There’s been a lot of press in recent years about the newer more conservative type of American nun and how influxes of 20-something women joining fairly new religious communities.
That is, the new breed of nun isn't joining up with some of the traditional orders. They are inventing their own or joining communities that have taken old, old traditions and pulled them into the modern world, trusting that they are still relevant and will appeal to the young.
Here’s a story of a quintet of young women who are doing just that, care of the team at The Buffalo News:
Nuns have long been the bedrock of the Catholic Church in Western New York. At the height of their numbers in the late 1960s, more than 3,500 sisters ministered in the region, teaching and healing hundreds of thousands of people in schools and hospitals. Hundreds of sisters remain active in the area today, but most are well into their 60s and 70s, and their communities have long passed the stage of being able to replenish themselves with fresh-faced recruits. Most communities of women religious in the area haven’t welcomed a new nun in decades. Some have given up on looking for candidates.
Yet, on the Lake Erie shoreline in Derby, a Catholic retreat house now teems with the youthful exuberance of Martin and four other women, all in their 20s and hoping to become nuns together in what could be the first religious community built from scratch in the Buffalo diocese.
That's a nice punch statement in a summary paragraph. Now, here are some additional details.
Martin, 24; Nicolette Langlois, 28; Kristen Leaderstorf, 28; Alycia Murtha, 27; and Catherine Chance, 25, awake each morning by 5:30 a.m. and pray together for 45 minutes in the retreat house chapel. They eat breakfast and attend Mass together. They also pray together three more times throughout the day and eat dinner as a group. They call themselves Marian Franciscans and keep wooden Tao crosses draped around their necks and simple chains on their wrists, symbols of their devotion to St. Francis of Assisi and Mary, mother of Jesus.
A full-fledged new congregation of women religious is still years away from being a reality. The group will need at least 40 members before it can receive official recognition from the Vatican. But Diocese of Buffalo Bishop Richard M. Malone already has given the small group his blessing to move forward. And on Saturday, Malone celebrated a special Mass in Our Lady of Victory when the five young women received their common garb as postulants.
There’s so much in this Buffalo News story that is engaging and interesting and it’s clear a lot of work went into this.
Sometimes religion coverage includes too many naysayers. In this case, there weren’t quite enough critical voices in the mix. Some critical questions went unanswered in this very earnest piece. Did the reporter look into how religious orders are founded? For five 20-somethings to decide they’re founding their own order is unusual, to say the least.
Yes, new orders are being founded these days but they’re usually branches off a tree. The nuns involved have been part of a motherhouse elsewhere else. These women are all postulants together. Other than a priest who meets with them once or twice a month, there is no one directing them. Yes, their bishop has signed off on their establishment, so am wondering what he’s thinking about it all. Unfortunately, the story does not quote him.
The number of U.S. nuns has dropped from about 180,000 to about 50,000 today; a 72 percent drop, which makes this counter-trend story even more pressing. It does mention several religious orders that have begun -- and flourished in recent decades, including the Dominican Sisters of Mary, the booming order started in 1997 now numbering more than 100 members. It was founded by four women who were professed nuns with another order. The story also mentions the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal. But that was founded alongside a brotherhood established by several Capuchin priests.
Most of these new orders have substantial backing from existing convents or monasteries, but this one in Buffalo does not. Also, religious communities often need the help of a canon lawyer to help them put together a constitution and rules. This story didn’t mention that detail but a similar story in the diocesan newspaper did name such a person who is working with these women.
The story was quite long and I’m sure a lot was left on the cutting room floor. I think the reporter could have pressed these women more on why they couldn’t join an existing order in which they would at least be mentored until they took final vows. (Although an existing order may have made them pay off those college loans before joining up). The story does say that three of them lived 18 months with a Carmelite community. I would have liked another paragraph or two on what that taught them (and why they didn’t stay there).
Also, the article profiles five young women. Their web site only mentions four. I assume their web site needs some work but it’s a bit odd when a story cites something that’s at least six months out of date.
Whether or not one agrees with these women or thinks they may succeed long term, it was refreshing to read about their journey without the snark that often attends stories of people who give up family, children, money and sex to enter the religious life.