On 150th anniversary, a Tennessee convent finds an unusual blessing: Growing ranks of sisters

A handful of Roman Catholic convents are contradicting the decades-long slide in the number of women choosing to devote their lives to the sisterhood. And at least two of them are doing it by sticking to tradition, including the wearing of habits.

The number of nuns in the U.S. has dropped dramatically over the last several decades as more women in religious life approach retirement and are not replaced with younger sisters.

But the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville have remained an exception for years. The order has 27 postulants entering the convent this fall, likely the largest group of new nuns in training in the U.S., according to religious scholars.

Sisters at St. Cecilia's and other thriving U.S. orders typically are younger, which makes them closer in age to potential newcomers. These orders also emphasize traditional practices, like wearing long, flowing black-and-white habits, and educating students.

After joining the convent, nuns are limited to a great degree in their contact with the outside world. They can't always use cell phones, are only allowed to visit family certain times of the year and must share the use of items like cars with other sisters in the convent.

"Initially when you enter you think you're giving up so many treats: going out to Starbucks whenever you want in your car or going out to eat," said Sister Scholastica Niemann, 31, who just entered her third year at St. Cecilia's. She'll take her final vows in five years.

"The reality is, through God's generosity and generosity of people, you have more than you could ever want," she said. "You don't have to own things to use them. You realize material possessions sometimes, because of our human nature, they can possess us."

Women entered religious life in large numbers in the 1950s and '60s, but that changed dramatically in the following decades as more career choices became available. In 1965, there were 179,954 religious sisters in the U.S. while today that number is around 57,544, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

More than nine in 10 women religious, who have taken final vows, were 60 or over in 2009. At St. Cecilia's the median age for the 272 sisters in the order is 36; the youngest sister is 18, the oldest 101.

Potential postulants see "young vibrant women, obviously happy with what they're doing" at St. Cecilia's and other growing orders, said Mary Gautier, senior research associate at CARA.

The Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, in Ann Arbor, Mich., has 22 postulants entering this fall, many of them right out of college.

Like St. Cecilia's, sisters at Mary, Mother of the Eucharist wear habits. And the average age of the sisters in the Michigan-based order is close to 28.

"Young people want to help others understand some of the deeper aspects of the life and that's beautifully done in the classroom," said Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, vocation director for the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.

She said entering postulants this fall include a highly decorated Harvard graduate and students from Notre Dame, St. Louis University and other esteemed schools.

"We're having a vocation explosion," Bogdanowicz said. "We can't build enough. I expect a lot more than 22 (postulants) next year."

"The world's very confused as to why they've (postulants) entered a convent," she said. "They're doing it because they want to make a difference in the world. We're not just teaching facts but the why behind life itself, ultimately that God has a purpose for all of us."

Sister Catherine Marie, executive director of St. Cecilia's campus in Nashville, said the number of postulants this year is "unheard of for us. It's really high." In 2000, she said they had around 22, a high point for the order.

Asked what attracts postulants to the order when there's hundreds to choose from, she said many postulants seek out St. Cecilia's because of its education emphasis and because the order still wears habits.

The Nashville order operates an all-girls school — with around 257 students — which they founded 150 years ago, the same year the order was founded. The Michigan order also runs two K-8 schools in Ann Arbor.

"It's not so much a fashion statement (sisters' habits) as much as a desire for a radical simplicity or saying 'I am about the work of God. I want to witness to that,'" Marie said.

"In the end, it's who God inspires. They (postulants) hear about us in such divergent ways. It's not recruitment, it's not marketing, it's the Holy Spirit."

Catherine Mooney, a professor at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, who's written about women's religious life, said one possible reason behind the thriving orders' success is many postulants grew up when Pope John Paul II was in the Vatican and may be influenced by his more traditional views.

People sharing their goods, having a communal lifestyle filled with prayer while educating and helping others, is also attractive to some.

"I don't think it's surprising young people who are religious and want to make some generous gesture in life would pursue any of a number of more traditional orders because that's what they've seen going to church," Mooney said.



Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia: http://nashvilledominican.org/

The Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist: http://www.sistersofmary.org/