have a passion for community life and “I knew she was right. I thought it was over.”

She found what she was looking for a few months later when she met a woman who was a consecrated virgin and got more information about that vocation. The discussion she started with a spiritual director in Wisconsin continued with her new spiritual director, Father Philip Davey, OSB, of St. Bede Abbey, when she returned to Illinois to do pastoral care at St. Margaret’s Hospital in Spring Valley.

Gerding eventually applied to Bishop Jenky and worked with Msgr. Jason Gray, episcopal vicar for consecrated life in the Diocese of Peoria.
Because consecrated virgins are not called to one charism or ministry, they have some freedom to choose how they will serve the church while living in society. Gerding’s focus is on prayer.

“People can understand right away if you’re teaching or doing something tangible,” she said. “But this is not something you can explain in one sentence.”

Gerding added that she did not choose to be a consecrated virgin.

“You’re called to it,” she told The Post. “You either respond to the call or you don’t.”

She did.

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