Experiences serving among the poor in Denver, Detroit led Mary Margaret Payne to seek something more — and she found it in Jesus

DETROIT — When she started as a college freshman at the University of Detroit Mercy, Mary Margaret Payne planned to be a doctor. Then she discovered a love for chemistry that shifted her focus. 

Then she discovered a love for Jesus that changed her life forever.

Payne gave the commencement speech as Detroit Mercy’s class of 2019 valedictorian on May 11. But rather than starting medical school or a career as a chemist, starting June 23, she will spend two weeks with the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal in New York as a major step toward discerning a vocation as a religious sister with the community.

Payne’s infectious laugh points to her fun-loving spirit, while her enthusiasm for chemistry signals her bright mind and eagerness to learn. She always enjoyed science, but didn’t consider religious life until she was in college.

“I've loved chemistry since seventh grade,” said Payne, who attended Our Lady Queen of Martyrs School in Beverly Hills, then Notre Dame Preparatory Upper School in Pontiac. “It’s something that leaves me in awe of the world and of God, to see the complexity of chemistry and God’s existence through it.”

Payne took her love of chemistry and studies seriously at Detroit Mercy, where her professors at the university were nothing but supportive of her Catholic faith, she said. (Photo courtesy of University of Detroit Mercy Marketing and Communications)

Detroit Mercy professor of chemistry and biochemistry Matt Mio was Payne’s academic and research adviser.

“Like many students, (Payne) came in thinking she was going to study one interest, but went through a discovery phase and realized what she was good at and what she liked,” Mio said. “One thing was clear: she liked service. When she was a teaching assistant, she enjoyed helping the students and put her whole heart into it.”

Mio, himself a Catholic and a parishioner at the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in Royal Oak, enjoyed the open discussions with Payne about issues facing the Church and Catholic universities. 

“She took learning seriously, and we would use that as a jumping-off point for discussing other things,” Mio said.

School was important to her, and so was finding friends who shared her faith. When she started at Detroit Mercy as a freshman, Payne got involved in campus ministry. Seeing upperclassmen lead Catholic Bible studies and attend daily Mass was inspiring to her. 

During her sophomore year, Payne participated in an alternative spring break trip to Nazareth Farm in West Virginia. Her group was there to provide home repairs for the Appalachian community living in substandard housing. When they arrived, however, there were no projects slated for them, so they instead spent time at a shelter simply talking with people recovering from addiction.

“We took joy in the company of one another,” Payne said. “It was a ministry of presence, which wasn’t something I’d thought about before.”

Payne wears her navy “Unleash the Gospel” t-shirt, which she earned volunteering for the Archdiocese of Detroit's Unleash the Gospel Six-Day Challenge in November. (Photo courtesy of University of Detroit Mercy Marketing and Communications)

The experience made her think about a religious vocation, but she was unsure about the idea of living in community. To Payne, this didn’t seem like a joyful life, which — given that infectious laugh — was something she wanted.

In the summer of 2017, Payne worked with Christ in the City, a Catholic outreach organization in Denver that serves the homeless community by establishing genuine relationships with the poor they serve. Volunteers live in community, sharing a living space, meals and prayer. Payne admits that before she left for Denver, she was not looking forward to living with upwards of 50 other young adults.

“I thought, ‘I love the poor, so I’ll tolerate the living situation to work with them,” Payne said. “But I wound up loving it. I didn’t expect to be loved or learn how to love so deeply, both those I lived with and those I ministered to.”

She learned how to pray the Liturgy of the Hours with the other volunteers, experiencing a vibrancy of the faith she hadn’t known before.

After her experience in Denver, Payne started looking into religious communities to explore the possibility of devoting her life to Christ. 

“It’s like a marriage,” Payne explained. “I fell in love with Christ and the poor. Christ and the Eucharist captured my heart.”

Given Payne’s knack for chemistry and working with students, she considered the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, a teaching order of young religious sisters in Ann Arbor. But her desire to serve the poor and a devotion to Blessed Solanus Casey, a Capuchin Franciscan friar — she attended his beatification in November 2017 — led her to an order based in New York, the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal. The community is made up of 32 women with an average age in the late 20s.

Members of the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal pray during Mass in 2017 at SS. Peter and Paul Church in the Bronx borough of New York. Founded in 1987 in the Archdiocese of New York, the community has approximately 125 members ministering to the poor in the U.S., Honduras, Nicaragua, Ireland and the United Kingdom. (Gregory A. Shemitz | CNS photo)

Payne visited the community in the summer of 2018 and again in December, discovering that their apostolate of working with the poor and evangelization was exactly where God was pointing her.

Sr. Agnus Holtz, CFR, is the vocations director for the community.

“The foundation of religious life is to be the bride of Christ, but the secondary aspect of the call is the form of service,” Sr. Agnus told Detroit Catholic. “We have the unique charism of finding Jesus in the poor. (Payne) found Jesus in the poor in her volunteer work, and I think that drew her to us.”

After her two-week stay with the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal this summer, and upon mutual agreement by Payne and the Sisters, she will enter the community in September and begin the seven to nine-year discernment process before taking final vows. To enter, candidates may not have outstanding debt; Payne holds approximately $30,000 in student loans that could delay her entrance by a year, though she hopes some fundraising will allow her to join the sisters this fall.

Payne felt the support of the Detroit Mercy community as she discerned religious life, especially from the chemistry department and campus ministry.

“I was fortunate to find faculty who were so supportive of my faith,” Payne said. “They were probably the least surprised by my decision because they saw me every day and saw how much I was affected by my time with Christ in the City.”

Professor Mio echoed Payne’s comment, saying, “When it came to her vocational discernment, it’s not surprising — in the best possible way.”

Anita Klueg, director of university ministry at Detroit Mercy, said Payne didn't make the commitment quickly, but spent her time discerning and speaking to different orders.

“I pray (the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal) will continue to feed her desire to strengthen her faith and challenge her to live those values out in ministry and work.”

Payne speaks to her fellow classmates during commencement exercises on May 11. During her speech, Payne spoke about two individuals whom she'd met on campus who had a profound impact on her, and urged her classmates to remember God's love in every circumstance they face. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Pham)

Payne was honored to be the valedictorian — with a major in chemistry and a minor in philosophy — maintaining that students can prioritize a relationship with Christ and still be responsible students. 

“When we do this, our schoolwork and daily encounters can take on more joy and meaning,” Payne said. 

But while schoolwork is undoubtedly important, it's not the most important thing to Payne.

As a testament to Payne’s witness while on campus, one underclassman told her as they were leaving adoration one night that Payne was to blame for her studying less that semester. 

“If you’re studying one hour less because you are at adoration, and you’re less focused on class because you’re more focused on Christ, then I will gladly take that blame,” Payne told the student.