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Catholic Nuns: A Sisterhood in Decline?

One of the biggest challenges facing the American Catholic Church today is the decline in the number of nuns. Not enough young women are joining the church to take the place of sisters who retire or pass away.

Deadwood, South Dakota, is about to find out just what it's like to be without nuns. The last two Benedictine nuns to serve this legendary gambling town have retired, leaving it without female Catholic clergy for the first time since 1878. Nuns of the Benedictine order have traditionally served communities in a missionary status, but Sisters Grace and Maureen have been much more than that. Their presence as religious and community leaders for more than 30 years has brought a sense of stability to the local Catholic parish as well as to non-Catholics.

"It was a sad day," says Deadwood mayor Francis Tuscana. "Sister Grace and Sister Maureen have been here for a long time." The mayor, himself a Catholic, has dealt with the nuns on both a personal and a business level. "Sister Maureen… called me up on a couple of occasions complaining about some of the living conditions that some of these foreign workers were living in," he recalls. "So, she kind of looked out for the people that were less fortunate...that's what the Bible tells us we're supposed to take care of."

Both sisters say they are unhappy to be called back to the convent in Rapid City. As Sister Grace explains, "it would take away our ministry. I still feel that I'm able to do a pretty good amount of whatever I get into." And Sister Maureen notes that she was involved in many services for the church. "I had a Bible class, a catechism class, and I helped with the church service, and I was an organist."

Beyond the personal impact, Sisters Maureen and Grace are also concerned that there will no longer be Benedictines, or any nuns, serving their community. The primary reason for their departure is their ages: 88 and 90. But the inability to replace them is directly linked to the lack of young women taking religious vows.

Sister Carole Ann, who came to the Benedictine monastery in Norfolk, Nebraska, late in life after being widowed with children and grandchildren, thinks she knows why. "They're being raised in a society that says making a vow of a religious life forever is not in your best interests." She says most of the nuns in her convent, like her, are in their mid 60s.

Sister Lorane, prioress of the convent where Sisters Maureen and Grace now live, notes that there are currently only 32 nuns in her Rapid City Benedictine house, and they're also senior citizens. "Our youngest member's in her late 40s. And we have only a few in their 50s. When we built Saint Martin Monastery in 1962, we numbered about 120. So we've gone down a long ways."

Sister Lorane dates the drop in young women coming into the convent to the 1960s, when the Vatican relaxed some of the Church's traditional rituals and roles. Since Vatican-Two, nuns have been permitted to pursue callings other than nursing and education. The changes also allow Catholic women who are not nuns to fill roles previously filled only by nuns.

But while career opportunities for American Catholic women outside the Church have expanded over the past several decades, that's not the case in many developing countries. In fact, as Catholic University of America sociology professor Dean Hoge notes, the only areas where the number of women becoming nuns is on the rise are in Africa and Asia. "Not every nation has as many privileges for young people as we have here in the United States, and in some places there is not such a wide array of options to choose from. But, being a nun, and being of service to Jesus Christ and to fellow human beings as a nun remains one of the most attractive options."

There are four times as many women entering the convent in Africa as there are in the United States, according to Sister Carole Ann, who's spent time in Tanzania as a missionary. She agrees with Professor Hoge on the reason for this disparity. "I think here's there's a lot of pressure put on young people...our society does not even tell them they should make commitments." She points to the nation's high divorce rate as an example. "And they're very susceptible to answering that call, where here it's pretty difficult."

Difficult, but not impossible. Amelia Mack is a member of the Deadwood Catholic parish Sisters Grace and Maureen left behind. Although she's only 14, Amelia says she's thought about being a nun for years. "I've always thought about being closer to God, and stuff like that. I'm very big in my religion," she laughs. "So, that's part of it. I was in fourth grade the first time I ever thought about it, and I have recent thoughts about becoming part of my religion. My friends aren't big in religion or anything. But I am."

There's been an ebb and flow of women entering the convent since the beginnings of the Church, according to Sister Lorane. She admits the Benedictines' numbers are down now, but she looks to the future. "That trend could change very, very rapidly. And I see a renewed interest in spiritual things, you know, in the last few years. And so it's very possible that things could turn around and young women could consider joining the monestary again."

Although individual convents have disappeared over the years, Sister Lorane feels that with the interest in Africa and Asia, as well as the dedication of young women like Amelia Mack, the last bell has not tolled for the Benedictine nuns.