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Former Olympian finds thrills in religious life

  • Written by Cathy Breitenbucher, Special to your Catholic Herald
  • Category: Local

SKATEinset2-25-10Sr. Catherine Mary, then known as Kirstin Holum, is shown skating in this photo from the U.S. Speedskating's 1998 media guide. (Submitted photo, photo illustration by Erik Peterson) When God is speaking, not even the din of cheering fans and ringing cowbells in an Olympic ice rink can drown out his call.

So learned Franciscan Sr. Catherine Mary, once one of speedskating’s brightest young stars.

Sr. Catherine grew up as Kirstin Holum in Waukesha and skated in the 1998 Olympics when she was a senior at Pius XI High School. She earned a college degree in art before discerning that she wanted to become a sister.

This June, after seven years with the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal, she will profess final vows.

“I look back now at all the events in my life and see that I think the Lord was definitely preparing me for my vocation, even in such a mysterious way that I didn’t see,” Sr. Catherine said from Leeds, England, where she lives.

Sr. Catherine was on Olympic ice even before she was born. Her mother, Dianne Holum, was pregnant with her when she coached Eric Heiden to his historic sweep of five races at the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Holum later became her daughter’s coach in skating – and in life. The two trained relentlessly and traveled the world for competitions. Holum taught physical education at St. Anthony on the Lake School, Pewaukee, which Kirstin attended, and at St. William School, Waukesha.

‘Skating isn’t a religion’

Whether a weekend’s races were scheduled for the Pettit National Ice Center or in Japan, Holum and her daughter never missed Sunday Mass.

“You could go to a lot of competitions and (be tempted to) skip (Mass), because it was so hard or we had to get up early,” recalled Holum, who now lives in Colorado. “I always said, ‘Skating isn’t a religion – this is our religion.’ ”

In 1996, Holum arranged for her daughter, then 16, and a younger cousin to make a pilgrimage to Fatima.

“My thought was, it gets tough as a teenager, and I wanted her to be grounded in her faith,” said Holum.

The trip proved to be one of two major events that put Kirstin on the path to a life as a religious.

“The first day we were there, as we were walking into the cova where Our Lady appeared, I felt this deep desire in my heart, this call, to be a sister,” said Sr. Catherine. “It was out of the blue.”

She didn’t mention it to her mother or anyone else. And no wonder, because what she felt was completely unfamiliar – more intense than anything she’d experienced as a top athlete.

“It wasn’t just the thrill of the moment. It was a joy and peace the Lord placed in my heart for a long time to come, the beginning of a desire he had for me to be a sister,” Sr. Catherine said.

“It was very different from an adrenaline, a speed- skating rush, or the joy that comes from winning. It was definitely longer-lasting, and deeper.”

COVERnewC2-25-10Speedskating – including a 1998 Olympic berth – was a major part of young Kirstin Holum's life. Then she heard and answered the call to religious life and became Sr. Catherine Mary. (Photo courtesy of the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal) God had other plans

Upon returning home, Sr. Catherine found that the meaning and importance of the Eucharist had intensified for her. She also began to pray the rosary each day on the bus to school, asking Mary to intercede on behalf of her skating career.

She went from competing on the junior level to capturing the national senior championship and the world junior gold medal in 1996-’97. Within months of those accomplishments, however, she developed exercise-induced asthma that had to be carefully treated within the Olympic drug-use rules.

At the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Kirstin placed sixth in the 3,000 meters and seventh in the 5,000, then, to the disappointment and astonishment of the speed skating world, she retired. She hadn’t yet reached her 18th birthday.

“I often think (asthma) was God’s way of getting her, making it easy for her to step down from speed skating,” said Holum. “What she was going through was very difficult. You can look at things that are difficult as a blessing, because God has other plans for you.”

Sr. Catherine said her retirement, which was announced before the Games, came with no regrets. She went on to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the call she’d heard was “pushed into the background.”

“It wasn’t a very spiritual place, and I didn’t have any Catholic friends,” recalled Sr. Catherine. “I was going to Mass every Sunday, but not necessarily making my Catholic faith part of my daily life.”

Life-changing trip to Toronto

She earned a bachelor’s degree in photography in 2002 and went to Colorado to join her mother, who by then was attending daily Mass and had become active in weekly prayer groups outside an abortion clinic. Kirstin joined the group one weekend and within days had joined a Crossroads pro-life walk that culminated at World Youth Day in Toronto – the other seminal moment in her faith journey.

“I was blown away by their witness of joy and zeal in living their Catholic faith fully,” said Sr. Catherine. “It was completely life-changing. I saw for the first time young people practicing their faith in a very real, joyful way, nothing superficial. Just by their example, they were teaching me what it means to be a Christian.”

By the time she reached Toronto, “my heart was totally open and ready to hear” the Lord’s voice, Sr. Catherine said. The fire was fueled by her encounters with some Franciscan Friars who were in attendance.

“She thought they were so filled with joy,” remembered Holum. “She was with a friend and she said, ‘If they have sisters, I’m joinin’. ’ And he said, ‘They do have sisters.’ That drew her to that community.”

P12NunSr. Catherine Mary receives her black veil at her first profession of vows as a Franciscan Sister of the Renewal on Sept. 22, 2006. (Submitted photo courtesy the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal) Vocational call intensified

Sr. Catherine laughed at her mother’s version of that story, but said that as she began meeting with various religious orders in the Denver area, her interest in becoming a nun intensified. She first visited the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal at their mission house in the Bronx, N.Y., in early 2003 and entered into their formation process that September.

The order is relatively new, having been founded in 1988 under the auspices of Cardinal John O’Connor of New York. The missions of its current 30 members are work with the poor and homeless, and evangelization.

Sr. Catherine served as a tutor, facilitated retreats, and worked in a soup kitchen in the Bronx before joining the order’s new mission house in England last fall to do similar tasks. She will be part of a pilgrimage to Medjugorje that involves several people served by a meal program, thanks to a benefactor.

“It will be a wonderful experience of ministry and walking with those we serve, drawing them to Jesus,” she said.

Skin-tight racing suit to ankle-length habit

One of Sr. Catherine’s more memorable field trips in the Bronx involved taking some kids outside the city to a skating rink. The woman who once wore a skin-tight racing suit and expensive custom-made skates took laps around the ice in an ankle-length habit and rented hockey skates.

Sr. Catherine’s illustrious past comes up when other sisters brag about her, or when she speaks at retreats, but largely she’s put it behind her, or at least frames it in terms of her new life.

“The Lord can give you so many different talents and gifts to use,” she said. “The Olympics, I can share that and tell people there’s more to life than sports, but that the Lord gives those gifts to us and they’re not bad.”

Sr. Catherine offered some advice for anyone who senses a call.

“The keys are to live a sacramental life by attending Mass and confession regularly, and spending time in prayer,” she said. “Ask the Lord where his will is, and seek advice from holy people who can guide you. … The Lord would never call anyone to a life that would not fulfill them or make them happy.”

Sr. Catherine stays in contact with friends in Milwaukee, including several former teachers at Pius XI, through a newsletter published by the sisters.

“Knowing she had strong values and ideals, it wasn’t a total surprise” that she became a sister, said Brian Anderson, Kirstin’s guidance counselor. “She wasn’t worried about what someone else might think, or what the pop culture dictates.”

As for skating, Dianne Holum left coaching when she moved to Colorado, and Sr. Catherine owns neither a television nor a computer to keep up on the latest results.

“I don’t miss any of those things, because life is so rich and so full. Without all of the technology, we have more time for one another as sisters and also more time to serve God’s people,” Sr. Catherine said. “Life is so much simpler that way.”

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