First Place Award for General Excellence, Catholic Press Association, 2013-2016

Grateful Priest, Sister Return to Alma Mater to Promote Vocations
Courtesy of Father Justin Cinnante
Justin Cinnante as an altar server assisting Msgr. George Cascelli, who is now deceased, at a private baptism at St. Francis Xavier Church.

The Rosary was a refuge for the rambunctious Justin Cinnante of St. Francis Xavier School in the Bronx. When the clever third-grader didn’t want to do his math deskwork during class, he busied himself with a strand of beads. But his ruse didn’t amuse his wise teacher.

From time to time, his equally cheerful classmate, Margarita Marcone, a self-described “good girl” who earned straight As, loved to laugh and had the gift of gab, was gently reprimanded by their teacher for being “a chatterbox.”

Justin grew up to be a priest. Margarita grew up to be a religious sister. Now both 31, the 1995 alumni of St. Francis Xavier School recently reminisced about their Catholic school days and shared their vocation stories with the current student body at their alma mater. After their respective addresses in the school auditorium Jan. 10, in conjunction with the Church’s celebration of National Vocation Awareness Week Jan. 13-19, the priest and woman religious fielded questions from their young audience.

Among the most poignant questions was from a student who asked if one has to be a priest or nun to get to heaven. The answer was no.

“God has a plan for everyone,” Father Cinnante said. “The vocation for all of us is to be holy, to become a saint.”

Within that universal call to holiness, he continued, is a call to the priesthood and religious life.

Father Cinnante, now a chaplain and religion instructor at Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, and an auxiliary vocation director for the archdiocese, credits his years at St. Francis Xavier for helping him to hear the call to the priesthood.

As a kindergartner, the picture book “The Lives of the Saints,” read as a family at home, made a heroic impression. At school, statuary of saints and the presence of priests and religious reinforced the vocation. “I remember drawing a picture of St. Xavier for the feast day and thinking one day I could be like this missionary and preach the Gospel,” Father Ciannante said.

Justin further proved his priestly potential in the fifth grade, after successfully breaking up a fight on the playground. After one boy not so nicely called him the “Pacifist Priest,” Justin threatened a karate move. But by giving the boy an opportunity to choose niceness over meanness, the threat alone quelled the commotion.

“I wasn’t the best in school academically,” nor athletically, Father Cinnante concedes of his years at St. Francis Xavier. Still, he learned early on through his studies of the saints “how God uses the weakest of his creatures for his glory, to do great things in love for other people.”

Father Cinnante added, “The Lord answered every desire I had as a child. I really looked to the saints. I wanted to be Don Bosco, and now I’m teaching in a high school. I wanted to be a missionary and I got do missionary work. I wanted to be John Vianney and I worked in a parish.

Father Cinnante was ordained a priest for the archdiocese 18 years to the day he received his first Holy Communion—May 13, 2007.

Margarita Marcone is now Sister Maria Francesca, a founding member of the Benedictine Daughters of Divine Will, a congregation headquartered in the Diocese of San Marino-Montefeltro in Talamello, Italy.

She visited St. Francis Xavier School with Father Cinnante while on a home visit from Italy.

That her vocation to religious life arrived later in life—just three years ago—took her by surprise, she said. Growing up, Margarita Marcone thought she would one day marry and have children.

The stirrings of religious life arrived unexpectedly, while she was visiting one of her best friends, a Dominican Sister of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist at a convent in Michigan.

At the time, then-Miss Marcone was teaching at a public middle school in the Bronx.

“It started as a little whisper, how beautiful that would be, to live in community with women who are all striving just to grow closer to the Lord,” she said.

Shortly after Miss Marcone went to Michigan, her friend said her mother superior enjoyed speaking with her and suggested she attend one of the order’s vocation retreats.

She concedes she again tried to quiet that whisper. “I always had my mind set on marriage and children. I had a job and I was content with my life.”

When she asked herself, “What’s this about?” she already knew the answer: it was a confirmation of that earlier whisper.

After mulling the idea of a religious vocation for the next month or two, another defining moment came when she went to confession. Before entering the confessional, she assured God that if his will was that she should become a religious sister, she would not resist but first she needed clarity of the call.

After making her confession, she confided to the priest that she was personally struggling to do God’s will. When the priest asked her state in life, and she replied she was a laywoman discerning a call to the religious life, he told her that, upon her arrival to his confessional, he thought she was a nun.

Sister Maria Francesca first met her Dominican sister friend, now of Michigan, when the friend was a young adult leader at an Emmaus retreat Margarita Marcone attended more than a decade ago as a student at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx.

She learned about the Benedictine Daughters of Divine Will through a college friend, a Benedictine monk who is friends with the religious sister who now serves as the order’s mother superior. The congregation’s three founding sisters, including Sister Maria Francesca, made their first vows, collectively, in December 2011.

An irony not lost on Sister Maria Francesca—who still has the gift of gab and loves to laugh as she did as a young school girl—is that the primary charism of her order, perpetual adoration, requires quiet attentiveness.

“It’s the most powerful thing any soul needs and what the world needs,” she said of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. “I’m learning how to ‘just be’ with the Lord, not having to say certain things to Him or be a certain way around Him. I think sometimes we feel like we have to jump through hoops to make Jesus happy.”

To those who find it difficult to pray, take heart, Sister Maria Francesca said. “That was always very difficult for me—just to sit and pray and do a holy hour. Now, I do two every day. The Lord can do lots.”

Never be surprised, Sister Maria Francesca said, “that the Lord would call you to a religious vocation.” Further, resist the temptation to shirk such a calling. “Don’t think that you have to be a certain way or act a certain way or be at a certain level of holiness for the Lord to call you.”

“He calls us the way we are, in all our weaknesses. None of us is worthy of the call.”


No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment