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Millennial nuns are thriving: ‘We are not dying off’

(Photo by Ben White on Unsplash)

Little girls are told they can grow up to be anything: a teacher, an astronaut, maybe even the president. But how many grow up to be nuns?

According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, over the past decade only about 100 American women chose to take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience every year. A 2019 Pew survey says 40% of American millennials don’t go to church or identify with a religion.

“I really have loved God my whole life,” said 39-year-old Julia Walsh, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration. “I grew up a Christian girl, a Catholic in Iowa, and was kind of one of those goody two-shoe, Jesus-freak type people.”

Walsh entered the sisterhood when she was 24 years old, making her a rare millennial sister.

“I knew by that point that the type of life I wanted to live was a life structured around prayer, service, social justice and community,” Walsh said. “I wanted to live simply, to live in solidarity with the poor.”

But in college, when she started touring convents, she was on the fence. Walsh was still curious about dating.

“I tried, but I wasn’t very good at it,” Walsh laughed. “It did not come naturally. I kind of figured that was God’s way of leading me this direction.”

But there’s plenty of time to make up one’s mind. After entering the sisterhood, it was another nine and a half years until Walsh could take final vows.

She explained that being a nun means you live in a cloistered community at a monastery, separate and purposely detached from the fast-paced every day world. Being a sister, like she is, means you might live in an apartment in a city with other sisters. On top of daily prayer, attending meetings, and sharing meals with her community, a sister can have a job and choose her own clothing, as opposed to wearing the classic black and white habit.

“I think there are some really good reasons that we don’t wear habits anymore,” said 31-year-old Emily TeKolste, a Sister of Providence. “That allows us to be more genuinely among the people. And really anything that blocks people from being themselves around us is a problem.”

TeKolste lives and works in the Maryland/Washington D.C. area.

“I live with two sisters who are both at least two and a half times my age,” said TeKolste, who puts her entire paycheck into a common fund. “One is in her 70s and one is in her 80s.”

“Intergenerational living is a lot of fun,” Walsh added. “It’s very interesting. It’s, I think, one of the things that makes this life so rich.”

Reports show there are more American sisters over the age of 90 than there are under 60. Headlines warn that religious women are on the verge of extinction. This focus in the media annoys the sisters.

“We are not dying off,” TeKolste said.

Walsh explains that there was an uncharacteristically large number of nuns in the United States in the 1950s.

“There were thousands and thousands of sisters and they were kind of like this labor force in the Catholic church, running schools and hospitals,” she said.

But that was an anomaly. She says today’s numbers are far more typical of what the Catholic church has experienced for hundreds of years. But neither the sisters, nor the church, are focused on numbers.

“For some reason that’s interesting to people,” Walsh mused. “But I think what matters more is religious life has always been an intergenerational experience. There’s always been younger and older women living together, sharing life committed to the same values. That’s what religious life is, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. So I’m not concerned about the life dying out. Instead, there’s a shift from what’s institutional, because it was large, to what’s intimate, feels more like a family.”

For many modern women, taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience is hard to relate to and sounds like a lot to sacrifice.

“On the outside it looks like a lot of giving up and a lot of ‘no.’ No sex, no owning things,” said 37-year-old Dominican sister and graduate student Mary Perez. “Sometimes people think you don’t have free will, you have to be obedient. And I definitely thought that too, from the outside looking in. From the inside, it really is a different story.”

“The vow of poverty, for example, my sisters and I share all that we have together,” Perez explained. “We are not trying to seek to amass more than is our share and hopefully that makes more available for others. Likewise in the vow of celibacy. It is about the sharing of love. I do not have an attachment to one person and in that I hope that my person is available and open to loving who God places in my path.”

But the vow of poverty doesn’t always come naturally for Americans who grew up in a capitalist society.

“There is great challenge in it,” Perez admits. “Being aware of what is a need and what is a want. There is a neighborhood in south Pasadena [California] that I love and sometimes imagine what it would be like to have a house there. So I think it’s a continual growing and deepening into the vowed commitment.”

For those of us who may have only seen nuns in movies like Sister Act or known them as Catholic school teachers, I asked the sisters what stereotypes they’d like to dispel.

“One is that we’re not totally bizarre people that live a very boring life,” Walsh said. “I like to camp, I like to go hiking. We’ve been watching Downton Abbey together.”

“I like to play basketball, I play the drums, I play guitar,” Perez said. “I like studying, I’m super nerdy, and hanging out with friends.”

For TeKolste, the stereotypes can feel hurtful. Right after she entered the sisterhood, she met up with her (actual) sister and cousin, both of whom she’s very close with.

“They ran into some guy my sister had gone on a couple of dates with so they were talking about it. At one point in the conversation, my cousin looks at me and says, ‘I don’t know what I can say in front of you anymore.’ That was really hard for me to hear,” she said. “I actually responded with a profanity that my community members don’t always like to hear. To me, it was important to really emphasize that I’m still the same person. Just because I have entered this community and chosen to live my life this way, it’s not so I can be separate. In fact, that’s the exact wrong way to go about it. I’m not better than anyone else, I’m not holier than anyone else. This is just the way that fits my life.”

Perez says all kinds of women find their way to the sisterhood. They join at all ages, some have been married and have kids. They come from all cultures, have varying levels of education, and different interests.

“The stories we tell about women are really important,” she said. “Somehow it’s OK to say we can tell stories about women that are flat and don’t offer the richness and complexity of who we are.”

Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal,” featuring celebrities like Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Rainn Wilson, and Greta Gerwig. Follow @yourlastmealpodcast on Instagram!

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