Bucking a Trend, Some Millennials Are Seeking a Nun’s Life

From the New York Times:

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Sister Mary Catharine, far right, watches Sister Mary Cecilia, left, and Sister Mary Veronica play with Sabina. An aspiring sister is in the background. Credit Toni Greaves

Bucking a Trend, Some Millennials Are Seeking a Nun’s Life

A contemplative order in New Jersey, where sisters live in cloister and
practice a life of prayer, is attracting eager, college-educated women.


SUMMIT, N.J. — It’s been a rough year for the mechanicals at the Dominican Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary. The lawn mower died, along with the chaplain’s car, the compressor for the kitchen refrigerator and one of the “new” washers (that is, a machine bought sometime in the mid ’80s).

But the 19 sisters who live here are sanguine about these and other expenses, which include more than $94,000 a year for health insurance. “Oy,” is how Sister Mary Catharine, the gregarious 46-year-old novice mistress, shrugged off the recent breakdowns.

On a recent summer morning, the sisters stood in their chapel and sang the daytime prayer in high, clear voices. Dominican monasteries are essentially engines of prayer; singing, which the nuns do seven times a day, is a deeper, fuller way of praying, Sister Mary Catharine said, “because we are using our whole person.”

Outside the choir door, a bulletin board was layered with a collage of cards, printed emails and letters, flags of hope and despair, asking the sisters for an intercession.

“We get them from all over the world every week,” said Sister Mary Catharine. “We have regulars. If you don’t hear from someone, you notice and worry.”

A woman fighting depression phoned most mornings and evenings. “We tell her, ‘It’s O.K. We’re praying for you,’ ” Sister Mary Catharine said (now she calls less often). “Sometimes I don’t know what to say. Some sisters are better at this than others.”

On a table, a handful of LG Tracfones were charging, as backup in case a sister on an errand has a breakdown (the monastery owns two 10-year-old Subaru Foresters) or an item needs to be added to her shopping list. Of course, said Sister Mary Catharine, nuns are notorious for not turning the ringer on.

While the number of women entering religious life has been in a steep decline since the mid-1960s, it is notable and even startling that a contemplative order like the Dominican Nuns of Summit — where the sisters live in cloister and practice a life of prayer — would be able to attract young, college-educated millennials.

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The Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary, in Summit, N.J., a cloistered Roman Catholic monastic community. Credit Toni Greaves

In the last decade, 15 aspirants have entered this tiny order, nine of whom stayed and are on track to take their final vows or have already done so. Two more will join the community before the end of the year.

Built in the 1920s and ’30s on a busy street in this bedroom community of Manhattan, the monastery was imagined as four-winged cloister until the Depression curtailed its scope.

What surrounds the brick and stone chapel is a kind of architectural afterthought, a ring of rooms housing the sisters’ bright, spare cells and their kitchen, dining room, offices and choir.

Underneath, a warren of spaces includes the woodworking and soap making shops — sales of their products help defray the sisters’ growing expenses. In a windowless storeroom, a few donated exercise machines huddle together (one sister’s mother works at a Y.M.C.A).

The Dominican sisters of Summit have finally outgrown their home.

Some context comes from a study published last fall by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (or CARA), charting the decrease in the population of women’s religious orders, to less than 50,000 today, from their peak of 181,421 sisters in 1966.

In postwar America, “a vocation to a religious life was one of the few ways for Catholics without resources to get an education and to exercise leadership,” said Mary Gautier, a senior research associate at CARA.

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Sister Lauren and other novice nuns make and package soap during work hours and in their off time. The monastery has an online soap business. Credit Toni Greaves

Yet even at the peak, a vocation to a contemplative order was pretty rare. (Active or apostolic nuns, by contrast, follow a service ministry out in the world, in teaching or health care, for example.) “Their purpose is very special,” Dr. Gautier said.

Paradoxically, it’s the Internet and, increasingly, social media that have helped replenish the Summit sisters and other orders, with blogs like A Nun’s Life and elegant websites like the one Sister Mary Catharine built for her order using Squarespace.

You can search the phrase, “How to be a nun” and find substantive answers. An Ohio order invites you to text your queries.

One sister looked at the Summit blog for two years before she got in touch. (Sister Mary Catharine put the blog up in 2004 without permission from the prioress. “I knew I couldn’t explain what a blog was without actually making a blog,” she said. Permission was quickly granted, she added.) Communities have Twitter feeds that you can follow, and Facebook pages.

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Sister Denise Marie, prioress, left, and Sister Mary Catharine, novice mistress, right, bestow a black veil on Sister Maria Teresa. Credit Toni Greaves

In 1991, when Sister Mary Catharine entered the Summit monastery, she was 22 and the next youngest sister was 39. Back home in Massachusetts, where she was still known as Sharon Perry and working as a pharmacy technician, there was no one she knew who was even contemplating a contemplative life.

Raised Catholic, Sister Mary Catharine had spent two years as a teacher in an active order in her home state; she was stunned to be called to a cloistered community in Summit, N.J. “Of all places,” she said. “It was the ’80s, this non-time. Lots of big sleeves and hair.” But after a visit to the Summit monastery, Sister Mary Catharine couldn’t shake the pull of the place.

Now, she is mentoring six women under the age of 30; this summer, she welcomed four aspirants, three of them in their 20s. “You now have a whole generation that’s been given so much,” Sister Mary Catharine said, pondering the recent flurry of inquiries to the monastery.

“With all the technology, I think they’re just saturated,” she said of the curious. “And they see this life as really radical and they have a desire for it. Maybe their families are fractured and they see our life as really stable. Of course, people come to it from all different places. One of the friars told me his novice master decided to become a friar because friars had their own bedrooms and he hated sharing a room with his brothers at home. That is why he came, but it’s not why he stayed. If God is calling, you can’t be happy doing anything else.”

It was YouTube that figured into the discernment process of another novice.

Sister Maria Teresa, who took her final vows here last year, was a junior at Drew University majoring in religious studies and biology when she felt the call to some sort of service. Cloistered life was not on her list of life choices, though she was considering a religious vocation in an active order.

After praying for guidance one day in her dorm room, she put on her head phones to listen her favorite song, “Only Hope,” by Mandy Moore on YouTube (the theme to the Nicholas Sparks romantic comedy, “A Walk to Remember”). Instead of the familiar lyrics, she heard the phrase, “Will you marry me?” and understood, she said, that she had to give herself more radically to God.

She had been at the Summit monastery for just three weeks when the photographer Toni Greaves visited in the winter of 2008, joining a writer who was working on a story about how nuns were using the Internet to market their communities.

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Sister Maria Teresa kneels before Sister Mary Catharine, Novice Mistress, practicing her vows in preparation for her "First Profession" ceremony the next morning. Credit Toni Greaves

Ms. Greaves was so moved by what she saw there that she asked the sisters if she could stay and document their daily life. “There was an exuberance and vibrancy to all the young women,” Ms. Greaves said. “It’s the energy that we embody when we’re in love, and it was amazing to me.”

She spent the next seven years visiting the monastery, sleeping in the tiny guest quarters in the basement. Her luminous images marry the quotidian with the divine in all sorts of ways: a young novice dribbles a basketball in full habit; a jar of Vick’s VapoRub nestles a bottle of holy water; a group portrait of all 19 sisters, whose ages range from 25 to 90, includes Sabina, the golden retriever, splayed flat on the floor (Sabina had trained to be a guide dog, said Sister Mary Catharine, but she was perhaps too friendly for that work).

“We got used to stepping over Toni on the floor as we left chapel,” said Sister Mary Catharine, who now calls Ms. Greaves a close friend.

Her book, “Radical Love,” out this month from Chronicle Books, is a collection of images that document Sister Maria Teresa’s journey from her first weeks in the monastery to her solemn profession seven years later. (Ms. Greaves, whose photos illustrate this article, discusses her book in the Lens blog of The Times.) “To focus life on the thing you care about the most,” Ms. Greaves said, “I equate their happiness, in part, to that.”

In the skinny passage that serves as the monastery’s front hall, Sister Mary Cecilia stopped to share her vocation story. She is an extern sister, which means she works outside the monastery and is the face of the community to the outside world.

Sister Mary Cecilia drives sisters to the doctor, and picks visitors up from the airport and grocery shops, among other things. (For a long time, Sister Mary Catharine was the only sister here with a driver’s license. “I thought I’d write a book,” she said. “ ‘ I Go to the Airport: My Life as a Cloistered Nun.’ ”)

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From left: Sister Joseph Maria, Sister Mary Cecilia, Sister Mary Magdalene and Sister Maria Teresa walk the monastery grounds to the rotunda to play music. Credit Toni Greaves

In 2007, Sister Mary Cecilia had graduated from business school, taken her securities exam and begun a plum job. “A religious life was not on my radar, but I was completely miserable,” she said. “I remember asking God what to do.”

She was touring active orders when a scheduling mishap brought her for a night to Summit. Meeting with Sister Mary Catharine in the small parlor that is the public room here, she said, “I think I have a contemplative vocation,” and burst into tears.

Cloistered life requires stamina. Sisters are up at 5:20, and work hard during the day: studying, praying and performing all manner of jobs according to temperament and talent. There are printers, publication directors, database managers and cooks; there are four organists, a liturgy directress, a bursar and more than a few seamstresses.

Laundry must be done, and many sisters have a garden. Mending (and making) the habits is a constant challenge, said Sister Mary Catharine, because their fabric sources keep drying up, and “we demand a lot from our clothes.” (The holy grail of fabric is a poly/wool blend that doesn’t pill, wears well and breathes.)

The sisters used to make their own shoes, too, but these days they buy them at Zappos. “Free shipping,” said Sister Mary Catharine.

Novices go through physical changes, she said, as their internal clocks adjust to the routine: “They are used to being up late at night. There’s no, ‘I’m going to sleep in this weekend.’ When I entered, I thought I would never get over the exhaustion.”

The first six weeks are pivotal, Sister Mary Catharine said: “It’s when they get over the romance of it all. If they make it six weeks, they’ll usually make it a year. And if they make it through a year, they’re probably going to make solemn profession.”

The soap, candles, room sprays and cosmetics they make by hand are part of a serious operation, though its retail presence is just a small closet inside the front door of the church.

There are hits and misses. Chocolate soap was not a best seller. “None of us have any professional experience in marketing so we just go for it,” Sister Mary Catharine said. In a recent meeting to plan next spring’s scents, the sisters nixed a patchouli flavor because it reminded them of an old couch.

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Sister Maria Teresa searches for baby fish in the fish pond, which she built. Credit Toni Greaves

A capital campaign is underway to build the sisters a 5,500-square-foot addition with handicapped access, something the church is sorely lacking.

Stretching off to one side of the church, the space will more than ease their growing pains, and will finish, in effect, the job that was started here back in the 1920s. Inside, there will be larger guest quarters, a proper gift shop and more workrooms for the handmade products, which in turn will free up more space in the original structure for the new sisters.

Sister Mary Cecilia, the extern, is now 31 and still in her first vows, the formative period that follows the two-year novitiate program.

After six years here, Sister Mary Cecilia, a native of Canada, remains mystified by certain United State rituals.

“I still don’t get the Electoral College,” she said.

“Nobody does,” said Sister Mary Catharine. (Cloistered nuns do vote, by mail-in ballot.)

The contemplative life, Sister Mary Cecilia said, ”has been more than I could ever have imagined. God surprises you.”
God Bless them!
What a joy they get to live religious life.

The Dominicans have a history in my life, so I see this article as very warming.

During my grade school years the sisters that helped with school teaching, and who were housed in a convent a few yards away from the school, were Adrian Dominicans. This was fitting because the school that I went to was named after St. Albert the Great, a Dominican Friar who taught the legendary St. Thomas Aquinas, who also was a Dominican Friar.

Since that 'chapter' no longer teaches, my grade school has hired a handful of sisters from the Missionary Sisters of Christ the King to aide in spiritual life, more than a decade of any sister's presence found within the school's system.  Of course, there is my confirmation name - St. Dominic - who was the founder of the Dominican Order. I did not make the Dominican connection between the name of the school, the sisters and the Sinsinawa Dominicans (mentioned below) till recently.

I then matriculated to an all-male high school whose "sister" school was associated with the Sinsinawa Dominicans.  Both the Adrian and and Sinsinawa Dominicans appear to be more "worldly" sisters, and have left their original habits once worn - it also seems they have not seen much growth in attracting potential young woman when compared to orthodox 'chapters' such as The Summit Dominicans.

Add to the fact that this past July I  bought a rosary from The Summit Dominicans, I am very glad that the NYT ran a well-written article and beautifully photographed life of these women. Maybe it's a sign? Maybe not - just a coincidence.



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