In a fitness-forward city like Seattle, it’s not surprising to see street athletes in all manner of pants, capris, shorts, bras, tanks, tops and tights in every color, fit and form.
What is unexpected, however, is seeing someone in a habit.
“It is a bit unusual to see someone running down the street dressed like that,” said Hayley Tapp, nodding at Sister Mary Kelli Ann Lopez, who was running down a residential street wearing a white veil, a plain, dove gray, three-quarter-length habit and a pair of multicolored running shoes.
“Its amazing,” Toby Thoresen said. “You never really see a nun running unless you’re out here in Ballard.”
Lopez — a 32-year-old novice with the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity who will take her vows later this month in Corpus Christi, Texas — has drawn more than her share of stares, double takes, questions and even a few puns since she began running in the neighborhood regularly a year and a half ago.
“The first time I saw her, she was with a group of about five nuns,” said former runner Charles Gordanier. “Now it’s apparently something she’s decided to do on her own. Which is great. There are a lot of benefits if you can make it a habit.”
Although Lopez has occasionally succeeded in getting some of the four sisters she lives with in a convent on the property of St. Alphonsus Parish and School to join her in a short walk or run, she’s generally solo on the 6- to 9-mile runs she takes five days a week
Her religious society, which was founded nearly 60 years ago in the United States, is among those that have chosen to retain wearing habits in public even after the ecumenical council known as Vatican II allowed some sisters to shed the distinctive and modest attire.
“It’s very humbling and lets people know who we belong to,” Lopez said. “We see it as an outward sign of our inner commitment to our vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.”
That doesn’t mean, of course, there aren’t moments when she doesn’t wish she could wear shorts.
“We are fully human, and we do sweat,” she said.
Lopez was one of three children who grew up in rural Colorado with her nominally, but not devoutly, Catholic family.
After she graduated from the University of Colorado, Boulder, with a degree in biochemistry, Lopez found work in Denver as a climate scientist and spent a few years dating and seeking “the natural, normal pursuits of a young professional.”
But when her grandparents died and she lost her job to an economic downturn, she found she had both the time and the desire to contemplate God. She went back to the church and began attending Mass almost daily,
“I realized I was looking for a kind of happiness that ultimately has nothing to do with money or material things,” she said. “I had deep in my heart a call to serve God’s people.”
She felt called to go on a mission to one of the countries served by the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, and she hoped it might be “saving babies somewhere” such as Belize or Mexico.
But God had other ideas for her, she said, and she was instead assigned to a reservation in North Dakota where she did fundraising. Though it wasn’t a very glamorous assignment, she fell in love with the nuns and priests she worked with and decided to commit her life to serving God.
Three years ago, she was sent to Seattle where she lives with four other sisters in a formation house for nuns and nuns in the making.
Whether she returns to Seattle once she’s taken her vows and traded in her white veil for a gray one will be up to her Mother Superior.
But regardless of where she ends up, Seattle will always have a special place in the story of her spiritual preparation, she said.
“This city has done wonders for me,” Lopez said. “It’s here that I’ve learned we don’t have to compete with anyone or compare ourselves to each other. We don’t have to be somebody we’re not. God loves us for ourselves.”
She’s found, too, that while she started running for the physical benefits, she’s reaped devotional benefits as well.
“”I use it as a time to meditate on the way God is working in my life that day,” she said, “and I pray that the Lord will put his blessing upon the people I encounter; you never know what difficulties they may be having. Being outside, surrounded by God’s goodness, is a perfect time to pray.”