Back in the habit, young nuns on the rise

Associated Press • Apr 14, 2007 at 11:06 AM

MIAMI - Their arrival is a blessing and a curse.

Twenty young prospective nuns arriving this fall at one convent - so many there aren't enough beds.

But sisters there offer only prayers of thanks, considering many years brought no one.

Helped by aggressive recruiting, media campaigns and Web sites, Roman Catholic convents around the country say they are experiencing an upturn in new nuns for the first time in decades, drawing from a millennial generation inspired by Pope John Paul II and looking for an alternative lifestyle that draws them closer to God.

The anecdotal evidence has convinced the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate to plan a formal study in about a year.

"It's not a huge increase, but for awhile there was hardly anybody and now there are some, so something is going on," said CARA executive director Mary Bendyna.

Sisterhood has dropped dramatically since its peak about 40 years ago, from about 180,000 U.S. nuns in 1965 to 66,608 in 2006, according to CARA. The numbers will continue to decline as old nuns die, even with a recruiting surge - but the decrease would slow.

After college, Sister Mary McGlynn said she knew she just wouldn't be happy in a 9-5 job.

"I knew there was something more I wanted," said 23-year-old McGlynn who joined Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Michigan last fall. It's that convent that's expecting 20 postulants or prospective nuns.

McGlynn is one part of the new blood there that includes a former lawyer and bartender, with an average age of 24. The national median age for nuns is in the 70s, according to CARA.

"There's time every day to be with God and not having all the distractions that are in the world that keep you from God."

The new nuns say they are looking for an alternative lifestyle in troubled times.

"It's a radical way of living," says Sister Catherine Marie Hopkins, of The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville, Tenn. "When you used to put the habit on, it was conventional. Now it's radical and I think people want to do something radical with their lives."

The order built a $46 million, 100,000 square-foot addition (almost double the size of the White House) to accommodate its growth in 2005. The order has added 100 sisters in the past 15 years. Their average age at induction is 24, Hopkins said.

Like many of the convents experiencing growth, St. Cecilia is a traditional order. Some young candidates say they are looking for communities that still wear habits and are rooted in conventional theology.

Individualism leads to loneliness and the millennial generation is searching for a sense of community, says Dr. Alice Laffey, associate professor of religious studies at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

Sister Jeana Visel, 27, wasn't sure what she was looking for before joining the Sisters of St. Benedict in Ferdinand, Ind., but says she has found it among the women there.

"There is a real yearning for a sense of community these days among people in general," Visel says. "We're very separated from each other for all the communication devices we have."

While the reasons these young nuns are joining aren't that different from their predecessors, what's drawing them to the church has certainly changed.

Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, the largest religious order in the United States, hired an outside ad agency to design trendy ads to be placed in secular magazines like People and as Internet banner ads.

"We're looking at different ways to draw people in," spokeswoman Catherine Sherrod said.

McGlynn, of Tallahassee, Fla., watched a promotional DVD and visited the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist's Web site before deciding to join.

"That helps a lot because online you can read about the community and see pictures and see what they're about," she said.

At "The Villa", a two-story motel turned convent where about 25 nuns live on the Barry University campus in Miami Shores, they're not afraid of changing with the times. Their founders would tell them to "go to the edges," embrace technology, says Sister Arlene Scott, assistant vice president of mission at this coed Catholic school in Miami.

That attitude has helped their order, the Adrian Dominican Sisters in Michigan, attract a handful of new candidates in their 20s and 30s this year.

"We're not selling ourselves like we're worried we're gonna die out," Scott said. "We're evolving into something else."

Sister Julie Vieira's popular blog, A Nun's Life, isn't meant as a recruiting tool, though plenty of girls and young women visit the site. Vieira, of Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Monroe, Mich., blogs about politics, enjoying a beer at a bar and her favorite bands along with religious content, hoping to dispel sister stereotypes.

She says nuns have to do a better job of marketing themselves.

"It's very hard to do that sort of thing because you are talking about a personal relationship with God," she said. "And a personal relationship with a community, so it's a hard thing to advertise."

A Massachusetts order is hoping to appeal to the broader public by restructuring memberships to include roles for married women and those with no formal connection to the congregation.

The Sisters of St. Joseph in Springfield have extended their roles to include associates, agregees, and partners in mission, along with vowed members. Each have varying levels of commitment. Four women are working to become agregees, said Sister Natalie Cain, coordinator of membership and association for the Sisters of St. Joseph.

"We realized we could be creative in ways in how people could be part of who we are," she said.

Recommended for You

    Kingsport Times News Videos