Last year, in the 150-year jubilee of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, Tenn., 27 postulants entered with the intentions of becoming nuns. On average, there are 10 to 15 who enter each year, and in August, there were 16.
“We saw those 27 as a great gift for our jubilee years,” said vocations director Sister Mary Emily Knapp. “We understand clearly and deeply that the rise in vocations is God’s generosity.”
Other convents have not seen that much activity.
At the Carmelite Sisters for the Divine Heart of Jesus in Kirkwood, Mo., no one came in July’s entrance date.
“It was the first time in five or six years that we didn’t have a woman enter,” vocations director Sister Mary Michael said.
The Sisters of St. Dorothy in Bristol, R.I., haven’t had a vocation in 12 years “where somebody entered and actually stayed,” provincial coordinator Sister Dorothy Schwarz said.
In the past four decades, the number of women religious in the United States has dropped by more than two-thirds. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., there were 179,954 religious sisters in the nation in 1965, and 55,944 in 2011.
Internationally, the Sisters of St. Dorothy have 1,100 members, but only 34 in the United States. Those work in border missions and a school in Texas, and others do pastoral and school work in New York and Rhode Island. But the order is growing in Angola, the Philippines and South America.
“Why in those countries? I think the culture fosters a greater dependence on God and the need for God because of the poverty levels,” Sister Dorothy said. “There are so many factors that contribute to why there are more Third World vocations. I think that a lot of consumerism, materialism and other things in our country really affect vocations.”
There are many paths to becoming a woman religious. All require appropriate maturity, good mental and physical health, a mature spiritual life and the capacity to live the congregation’s way of life. A high school education is required, but not necessarily higher education.
“The first year of postulancy is really getting to discern from within, living with and praying with the sisters, and experiencing all from within,” Sister Mary Michael said. “The woman has classes here as well, nothing too formal, just learning about our way of life. Once the novitiate begins about a year later, the sisters focus on growing their interior lives and take on duties within the convent.”
The women become almost cloistered in the second year. Temporary vows come after three years and are renewed for five years. Then they can take permanent vows.
The Sisters for the Divine Heart of Jesus live in contemplative prayer and also have the charism of providing a “home away from home” to children and the elderly. The 21 members in the province that includes St. Louis and Kentucky have two homes for the elderly and a day care center.
The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia operate 36 schools in the United States, and also have schools in Australia and British Columbia. Others teach at college and university level.
“Young women who come to us are attracted to the apostolate of teaching, but first, they are laying down their lives for the Church and to become brides of Christ,” Sister Mary Emily said. “Then comes the teaching. We also have young ladies who never dreamed of teaching, but they are attracted to the joy they find in our community. When they accept their vocation, God’s grace comes for them to do the work that God has called this community of sisters to do.”
The women enter a seven-year formation program (see sidebar), and additional education depends on their background. Some already are teachers. Others have degrees in another field.
A woman without higher education attends nearby Aquinas College, which is run by the Nashville Dominicans, in her first-year postulancy. She returns to the convent for her novice year to become immersed in religious studies on the journey to perfecting vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. She returns to college for the third year and continues formation with five years of temporary vows, all the while pursuing teaching qualifications.
“When they are ready, they can be sent to one of our missions across the country to teach,” Sister Mary Emily said.
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.