Why this Franciscan nun is about to run her 10th marathon

team cropped Sr. Stephanie Baliga and some members of her marathon team. Courtesy photo.

You might say that running 10 marathons is extreme.

Well, Sr. Stephanie Baliga, who is about to run her tenth, is somewhat of an extreme person. Just ask her. She'll tell you.

She was once even more of an extreme runner, she told CNA.

But while she was a college athlete at the University of Illinois, she was grounded by a foot injury. While she recovered, Baliga, who had been running seriously since she was 9 years old, had some time to reevaluate her life.

"The metatarsal of my foot spontaneously fractured, so I went from being in very good shape to completely messed up because it was a...complete fracture. So I was in a boot and crutches for a very long time," Baliga told CNA.

"And it made me - it forced me to reevaluate my life priorities and realize that I had pretty much placed running on this pedestal. It was how I defined myself and how I thought, how I understood who I was, and how I explained myself everybody else."

But the injury, and the time off, made Baliga realize that her approach to running, and to life, was "super-not-sustainable and really didn't make sense. So I needed to completely reevaluate what I was thinking about my life and who I was."

It was during that time that Baliga connected with some students from her campus Newman Center and began delving deeper into her Catholic faith. She said when her friends invited her on a retreat, she was ready to go.

"I was pretty open to it," Baliga told CNA. "It was pretty clear that Jesus was preparing for me to be ready for that point in time."

It was on that retreat, during Eucharistic Adoration, that Baliga said she encountered the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist in a new way.

"There was this increasingly intense realization of his presence and the sense, the knowledge that Jesus was really there in the Eucharist and this is real, it's not just some stuff that people say because it's nice to talk about, or it's nice because it ties the theology together. But this is actually real...and that I needed to completely change the ways that I live my life."

After that retreat experience, it didn't take long for Baliga to realize she was being called to the vocation of religious life.

"So I'm kind of an extreme person," Baliga said.

She said after the experience of realizing Jesus is real, she took time to delve more deeply into prayer and her faith community. It wasn't long after that that she realized she was being called. "It was only like five months, because I'm extreme," she added.

Baliga said she felt drawn to a Franciscan order from the start of her discernment because of their "love of the Eucharist and focus on the Eucharist, and love of the poor and work with the poor, and then (living in) actual poverty."

As she was looking into different religious orders, Baliga said she considered one that would have required her to completely give up running, because it wouldn't have been compatible with that order's way of life. In prayer, she said, she told Jesus that if he was asking her to give up running, that was ok.

"I told Jesus that if he really would rather me not run ever again, that's what I'll do...if that's what's needed, that's what I'll do," she said.

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"And that was just kind of this experience of freedom in that once I gave run into Jesus, which is what I did at that moment, it then became his. And then he was able to use it for his glory instead of me being selfish and prideful and...showy about my running."

Around February of her senior year, Baliga found the sisters that she would soon join - the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago. A relatively new religious community, there were only two other sisters in the order at that time.

Baliga decided to join after graduating from the University of Illinois in 2009.

The order encourages sisters to exercise as their schedule allows, and Baliga has been able to keep up her running - though not in full habit, she said.

"I wear a bandana, and a T-shirt, and then a long running skirt with tights," she said.

"Some orders do run in their habits because they're shorter, but ours...we have ankle-length habits. It would be kind of a problem."

Sr. Baliga ran her first marathon as a sister in 2011, and for the past several years has used the Chicago Marathon as a chance to recruit people to be on a team that raises donations for her order's mission.

"My community runs a place called Mission of Our Lady of the Angels, and we work with the poor on the west side of Chicago. We are a presence of Jesus here on the west side and this is one of the worst areas in the United States and leading Chicago in murders this year and things of that nature," she said.

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"So we provide a presence of peace, and a presence of love, and a presence of Jesus here in the midst of violence and poverty. We feed about 1,000 families a month with food and provide clothing and household goods for that same group, as well as work with senior citizens and families and do a lot of special events." 

This year, she's recruited 105 people for Team Our Lady of the Angels for the October 13 marathon, and so far they have raised more than $126,000 of the $200,000 goal.

The money will go toward the renovation of an old Catholic school building that caught fire in 1950, killing 92 students and three sisters. Sr. Baliga and her sisters plan to transform the building into a community center.

According to the team's fundraising page, the new outreach center will provide space for the Mission's donation storage and distribution, a handicapped accessible kitchen and dining room, meeting space for neighborhood and retreat groups, and a 60+ bedroom retreat center for volunteers and retreat guests.

Sr. Baliga also has a personal fundraising page for the marathon, where she is raising $30,000 for the boiler system in the sisters' church and school.

"I have spent the past 9 years of my life tackling maintenance issues. BY FAR the most annoying, long-lasting, and time-consuming issue was the BOILERS/ heat system. It has innumerable issues. The only advantage has been my opportunity to evangelize at least 10 different HVAC repair companies," Baliga wrote on her fundraising page.

"This is the year the Lord has made. Both boilers in the school-rectory-church heat system will be replaced by winter 2020-2021. I am running the 2019 Chicago Marathon to end the boiler issues once and for all."

By press time, Baliga's page had raised about half of its goal.

Baliga said she would encourage anyone else who finds themselves in a similar situation as herself in college - wonder what God is calling them to do - to be courageous.

"I think the Church right now needs saints and saints in the making. So we need people to be courageous...if people think Jesus is calling them to religious life, he probably is. So people should seriously take that very seriously and not wait," she said.

"Listen to Jesus and make the sacrifices that he asks because the rewards will be great. Honestly, here on earth, he has provided for us beautifully here. And then obviously we know that he'll provide infinitely for us in heaven."

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