Rebecca Shafer, 19, gives her heart to the religious life

CHARLESTON — Rebecca Shafer dreamed of bright lights and of being on stage. She seemed destined to play the lead in a Broadway hit. The vivacious 19-year-old set her sights high.

So high that, later this year, she will join the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation of Nashville, Tenn.

“It breaks my heart that there’s no way to say it in words,” Shafer said in explaining her call to the religious life. But she does a fine job of it.

She first visited the Nashville sisters in December 2004 with 15 other girls.

She was terrified, but was overwhelmed with the women’s warmth and genuineness.

“The prayer times really struck me,” she said. “We had hours of quiet prayer, and I am not a quiet person. I wondered why I couldn’t sing or pray out loud. It was in this quiet time that I realized my heart was overflowing with joy from the Lord.”

Shafer found the sisters’ lifestyle remarkable and reveled in their joy. She was certain the other girls on the retreat shared her amazing experience, but hers was unique.

“I should have known,” she said laughing. “I was the only one crying as I left after being there two days.”

Until two years ago, Shafer was unaware that people still entered the religious life. Then a good friend, Katie Vaughan, told her about the Dominicans, the order Vaughan entered as Sister Maris Stella last fall.

She and Vaughan met on a diocesan SEARCH retreat, which helps build Christian maturity. Shafer served as a counselor at diocesan camps and on the evangelization team. She also taught religious education at her church, Prince of Peace in Taylors.

Before her senior year at her performing arts high school, Shafer enrolled in a summer program at Boston University. It was during this time that her heart changed. Acting, she determined, was not her calling.

“I no longer wanted my desire; that’s when I turned to God,” she said.

A daily devotional to Mary helped guide her.

During her senior year, she went to adoration and daily Mass as often as possible.

“The Lord really drew me to the Catholic faith, to these traditional Catholic devotions,” she said.

Along with a stronger connection to her faith, her last year in high school also brought a boyfriend. Ultimately, Shafer said, the relationship strengthened her resolve for the religious life.

She said, “It was as if the Lord was saying, ‘OK, here’s a man you could marry. If you choose that path, you will serve me well.’ ”

Through prayer and spiritual guidance, Shafer realized that she could serve the Lord equally well in marriage or in the religious life. This freedom helped open her heart to the Lord’s will.

“God gave me the grace and courage to make this sacrifice, with joy in my heart. I am so excited,” she said.

Throughout her decision-making, her parents, Anne and Jess, have been extremely supportive. Her older brother and his fiancée write her notes of encouragement, and while her 10-year-old sister doesn’t fully understand the religious life, she is supportive of her big sister.

During her freshman year at the College of Charleston, Shafer continued going to daily Mass and met with Msgr. Lawrence McInerny, pastor of Stella Maris Church on Sullivan’s Island.

“I see a real sense of dedication,” Msgr. McInerny said of Shafer. “I see that with a lot of people in this generation. They have very strong ideals and are willing to sacrifice for those ideals.

“I commend Rebecca. She’s intelligent, bubbly, joyful and spiritual,” he said.

The Dominicans are mostly a teaching order. Shafer looks to her mother, a special education teacher, for inspiration.

“She was always put her heart and soul into it,” she said. “The Lord will have to show me how to be a teacher.”