Much has been written over the past few decades about the dramatic decline of religious life in the United States since the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, but nowhere is it more noticeable than its impact on women religious. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), there were 45,605 women in religious life in 2017, compared with 179,954 in 1965 – a decline of about 75 per cent in a period when the US population has risen from 194 million to 326 million.
The average age of most communities has dramatically increased, and many once well-established communities are facing extinction. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, for example, were founded by St Katharine Drexel (1858-1955). Their 44-acre motherhouse outside of Philadelphia once trained Sisters to serve at missions across the country. The community at one time numbered 600, but vocations have since dried up and there are fewer than 100 today (mostly retired). The motherhouse property was sold to a developer in 2017, with proceeds going towards the Sisters’ retirement needs.
While such stories of decline are common among women’s orders in the West, there are a handful of communities bucking the trend. While each community is unique, those doing well typically share some common characteristics, such as wearing the habit, living and praying together in community, and fidelity to the teaching authority of the Church.
One such community is the Dominican Sisters of St Cecilia, or Nashville Dominicans, who number about 300. They have many younger Sisters who teach in Catholic schools in around 40 US states, as well as in Australia, Scotland and Canada. While they strive to give their students an excellent education, more fundamental is their desire to raise up a future generation of devout Catholics. As their Vicaress General, Sister Anne Catherine Burleigh, explained: “In the end, we all know that our schools exist to evangelise. We want our students to see that their call is to holiness, and that they respond affirmatively to that call.”
Other bright lights include the Michigan-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. Founded in 1997, they’re also teachers. They number about 140 with an average age in the upper 20s. Last year, they sang for President Donald Trump at the White House Christmas tree lighting.
Founding Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz noted that the community is having difficulty building the housing required for new Sisters: “We cannot build fast enough to accommodate all our vocations. We’ve filled our motherhouse and we’re looking for more space to build.”
The Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, also based in Michigan, have gone from seven Sisters when they were founded in 1973 to about 100 today. They are involved in healthcare and education, and serve in 11 US states, Scotland, Germany, Italy and Australia.
Sister Mary Hanah Doak teaches at a Colorado school served by the Sisters. She noted: “Our Sisters share a common consecration to Our Lord lived out in prayer, and live community life in common. They love one another and love their vocations. They are honest with one another, and are comfortable in addressing and working out problems which can arise.”
While there may be no quick or easy solutions to revitalising religious life in the West, these three communities, and a handful of others like them, seem to be heading in the right direction.
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California