Cover Story

The new Sisterhood: traditional orders are booming

A member of the Sisters of Life attends the opening Mass of the National Prayer Vigil for Life at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington (CNS/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

Not all women’s religious orders are shrinking. Some are growing at an astounding rate. What is their secret?

The blue-and-white clad Sisters of the Community of Our Lady of Walsingham have recently acquired a new novitiate, a converted barn in Dereham, Norfolk, on a large stretch of land with another barn which they are turning into extra rooms for their youth work.

The community is not large, but it’s growing – and in this it is part of a trend worth examining. Other burgeoning communities in England include the Dominican Sisters of St Joseph in Lymington, Hampshire; the Sisters of Mary Morning Star, at Grayshott, Hampshire; and the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal in Leeds, Yorkshire.

They are evidence of a new direction for religious orders. Their numbers are on the rise – as are those of some of the older contemplative orders, such as the Benedictine Sisters at St Cecilia’s on the Isle of Wight and the Tyburn Nuns in London. They all wear a full religious habit, sing the Office together daily, cherish the Church, have Mass as the centre of their lives, live simply, and watch little if any television.

Rather than opening schools, as new religious orders did in the 19th century, these new orders are concentrating on nurturing families and evangelising youth through retreats and a range of out-of-school activities. They are inspired by the centuries-old traditions of religious life, and take seriously Vatican II’s call for an authentic renewal that responds to the specific needs of our time. They are contemplative in spirit, energetic and good-humoured. They also tend to be big fans of St John Paul II and Benedict XVI, passionately loyal to the Church, very orthodox in their beliefs and devoted to the Blessed Sacrament.

In their veils and full habits, they are very much in tune with the new women’s religious orders in the United States, including the Sisters of Life, founded by Cardinal John O’Connor of New York in 1991. I recently stayed with these Sisters at their main house, not far from St Patrick’s Cathedral. It is a large red-brick convent formerly belonging to an older order which no longer needed it. The substantial building now houses a large community of Sisters, and, in an independent adjoining wing, rooms for local pregnant women and their babies.

The Sisters’ work involves giving the women a refuge, together with practical help and counsel, in an atmosphere of calm and friendship while future plans are made.

This project was launched by Cardinal O’Connor to offer an alternative to the horror of abortion – and the Sisters have won a place in the hearts of many through their loving and practical care. It is not easy work: every woman struggling with a problem pregnancy has her own worries, anger, resentments and difficulties. Goodwill, good humour, tact and patience are needed in offering help and care – and not all counsel will be followed or every kindness reciprocated. But many women do stay in contact and send pictures of thriving children and of lives re-shaped in a positive direction.

The young Sisters – their average age is well below 40 – exude warmth, faith and a strong sense of purpose. I felt energised staying with them – even though it meant rising early to join them at Mass (they had already been praying for more than an hour).

Among the many bright memories of my stay is the sight of the Reverend Mother sitting on the front doorstep in the noisy New York street, chatting away to a crowd of young people who had gathered. The nuns are popular in the area and exude a sense of neighbourliness all too rare in American cities today.

But – and this is significant – the Sisters of Life took the style of their religious habit, and much of their Rule, from an older order, the Dominican Sisters of St Cecilia in Nashville, Tennessee, a very substantial community that traces it roots back to 1860. The Nashville Dominicans held fast to their vows, their religious dress and their founding ideas in an era when many orders seemed to be abandoning everything that might bind them to their past. Thriving new women’s orders tend to be conscious of – and comfortable with – learning from the past.

Incidentally, the Nashville Sisters are opening new convents and have now arrived in Britain. There’s a group of them established at Elgin in Scotland. The Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal in Leeds also have a link with America. They are part of the renewed Franciscans established by Fr Benedict Groeschel and Fr Andrew Apostoli in New York. They, like the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, seek to share the original, very tough way of real poverty as lived by St Francis.

While some religious habits are very becoming, theirs honestly isn’t: loose grey robes, a veil brought forward with a stiff frame. But they somehow all look beautiful. They work among people with difficult and often messy lives. To use a fashionable expression, they evangelise “on the margins”. But they radiate joy.

Meanwhile, the Dominican Sisters of St Joseph are thriving too. They were founded in 1994 in the Diocese of Portsmouth and follow a traditional Dominican way of life with an enclosure, a formal habit, contemplation and silence.

For the past several years, I have joined them on their annual John Paul Walk for the New Evangelisation, covering 20 miles a day en route to Walsingham – an unforgettable journey in glorious countryside with prayers, catechetical talks, daily Mass in ancient churches and hearty suppers, all in great company. The Sisters walk in full habit, teaching us how to sing the Dominican Office. They have established good links with Anglican parishes which gladly open their doors – and hearts – to the young walkers, who never seem to lack good humour even in pouring rain or searing heat (which is nastier).

When not leading pilgrimages, the Sisters run courses for parish catechists – using an excellent new resource from France, Come, Follow Me, which is very contemplative in style. They also offer retreats and days of recollection, and do a great deal of youth work, including a summer camp for teenagers, known as Fanning the Flame.

As the Sisters pray the Office at their convent in the New Forest, one is struck by a sense of timelessness: white robes, the gentle clinking of rosaries, voices raised in chant. Eating lunch in the guest room, you hear gales of laughter from their own refectory. Each evening a peaceful silence descends which is hugely restful. Spending a weekend at the convent with a young friend, I understood her thoughtful comment: “You know, I could be interested in all this …”

I met the Sisters of Mary Morning Star, meanwhile, at St Elizabeth’s Church in Richmond, Surrey, where they were selling home-made biscuits and jam to raise funds for their convent because – you’ve guessed it – their numbers are expanding and they don’t have enough space. Again, full habits, informal and cheery in conversation, forward-looking style.

Where is all this going? Certainly the notion of nuns abandoning all religious dress and/or affirming commitment to feminist causes is already very old hat. The noblest traditions of the older orders will remain. If older orders survive, it will be by looking to their original charism and seeking to develop it.

The Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa in 1950, do not seem so very new now, but they are still a long way from their centenary, and they exemplify much of what the new orders are all about. Their sari-style habits were quite revolutionary at the time, but belong to the Church ’s tradition of a distinctive, modest dress.

There is something about the classic style, serving a modern era, that resonates. Walking with some young Missionaries of Charity in London recently, I experienced the most extraordinary courtesy and friendliness at every turn. People made way for us on steps and stairs, opened doors, and ushered us forward if the street was crowded.

Sitting opposite two of the nuns on the Tube, I saw how people liked them being there. They were saying the rosary quietly, turn and turn about, and one passenger whispered, “Pray for me, Sisters,” while another, further down the carriage, took out a rosary in quiet solidarity.

Members of the Community of Our Lady of Walsingham do not wear veils, but blue hoods, which they raise over their hair while praying to give privacy and a sense of seclusion. This week I will spend some days with them, teaching them cross-stitch embroidery. I don’t know how much I can teach them. But I do know that, by spending just a couple of days with them, I will be the beneficiary.

Joanna Bogle is an author, broadcaster and historian