Sister Vivian
Sister Vivian
"It's not a vocation. It's a life to be lived."

So says Sister Vivian Giulianelli, SA, of her almost 50 years in religious life, which took her all over North America. For two decades, she's been a teacher at St. Ambrose School in Latham, where she said she plans to stay "as long as I keep my boots on.

"The biggest thing for me is to teach the child how to see things," noted Sister Vivian, who teaches art. She pointed to the example of a horizon line: Bringing students to a classroom window for a real-life explanation also lends itself to including religion. She tells them things like, "Look how beautiful God made the clouds in the sky."

Sister Vivian follows poet Robert Frost's philosophy of teaching - "I am not a teacher, but an awakener" - and said the relationship can be reciprocal. Sometimes, a child paints a cloud blue or reminds her about her signature practice of chanting prayers to begin each class.

"You know a lot, but sometimes you miss a lot," said the teacher.

Sister Vivian was the only woman religious at the school for many years. Today, she's the only Franciscan Sister of the Atonement in the Albany Diocese; her order's motherhouse is in Garrison, N.Y.

The Mechanicville native remembered a Franciscan sister heading up the religious education program at her home parish when she was young: "They were wonderful. They were [a] great inspiration and among the people all the time."

In high school, Sister Vivian kept thinking about the sisters' joy and warmth. She liked to draw pictures she copied from illustrated versions of the Catechism, and one image of Jesus as a boy stood out.

"He was looking at me and almost saying, 'Come,'" she recalled. "I wanted to do something of help for other people. I was kind of on the shy side, so I knew I had to work on that."

She did a lot of praying and talking with her priest, religious sisters and her own twin sister.

"It was a confusing time," she said. "My father was not happy about" the idea of a daughter in religious life.

But he relented, and she began formation at the age of 17, later earning a bachelor's degree in education from SUNY Oneonta. At first, she did social work and taught children and adults in a poor neighborhood of Boston. She chauffeured children in a station wagon to basketball games, where she helped by keeping score. She felt different from the people she served because of her gender, race and clothing.

After being attacked in the street, Sister Vivian left Boston and worked with a kindergarten education program in a poor part of Vancouver, British Columbia. After that, she was a special needs teacher at a Catholic school in Oregon.

Another 13 years were spent at the marriage tribunal at the Diocese of Sacramento in California, where she prepared annulment briefs for canon lawyers and did history intakes. Sister Vivian also worked with children coping with loss of parents through divorce or death and did workshops on annulment at parishes to alleviate confusion about the topic.

She enjoyed this time, because it aligned with her order's charism promoting unity or "at-one-ment."

"For a lot of people, [divorce] was a very painful experience," Sister Vivian said. When people shared with her sadness over not being able to receive communion if they remarried outside the Church, she suggested they begin the annulment process: "I would do what I could to help them through it. They were relieved."

While in Sacramento, Sister Vivian earned a master's degree in family counseling. She counseled women at a rape crisis center as part of her coursework.

"Some of the pain from these women was just terrible," she said. "I elicited feelings and emotions from them to help them see the way."

Sister Vivian returned east in 1995 to care for her mother; she now lives in her childhood home and, in addition to teaching at St. Ambrose, helps to prepare confirmation candidates at All Saints on the Hudson parish in Mechanicville/Stillwater.

"It's awesome to see the light bulb go on," she said of the confirmands. "To develop a relationship with their Lord is an awesome thing, even if you just sow the seeds."

Outside St. Ambrose, Sister Vivian continues her own artwork - portraits, landscapes, oils, watercolors and more - and has used icon writing as a way to deepen her spiritual life. She also carves out time for prayer, retreats and spiritual reading.

She said religious life requires continual recommitment. "It's like any vocation. It's got its hills and valleys." She advises that discerners pray and seek spiritual advisers: "Just the mere fact that they're thinking about it is a tap on the shoulder."

Religious life, she said, can free people from the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood and give them a different type of obligations. "You can live in a community of like-minded people in their goal of serving the Lord."

Sister Vivian has six nieces and nephews and four grandnieces and grandnephews. She said her twin sister has helped her through her vocation journey: "We talk about everything. I don't know what I would do without my twin."