The start has always been Stephanie Baliga’s favorite part of a race.
“That underlying anticipation, that build-up in the beginning, “ she said. “Everyone is quiet and focused on starting. It builds and then—bang—it’s released and all the energy goes. I love that.”
The 23-year-old Rockford, Ill.-native competed on the Division 1 level for the University of Illinois Cross Country team, and completed her second Chicago Marathon last month in an impressive three hours and 43 minutes.
But Baliga has recently surged past the starting line toward a much bigger milestone: becoming a nun. And more, joining an order that is just a little over a year old.
“We’re extremely new,” she said. “Pretty much as new as we can possibly be.
Baliga — or Sr. Stephanie, as she’s now known — is a novice in the Franciscans of the Eucharist order, a small community of religious and clergy servicing a struggling neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. The church at the center of the mission is Our Lady of the Angels — a building, school and community that was nearly decimated after a devastating fire killed 92 children and three sisters 53 years ago this Thursday.
The Franciscans of the Eucharist, comprising just three religious and two clergy members since its inception in September of 2010, have rallied around the church and neighborhood, working to rebuild with bricks, mortar and service.
“The area is in desperate need,” she said. “Right now we feed about 700 families a month and we have 800 to 900 kids in an after-school program to keep them off the streets and hopefully to finish school.“
As a novice, Sr. Stephanie concurrently serves her community and is in school at St. Mary’s of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Ill., all on her way to take her first vows. It’s a process that may take her up to five years, and she’s only a month in.
But Sr. Stephanie knows a thing or two about starting out, about tenacity, and about perseverance. She is, after all, an elite runner.
Fitness and faith is as much symbiotic for Sr. Stephanie as it is linear: when she was a sophomore in college she broke her foot running. The injury sidelined her both physically and emotionally, and the toll it took prompted her to think about her life beyond the sport.
“I went on a retreat and during that process I felt like I really needed to get my life figured out. I needed to reorder things,” she said. “’I should not be this devastated over this injury. This is not healthy,’ (I thought). Then on that retreat I felt the very objective presence of Christ — in the Eucharist, but I also felt a call to the religious life.”
“From too much attachment to running,” she added, “grows everything.”
Including Our Lady of the Angels. After deciding to lace up for the 26.2 again, Sr. Stephanie went through the motions to set the church up as an official Chicago Marathon charity. She and 11 others ran as part of Team Our Lady of the Angels and raised over $20,000 toward the church’s $2 million restoration.
“It was pretty sweet,” she said, adding, “Team Our Lady of the Angels is happening in 2012.“
Distance runners describe achieving a coveted sensation known as the “runner’s high”: an energy and heightened state of awareness that comes about through the rhythm of physical exertion. Sr. Stephanie has had the "runner's high" but what she experienced in training as “prayerfulness.”
“You’re kind of at peace and your mind is clear and you’re able to focus on the presence of God,” she said. “For me it’s not praying in words, it’s kind of a sense of the presence of God during the physical activity.”
Now that the marathon training is behind her, this year at least, Sr. Stephanie runs most days during the week—about four or five miles per outing, with one long run on some weekends. Running is now in its correct place in her life, she said, behind her calling, behind her mission, but still on the road ahead.
“Saint Paul uses all these amazing running images in his scripture: ‘Persevere in running the race that lies before us,’ and 'Run for the imperishable crown.’ I mean, it’s perfect imagery for the spiritual life,” she said. “It leads to an awareness that enables you to connect better, or realize the presence of God better.“
And like any good runner, she’s in it for the long haul.
Kerry Trotter is a writer and the newest member of the Word on Fire team.