Over the last few decades, the Catholic Church in America has struggled to fill the ranks of its clergy. The average age of the church’s serving priests and nuns is 70 and still rising. But some Catholic orders in the United States are successfully attracting new members, called postulants.
Diving deeper into faith
At an order of Dominican sisters in the State of Tennessee, nearly a third of the sisters are under 30 years of age.
St. Cecilia’s in Nashville, Tennessee looks and sounds much as it has since its founding 150 years ago. Cloister bells toll the hour and habited sisters gather for daily devotions. But there’s also something new - the laughter and eager voices of young women studying to become Dominican sisters.
St. Cecilia’s hasn’t seen this many new postulants in decades. The current batch of first-year students represents 10 percent of the entire order, according to the convent’s spokesperson, Sister Catherine Marie.
"There are 270 of us and our growth of late has been rather extensive. This year we had 27 young women enter. Last year it was 23. Great blessings to us."
Sister Catherine believes the young women are diving deeper into their faith in reaction to what’s happening in the rest of society. While interest in spiritual matters remains high in America, involvement in organized religion is falling. She notes the Dominican Order was founded during an equally turbulent social period and stresses sacrificial service to others.
"There was a whole lot going on in the world that was irreligious. And yet from this emerged an idealism and a wholehearted desire to give of self."
Sister Zandra Man was drawn by the pleasure the sisters appeared to take in their work as well as the opportunity to serve children.
That desire is what drew first-year postulant Sister Zandra Man into the order. She was attracted by the pleasure the sisters appeared to take in their work and in their apparent devotion to serving children.
"It was very easy for me to choose the Nasvhille Dominicans because they’re so happyand they’re a teaching order too, and working with children," says Sister Zandra. "That’s always been a very attractive thing for me."
Sister Zandra was also intrigued by the full, head-to-toe white habits worn by the Nashville Dominicans, a traditional form of dress no longer practiced by many Catholic orders.
From campus to convent
As a student at the University of Sydney, Sister Kelly Edmunds was also struck by the impression their habits made.
"Just to watch them walking down the main boulevard of campus wearing their habits, it was just such a powerful witness. I had friends in engineering who knew I was Catholic, so they would say to me ‘Who are these nuns on campus?’ And so it was a really great witness to me of the power of religious life."
Second-year novice Sister Victoria Marie also made the leap from the campus to the convent. She completed a degree in civil engineering, but discovered along the way that people were more interesting than roads or bridges.
"It was a big shift in my life to go from utility to relationship, from ‘What am I going do?’ to ‘Who am I going to be for the Lord?’"
Postulants spend a lot of time in devotions, the classroom and doing chores but they also venture outside to exercise and enjoy the outdoors.
A postulant’s day isn’t all work and prayer. Sister Kelly says she’s surprised by how much time she’s gotten to simply enjoy life.
"There have been a lot of fun moments just to be outside and enjoy the beauty of the world and creation. So we play a lot of sports, we go for walks, just enjoy each other’s company outdoors."
Still, postulants do spend a lot of time in devotions, in the classroom and doing chores. And Sister Victoria admits it can be a little overwhelming,
"For a couple weeks after I entered I thought, ‘I just want to lay on the couch for the day, and I don’t think they do that here.’ You know, when comes the part where I get to lay on the couch?"
Sister Kelly doesn’t think her spiritual awakening is unique. She believes the entire Catholic Church is in a period of renewal.
"It’s just a really great, a springtime for the church I suppose," she says. "And there’s a lot of hope and a lot of life."
There won’t be any shortage of opportunities for these women to serve. The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia are active in Australia and across the United States, where they teach more than 13,000 students in 34 schools.