Youth minister answers decade-long call to religious life

Some conversions take a lifetime. For Shannon Gunning, the call to Jesus was instantaneous. She said she had been living as a partier, full of “things of the world”. Then she went on her senior high school retreat at St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Littleton. It was during adoration that she first heard the Lord speak to her.

“It was a tremendous first moment. I just started weeping for what had become of my life. I felt dissatisfaction, and loneliness, and sorrow for the recklessness of my life,” Gunning said.

Then the Lord asked her to become a nun, she said. He continued to ask this until her early 30s, when she agreed to say, “Yes.”


Life (immediately) after conversion
Gunning was afraid of the Lord’s call.

“That was very terrifying for a 17 year old who had made very different plans for her life. I thought it was rude,” Gunning said. “I was like, ‘This is why you don’t have more friends—I just converted, and now you’re asking this of me?’”

She wasn’t ready to enter a convent, but Gunning did decide to switch schools. Within a few weeks of the senior retreat, she had called, applied, and been accepted to Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. She said it was a wonderful first step in conversion.

“I had never been exposed to a large Catholic community where authentic joy and hope were present in everything. By the grace of God, I just jumped in headfirst,” Gunning said.

She began to question the sparkle and glamour of her former partying lifestyle, and realized it only left her empty and longing for more. She began to restructure her priorities and wondered what made the people around her so joyful. She noted that many of them had real prayer lives and were dedicated to Holy Hours.

“I concluded that this was the cause for their joy, this time with Jesus. Peer pressure works. I wanted to try it,” Gunning said.


Life in Christ

The experiment was successful.

“My life became deeply anchored in the Lord. I was giving him an opportunity to speak into my life. My new desires and new dreams started to grow, particularly in terms of vocation,” Gunning said.

She realized that she was likely called to religious life, so she went on several discernment retreats. She also went on several dates. However, by spring semester of her junior year, she felt she was ready to enter a community.

That was when the Lord told her to wait.

“It was another moment where I had to tell him that this is why he doesn’t have a lot of friends,” Gunning said.

Back to Cabrini
Gunning was initially disappointed that she didn’t enter a convent right out of college. But now she says that she realizes the Lord had a mission he wanted her to do first: She became the youth minister at her home parish, St. Francis Cabrini in Littleton.

“We recklessly pursue vocation because it is important, but the Lord’s love is more important,” Gunning said. “We need the Lord, not vocation. Then he will invited us into vocation.”

In fact, she started to forget her call to vocation.

“I think I got temporarily distracted. I knew I was called to consecrated life. I responded by saying ‘I know this is what you want from me, but I’m not going to do it.’ That put me in an irreconcilable tension,” Gunning said.

Finally, after years of spiritual strain, Gunning found the Sisters of Life. Her initial interest in them did not seem divinely ordained.

“Their website was user friendly. I got on their website thinking I was doing God a favor,” Gunning said.

She said boarding the plane to visit them was one of the most terrifying moments of her life. But when she arrived, she felt a spirit of joy and peace. She visited several times. It was during her last visit, in the beginning of February, that she knew she was meant to join the Sisters of Life.

“The last time that I was out there, I was in the chapel, and I just kept praying, asking him what he wanted. Silence, then finally he said to me, “Shannon, there’s a thousand reasons for you not to come, and some of those reasons are even good. In that same breath, he said, there’s one reason to come. That reason was Christ, and that reason was enough,” Gunning said.

“I just said, ‘Lord what will be most pleasing to you?’ I’m 32, and it was the first time I had ever prayed that prayer. And then he said come. So I asked him three more times just to be sure.”

Gunning returned to Denver finally knowing where she was called.

Sharing the news
Gunning says there are many things she will miss about Denver, especially the teens in St. Frances Cabrini’s youth ministry program.

“I’m very sad, but very confident in God’s faithfulness. If he asks you to do something outrageous, he will provide everything that invitation entails,” Gunning said.

She’s found that sharing her vocation with the kids has a been a joy.

“It’s been beautiful to share it, because you see the lights in the eyes of these kids,” Gunning said. ”

She also said she’s not worried about her mission continuing.

“I have a lot of confidence that I will be more effective, and that my life will be more fruitful, once I follow this calling,” Gunning said. “There’s a real spirit of joy and excitement, because the Lord has provided me with a lot of joy and peace. Those can’t be manufactured.”

She said that a certain level of understanding has also helped her parish support her in her vocation.

“The only thing we have is to give our gifts back to the Lord. When you understand that, it makes sense why someone would do something so radical and completely counter-cultural,” she said.

Shortly after she announced that she would be joining the Sisters of Life, the sisters announced they were coming to Denver. Gunning also realized she had made her announcement during the Year of Consecrated Life.

“I was completely blindsided. I just laughed. It’s the Year of Consecrated Life, the Lord told me now’s the time, and then they move here, and then I announce it. But it really has been a longtime process of discernment,” Gunning said.

How you can help
Gunning is hosting a “Nun Run” fundraiser for the Sisters of Life.
Aug 29 7 a.m.-noon in DeKoevend Park (6301 S University Blvd, Centennial, CO 80121)
Purpose: Fundraise for the Sister of Life, and to pay of Gunning’s student loans so she can join.
For more information, go to

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”