Sister Nadiya Levchenko brings energy and enthusiasm as she helms the Tolton Teaching Parish Program
By Dan Korenchan, Archdiocese of Chicago
Passion. Leadership. Humility. Boundless joy. If the new coordinator of the Tolton Teaching Parish Program (TTPP), Sister Nadiya Levchenko, SSpS, could list out the characteristics she wants all the Mundelein seminarians to acquire through their pastoral experiences, it would be those four. Not surprisingly, she is an exemplar of them all.
It is hard to miss Levchenko in her new office on the first floor of the Theology Building. Her smile and laugh are quite contagious, and when she speaks about the TTPP, her fiery energy is invigorating. Perhaps “coach” is a more accurate title for Sister Nadiya than “coordinator.” She never hesitates to motivate the seminarians to be the best men they can be for Jesus Christ and his Church. In only a few weeks of the new semester, she has earned great respect from the seminarians for her passion, leadership, humility and joy.
Levchenko will tell you that her passion stems from the Gospel zeal she first experienced as a child in her native Ukraine. Growing up in an atheistic family in then-Communist Ukraine, she found herself searching for meaning in her life at age 12. A few years later, she first met Catholic missionaries, and her life was never the same.
“What impressed me so much was how normal they were,” Levchenko recalled. “They also shared passages from the Bible, and I began to realize just how much meaning there was in the Scriptures. I felt that I had finally found home.”
It was not long after this encounter that she converted to Catholicism, zealous to share the Gospel.
“I became a Catholic because of missionaries, and so I wanted to share Jesus Christ with others the way he was shared with me,” she said.
At the same time, Levchenko began to discern a vocation to religious life. After finishing her theology studies while working in graphic design she entered the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters, where her ministry took her all over the world, including Poland, Siberia, Slovakia, Italy and the Philippines. Coming to the United States, however, was never something she planned on doing.
“When my superior asked me in 2016 if I wanted to go to the United States, I thought, perhaps it is a sign from God that he wants me to go there because I would never have thought of doing so,” she said with a smile. “So, I said ‘yes,’ and I have never regretted it!”
Thanks to her broad skill set, she became the director of religious education at St. Catherine Laboure parish in Glenview, Illinois, whose pastor at the time was Father Maina Waithaka, now the dean of formation at Mundelein Seminary. Last year, Levchenko was invited by Waithaka to speak about her parish experiences during several pastoral theology sessions for the First Theology seminarians. Unsurprisingly, she made quite the impression.
“Sister Nadiya brought case studies of situations that actually happened to her in the parish,” said Jared Kleinwaechter, a second-year theologian for the Archdiocese of Atlanta. “I thought it was very helpful. We were able to talk amongst ourselves in small groups about how we would approach them, and then afterward she told us how she actually handled the situation. It generated really good discussion.”
“I was impressed by the wisdom and experience,” said Jeremy Leganski, a second-year theologian studying for the Diocese of Joliet. “She taught us how to approach situations with prudence and how to profess the truth in love.”
When Waithaka became the dean of formation last summer, Levchenko was invited to interview for coordinator of the TTPP thanks to her wealth of parish experience.
“Sister’s work ethic is something to admire,” Waithaka said. “She gets things done on time, communicates to people well, and has great organizational skills. She also has a positive attitude and a sense of joy at work.”
She will need it all. Levchenko is tasked with directing one of the most crucial arms of seminary formation. The TTPP assigns seminarians to various parishes in the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Dioceses of Rockford and Joliet so that the men may gain experience of parish life by engaging in various pastoral and liturgical ministries.
“The program is the key to having wellgrounded future priests,” Levchenko said. “They need to know how to run many different parish ministries and to see the whole picture of a parish.”
For the men engaging in their parish ministries, Levchenko wants their focus to be on the details. For example, it is one thing for seminarians to teach a weekly catechism class, but can they participate in the process of searching out and hiring catechists? Can they deal with concerned or frustrated parents? What about selecting the materials for teaching?
“The goal is to make the future ministry of the priest much easier,” she explained. “We can only hear about various pastoral situations here at the seminary, but the TTPP allows the men to learn hands-on how to handle them. It fits perfectly into the whole of seminary formation. What the men learn in their classes is what they will see and practice at their teaching parishes.”
During orientation week in August for the new seminarians, Levchenko exhorted the men to make their ministry something deeply relational, even spousal.
“You are called to know your spouse, the Catholic Church, before you give your life to her, to see what the good days and bad days of parish life are like, learning what she is like. It is absolutely crucial for discernment!”
“You are called to know your spouse, the Catholic Church, before you give your life to her, to see what the good days and bad days of parish life are like, learning what she is like,” she told the new seminarians. “It is absolutely crucial for discernment!”
Given the COVID-19 pandemic, the logistics of TTPP have changed a bit, but, to Levchenko, that is much more of an opportunity than a problem. She points out that it is easier to connect with parishioners in many ways thanks to virtual access, especially for committee meetings, finance meetings or the parish council. What is lost, though, are group dynamics, especially interacting with youth and teenagers. Certain things can only be taught in-person.
According to Levchenko, none of those challenges take away from the joy that parishioners have when they have seminarians present and active among them.
“They are extremely happy,” she said. “They pray for them, and they understand seminary is still a process of discernment. They want the seminarians to be happy and find their vocation. They treat them like their family!”
And being part of this family should only contribute to the joyful discernment the seminarians go through at Mundelein. So as Levchenko works with the seminarians to take the TTPP to the next level, what is the biggest thing she wants to see grow? Excitement.
“The TTPP is not an obligation but an opportunity, one that should excite all of us!”
This article originally ran in the Fall 2020/Winter 2021 issue of the seminarian-produced BRIDGE magazine. The full magazine can be viewed here.