Roles on nuns widen as ranks thin

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News


That's how few women Sister Durstyne Farnan thinks could fill the next class of Adrian Dominican nun candidates.

When she was in their position, formally entering the order on Aug. 28, 1965, the then 18-year-old was among 122 others at its Lenawee County Motherhouse.

LaRita Cooper chats with Sr. Janice Brown, director of the Dominican Literacy Center, as she works in the computer lab in Detroit.

"We're never going to have young women entering in those numbers, but there will always be a call," said Farnan, vocation director for the Adrian Dominican Sisters. "God is always calling young people to religious life. … We really believe that."

Coping with shrinking ranks is among the top challenges for Catholic sisters in Metro Detroit and southeast Michigan — a trend confirmed in a long-awaited Vatican report released this month on the lives of nuns nationwide. That means adapting to changing trends by reaching out through social media, including Facebook, and meet-and-greets to connect with recruits. It can also mean moving beyond classrooms and rectories, as well as shedding traditional habits.

"The modern approach is to be where people are," said Sister Kathleen Matz, the Archdiocese of Detroit's associate director in the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis. "In the past, we would be in our convent and people would come to us. Pope Francis continues to encourage our religious orders to get out of our comfort zone and be with people."

Those efforts come amid a drop of American nuns by almost two-thirds in the past 50 years. The United States has 49,883 religious sisters, according to Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. That figure was 68,634 in 2005, and nearly 180,000 in 1965.

The Archdiocese of Detroit has 1,038 women in religious orders — down from 1,837 a decade ago, with 19 residences of religious sisters, including six that are considered convents. At its peak in the mid-1960s, there were 50 orders with such residences, spokesman Joe Kohn said.

"Many have retired, some have died," said Monsignor Timothy Hogan, the archdiocese's vicar for clergy and consecrated life. Order officials say many of their nuns-to-be typically are around middle age and have previously pursued other professions.

Concerns of conservative American Catholics, both religious and laity, helped spark the recent Vatican report, called the "Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Apostolic Life of Women Religious in the United States of America." Initiated in 2008, it included quizzing sisters about their beliefs and practices.

The Apostolic Visitation is separate from another controversial assessment in 2012 that focused on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group representing most of the U.S. nun orders, after church officials had noted what they called "radical feminist themes." The Vatican ordered an overhaul of the conference, the most important group of nuns in the United States.

Tough sell

Despite the surging popularity of Pope Francis and even a reality TV show on the subject, Lifetime's "The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns," contemplative life remains a tough sell, said Sister Simone Campbell.

She's the executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobbying group known for its "Nuns on the Bus" campaign that tours the country.

"It's hard today for a young man or woman to make a commitment for life at a young age," said Sister Georgette Zalewska, the assistant director of worship for the Detroit archdiocese.

That means branching out creatively to draw more recruits into the fold.

Farnan, her order's vocation director, uses social media to promote its "come and see," a weekend retreat for women interested in pursuing the sisterhood. She has also appeared at seminaries, festivals and Catholic youth conferences.

"If you want people to know you, you have to go out there and push it," she said.

There's also the "Nun Run," launched by the Detroit Archdiocesan Vocation Association in recent years.

The visits to order sites let women learn more about the lifestyle, said Sister Katherine Hill, vocation minister at the Farmington Hills office for the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. "We have a big task to educate people about this option for life," she said.

Word about the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor has spread through annual retreats, CDs its members record, a popular Facebook page, even Oprah Winfrey, said Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, the vocations director.

Sister Mary Jane Herb, president of the Monroe-based Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, has reason to celebrate: The 350-plus order now has three novices — the first in years, she said, adding officials have reached out via media, including online, and visits to college campuses.

'A lot of potential'

Among its novices is Diane Brown, 56, a longtime educator and widowed mother with a black belt in martial arts who harbored desires for the sisterhood since she was a child.

She now splits her time between living at a rectory in Wyandotte and working with other IHM sisters. Her goal is to someday serve at a mission in Puerto Rico and tutor.

"We have a lot of potential to really affect big change in the world," she said. "So, it's an exciting time."

And you won't see nuns only in classrooms or convents anymore. They often are working as professionals outside religious practice.

"In our congregation, women are nurses, doctors, lawyers, spiritual directors, theology teachers, pastoral care people, chaplains," Farnan said. "I myself am a social worker by training. The prioress of our congregation is an immigration lawyer."

After feeling she was "being called to something else," Sister Mary Jones, 54, who grew up in Taylor and has bachelor's and master's degrees, left a job at Ford to become a nun candidate about 10 years ago.

Now working at Siena Heights University in Adrian, she welcomes meeting others and challenging traditional views of her vocation.

"I think there was a time when sisters were perhaps put on pedestals. … We lived in a way that God has called us to, but it doesn't make us any different than our neighbors," she said.

For others, the vocation can mean helping others better themselves.

Sister Janice Brown, director of the Dominican Literacy Center in Detroit, said she loves helping the adults who seek tutoring services there. "We just do what we feel we're called to do in order to work with those who are most in need."

The same applies to Sister Rosemarie Abate, a nun for some 60 years. Retired from St. Raymond-Our Lady of Good Counsel in Detroit, she remains heavily involved in the city, volunteering to tutor and help the homeless.

"It brings life to me," she said. "It's living who you are."