Thanks to reality television programming, over the past 15 years America has discovered what happens when you drop 18 strangers on a desert island, isolate 10 20-somethings in a mega-mansion and surround one eligible bachelor with 25 marriage-minded single women.
This fall, however, the Lifetime Network’s newest reality show will take viewers where no cameraman has gone before: inside three Catholic convents.
Premiering Nov. 25, “The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns” follows the discernment journeys of five young women as they move from convent to convent, discovering the different apostolates, charisms and daily routines of three religious orders: the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm in Germantown, New York; the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence in Chicago; and the Sisters of St. Joseph the Worker in Walton, Kentucky.
The show was the brainchild of Lifetime producer Colleen Conway Grogan. She, along with the network’s senior vice president for nonfiction programming, Mary Donahue, saw “The Sisterhood” as the perfect complement to shows such as “Breaking Amish,” produced by the same company, that shine a spotlight on otherwise hidden worlds.
“Colleen had it as a passion project for many years,” said Donahue, who eventually made it her passion as well. “We both grew up Catholic, attended Catholic schools, and wanted to share this world with viewers, to show folks what it’s really like to consider a religious vocation.”
According to Donahue, after Lifetime executives embraced Grogan’s and her own vision for the show, the pair enlisted the help of another Catholic, casting agent Linda Corley, who herself had contemplated religious life. Corley then worked with various vocation directors and religious orders to find young Catholic women in the midst of the discernment process, as well as convents that didn’t mind opening their doors to camera crews.
One of the young women Crowley found was Christie Young.
The 27-year-old California native first began considering a religious vocation nine years ago, during her freshmen year at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Although Young went on to pursue a career in marketing and event planning, the attraction to religious life never waned, and in 2013 she began a year of active discernment. Not long afterward, a mutual friend put her in touch with the production team for “The Sisterhood.”
At first, Young hesitated to join the project.
“I’d been spending a lot of time in prayer and adoration, and I was really nervous about doing that in front of the cameras,” she said. “I didn’t know if I could forget the cameras and connect with God in a way that allowed me to answer this question that had been looming for nine years.”
Despite her reservations, Young eventually realized that the opportunity to both answer that question for herself and help others answer it as well was too good to pass up.
“Being a sister has always been such a foreign concept to me,” she explained. “I knew what marriage was about. I’ve seen it. I knew what to expect. But being a sister? I wasn’t sure what to think about that life or even how to talk to people about the desire.
“In talking with the production company,” Young said, “I realized how genuine they were in their desire to demystify religious life, addressing the exact problem that had kept me from discerning fully for so long. That’s when I began to see this almost as a ministry. The pope calls us to be witnesses in the world by the way we live our lives. And where is my generation? Watching reality TV. This was an opportunity for me to be a witness to them.”
Opening the doors
For similar reasons, the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm made the unprecedented decision of allowing film crews to record their life behind closed doors.
“Our numbers are dropping and our apostolate — running a nursing home — is for a hidden population,” explained the order’s novice mistress, Sister Cyril Methodius. “We felt this would be a good way to show people about our ministry in the Church.”
Like Young, the sisters, too, had their concerns. Namely, they wanted to ensure that their young visitors had the time and space to do what they came to the convent to do — discern a vocation — and weren’t spending the entirety of their time with the sisters talking to a camera.
But, Sister Cyril said, “The producers assured us that if we were uncomfortable with something or if things weren’t progressing in a way that was authentic, we could say something.”
As it turned out, though, few problems arose, save for the occasional scheduling conflict.
“We learned by day three that if they told us we were going to be filming at 11 a.m., it would actually be more like 2 p.m.,” Sister Cyril joked.
While reality television is known for manufacturing drama for the cameras and featuring would-be-starlets competing for screen time, Donahue said that the very nature of “The Sisterhood” checked those problems from the start.
“The decision to consider leaving everything you’ve known, your family and friends, to make that journey and find out if you have a calling — those are very big questions that come with a phenomenal amount of inherent drama,” Donahue said.
Likewise, she added, the production team was careful to select only Catholic women who were serious about their faith and serious about discerning a religious vocation. All came from Catholic families, had attended Catholic colleges and were already working with religious orders or vocations directors to discern their call.
The show’s authenticity was bolstered by the sisters’ insistence that the cameras could not run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, during production.
“The crew was so respectful,” said Young. “We had time to be alone, time to just be with the sisters, and time to be quiet before God and listen.”
Although viewers will need to watch all six, one-hour episodes to learn which of the five girls decide to continue on in the discernment process and which ones decide religious life is not for them, Young did say that for her, one of the most important lessons learned was that “by taking this time and dating God, I don’t lose anything. If at the end of the discernment journey, God says, ‘I don’t want you exclusively for myself,’ there’s no heartbreak. There’s no loss.
“The discernment process is intense,” Young said. “But talking to the sisters and hearing their discernment journeys helped me so much. Hopefully this show will do the same for others and encourage more young Catholics to ask the question, ‘God, what do you want for my life?’”
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.