Nun talks mixing sports with religion


Mia Hariz/The Daily Northwestern

Stephanie Baliga, also known as Sister Stephanie from the community of Franciscans of the Eucharist, speaks at Sheil Catholic Center Wednesday night. Baliga recounted how she incorporated sport spirits in her Christianity.

Mia Hariz, Reporter

Sister Stephanie Baliga, a Chicago-based nun, spoke at the Sheil Catholic Center on Wednesday about her lifelong running career and her effort to combine athleticism and spirituality. 

Baliga was born and raised in Rockford, Ill. to a Lutheran mother and a Catholic father. Though she was raised Catholic, she says religion never played a major role in her family life. Baliga said she didn’t have much time for that anyway, as her primary focus since childhood was running.

At nine, she began running competitively and later competed on her high school track team, winning 19 championship conferences, competing in all possible state championships and racking up three All-State Championship awards.

“Running became uber central to my life,” Baliga said. “It was so central that I ignored things in my life I probably shouldn’t have ignored. Everything in my life had to do with running.”

After graduation, Baliga was recruited to run on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign track team. Her first year, Baliga placed sixth out of all freshmen runners in the nation. She continued her success streak until one day in the spring of her sophomore year when she suffered a foot injury that took her off the track.

“It was the big turning point in my life,” she said. “I was stuck. I suddenly had five free hours of my day, and I didn’t know what to do. I think I cried in my room the entire first week. My whole life revolved around my feet. I needed something else to do. “

So Baliga turned to religion. It was on a spiritual retreat with her school’s Catholic center that Baliga realized her life calling.

“I had a really powerful experience under the Eucharist where I felt that Jesus was actually there,” she said. “I had to change my life. It was on that retreat that I had my first call to become a sister.”

In her remaining college years, Baliga continued to frequent her school’s Catholic center while also running for her team after her injury healed. Once Baliga graduated, she became a sister of the community of Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago and took to marathon running, both as a hobby and for philanthropy.

Baliga raises money to provide food and offer after-school programs to low-income families. Last year her marathon team generated $26,000.

McCormick senior Matt Jones, a board member of Catholic Undergrads, the group that organized the event, said he was intrigued to hear about the overlap between athletics and Christianity.

“It was interesting to hear about how Sister Stephanie is able to weave her love of running into her religious life,” Jones said.

Beth Knobbe, campus minister of the Sheil Catholic Center and event organizer, said she hopes students will look upon their own talents as building blocks for their spirituality.

“I hope the students will be really inspired to consider all the different ways they can use their own gifts to live out their faith,” Knobbe said. “I think Sister Stephanie has a really unique story of how she recognized how she could use this gift and passion for running but also pursue this desire to work in service to the poor.”

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