DULUTH — She resisted the call at first, even as God’s persistent whisper became a roar. Lisa Maurer loved her original vocation — being a teacher and high school coach in Sleepy Eye, Minn. — and while her spirit was pulling her toward a convent, she found it difficult to give up her work with young athletes.
Not long after arriving at St. Scholastica Monastery in 2007, Maurer heard another call she could not ignore. “The football field is literally in my back yard,” she said. “I’d be in my room with something to read, or a rosary to pray, and there were whistles blowing outside my back door. So I went out there for a walk, and pretty soon, I was sitting in the bleachers.”
This fall, she went one step further. After six years of leading cheers and prayers for the team at the College of St. Scholastica, Sister Lisa was named a volunteer assistant coach, overseeing the kickers and punters for the top team in the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference.
A spokesman for the American Football Coaches Association said there have been a few female coaches in college football, but Sister Lisa is believed to be the first nun to roam the sidelines. St. Scholastica coach Kurt Ramler, who took over the Saints’ program last spring, had no qualms about asking her to join his staff.
“It was an absolute no-brainer,” he said. “She is a wonderful coach who makes all of us better. She just happens to be a member of the order.”
Prayer and service still come first in Maurer’s life. When the chapel bells toll at 5 p.m. each day, summoning the sisters to evening prayer, she scurries off the practice field in her jeans, sneakers and Saints jacket to join her fellow Benedictines in their devotions.
But the swath of artificial turf between the monastery and the sisters’ cemetery feels like a sacred space, too. Just as God led her to the convent, Sister Lisa believes, he led her back to coaching, a blessing that has filled the only void in a joyful heart.
“I find the holy in sports, too,” said Maurer, 44. “It’s my way of connecting with God. He made me this way.
“I was afraid I’d never get that game-time feeling again, the jitters and the intensity. But I get that same kind of buzz when I pray, so I equate the two. Now, I get it in both realms. And it’s like, ‘Dang, I’m a sister and a coach.’ ”
As a kid growing up in Sleepy Eye, Maurer learned football from her father, Gene, a longtime coach. She participated in several sports and was a catcher for the softball team at Southwest Minnesota State University.
She returned to Sleepy Eye to coach and teach at her alma mater, St. Mary’s Catholic School. For years, Maurer had been drawn toward religious life, but her zeal for coaching stopped her from making that commitment. During a basketball game, Maurer experienced a sudden moment of clarity that allowed her to move forward, though not without sadness.
“In the middle of a fast break, I had this message that I could live without this, that I would be OK,” she said. “But those relationships you build with the students, they’re just precious. To think I would never have that again was very painful.”
A year after Maurer came to St. Scholastica, she began watching the newly formed football team as it practiced behind the monastery. Its first coach, Greg Carlson, struck up a friendship with the nun in the bleachers; soon, she was discussing strategy with him and leading prayers for the team.
Ramler met Sister Lisa at his introductory news conference in March. A graduate of St. John’s University — another institution run by the Benedictine order — he understood its values and principles, and he wanted the football team to continue its reflection of the sisters’ mission. The players already knew Sister Lisa as a fan and a spiritual mentor, and Ramler believed she had the personality and football knowledge to merit a place on his staff.
After meeting the monastery’s prioress, Sister Lois Eckes — and receiving her blessing — Ramler welcomed Sister Lisa to a team that adopted her immediately.
“At other schools, this would have raised some eyebrows,” Ramler said. “Here, it was like, ‘Yeah. That makes sense.’ She’s tough on the kids, but they love her.”
Maurer had no experience instructing kickers, so she learned by talking to other coaches and doing Internet research. She is not involved in deciding game strategy, but she analyzes film, shags balls during warmups and practices and reminds players about proper technique. Though she is on the sidelines for most games and practices, her duties also are limited because of frequent travel in her job with the Benedictine Health System.
In addition, Maurer provides a weekly team prayer and a large daily dose of positive energy. Her primary pupil, senior kicker Mike Theismann of St. Cloud, said players thrive on Maurer’s support and enthusiasm.
“She’s not your typical sister, especially with how fired up she gets on the sidelines,” said Theismann, a preseason All-America selection by USA College Football. “She knows sports, and she knows more football than people give her credit for. She’s just a very positive person who loves being back in this world.”
Theismann said his parents had a few questions when they learned he would be coached by a nun — but like everyone else, they quickly warmed up to Sister Lisa. Other parents quietly ask her to make sure their sons go to mass. Her fellow sisters are supportive, too, attending games and quizzing her about the team.
Though St. Benedict knew nothing of the spread option, Maurer believes his philosophy of balance in all things allows for football to coexist peacefully with prayer. Her duties on the field simply afford a different way to do God’s work, a second vocation in a blessed life.
“To pray is my first job,” she said. “But I’ll be coaching as long as they’ll have me. It’s a beautiful fit.’’