The changing face of America’s sisters

A paper in St. Louis looks at how sisters have changed over the last couple decades — and what that may mean.  Details:

Sister Sarah Heger [shown above] cut through a tray of raw chicken with a knife and let her fifth-grade class of girls squirm for only a second.

A science exam loomed, and the petite nun didn’t waste time preparing them. She wrangled the meat with her bare hands, pointing to tendons and showing how muscles relax and contract.

“Lord, I am traumatized,” said Mariah Favell, one of the students. Heger knew it was drama and probed deeper. “What’s this white rubbery stuff between the bones?” she asked about the cartilage.

The raw chicken was one of several stations Heger set up around the room to teach about muscles and bones. Even Heger was a walking lesson. She had stickers all over her body indicating specific parts of anatomy: abdominals, sternum, deltoid, phalanges…

Like scores of nuns before her, teaching is a passion for Heger.

But Heger, 30, is a rarity, especially at a time when the number of nuns in the U.S. has fallen dramatically.

She is the only nun teaching at Marian Middle School, a private Catholic school for girls near Tower Grove Park. But visually, she doesn’t stand apart from her co-workers. She doesn’t wear a traditional habit. On this day, black pants and a pink blouse outlined the same slim physique that she had playing volleyball at Fontbonne University. She wore her blondish-brown hair in a ponytail. Her independent spirit flowed freely.

On the inside, however, there is something different. Not long ago, in a paddle boat at Forest Park, she politely turned down a marriage proposal from a friend. That she could have the same teaching job without being a nun also speaks to her faith and goals.

“Our bodies are made to give birth, but this was the life I wanted to lead,” Heger said. “It’s bigger.”

Since the 1960s, the number of nuns has dropped from nearly 180,000 in the U.S. to about 56,000 today.

In spite of the drop, many Catholics are comforted by historical trends. The Rev. Paul Bednarczyk, executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference, said explosive growth in the 1950s and 1960s was an anomaly.

“The fact is there has always been a small number of Catholics who have responded to a religious vocation,” he said.

Though the numbers are in decline, about 4,000 men and women in the U.S. were either in formation or had professed final vows within a recent 15-year period, according to a 2009 study that the vocation conference commissioned. The average age for women entrants was 32. The youngest pool of nuns was more diverse than older nuns.

But still, 44 percent of women religious communities in that period had no one in the initial stages of preparation.

The downward trend is changing the face of ministry, education and health care in places like St. Louis, where nuns have played a significant part of the city’s Catholic legacy.

Read more.

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8 responses to “The changing face of America’s sisters”

  1. Well, as far as I am concerned, without the habit, she could be anybody ( a good thing). The Visibility of the habit is a WITNESS to Christ that is missing.

  2. Joe: Here is what you need to do. Have Google Maps show you where the National Shrine of the Cross in the Woods in Indian River Michigan is located. Then travel there and spend a day going through their “Nun-Doll Museum.” OR try this URL:

    A lot of folks really enjoy that trip back to nostaligia-land. I know my mother did and visited there several times before she died.

  3. Sister Sarah has given her life to Christ as a religious. God bless her. Her life is her witness.
    A few weeks ago Max Lindenman had a tongue-in-cheek Catholic drinking game going. Along those lines if we drank a shot of vodka every time a discussion of religious sisters boiled down to habits, we’d all need a designated driver. Not to mention an AA sponsor.

  4. The comments on this blog stream surfaced a strange memory. Some time back, the bishop of a Roman Catholic diocese in America’s “Old-South” authorized and blessed the creation of a rather unique congregation of Religious Sisters who were known far and wide because of their very unusual habits.

    The sisters wore — as their main public attire — either bibbed-overalls or a jumper (think of a jumper as a “bibbed-skirt”) made of good old fashioned American dark-blue denim. Their shirts/blouses were made out of that lighter blue denim so common in secular shirts you can find in any Western Wear store. Their shoes were tennis shoes/sneakers that were purchased at a local Goodwill store. They looked much like the poor women of the “Old South.” The only way you could tell they were religious sisters was if there were a group of them together or you paid attention to their corporate logo they had embroidered in the pockets of their bib.

    Their chartered ministry was the same as that of the classic Ursulines created by Saint Angela de Merici way back in 1535. They worked with young women who were teen-aged single-mom’s; helping them as childbirth coaches, perhaps (if qualified) as mid-wives, but certainly as home-health aids, teaching home-making skills and helping them raise their children.

  5. I would imagine this nun lives her life much like one who is a lay unmarried teacher. She probably receives a salary and probably live in an apartment. If she did not go by the name “Sister” one would probably not know she was a nun. None of that takes anything away from the story or the fact she is doing good, only the fact that she is in an order that chooses not to show themselves to be dedicated brides of Christ and willing to show this with an outward sign in how she dresses. This is a choice she is free to make. She could have chosen to be a nun within the Nashville Dominican nuns and dedicated her life to teaching and to total surrender of going where the nuns direct her to serve, to live within a convent type home setting with other nuns, etc. In a way, it is good that women have these choice in religious life. I note that the huge growth seems to be in those who wear the habit as often detailed on The Anchoress site. I personally think it was a mistake for the nuns to abondon their habits and to live in the world and most of those religious ourders that did are floundering.

  6. With all respect and love to and admiration to those scores of nuns a year who joined the convent in droves in the 1960’s right out of high school , how much more courage does it take in 2011 for an educated, independent, mature ( not old) young lady like Sister Sarah to turn down a gentleman caller in a rowboat ( I imagine he was a worthy husband so she had options that ” society” accepts) and instead choose alone a vow of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience for Christ with an order who will send her out for a ‘wage’ in a catholic school. The wage – typically standardized by the diocese for all religious ministries, is so they afford to pay for the care for the retired and elderly nuns. As the Wall Street Journal noted years ago, sadly many of the younger religious give up the ministry they are called to serve to work a job simply to bring in enough money for the order.

    Along with such courage, she gets to be criticized ( rarely by anyone who has taken similar vows) because the modest dress her order permits does not meet their standards. Bless her witness.

  7. The University of Dayton’s main library includes a small collection of nun habit dolls in a display case on one of its upper floors, donated by some alumna who had that as a hobby. There’s fifty or sixty of them at least.

  8. When I started teaching in 1994 in a Catholic school, there were 2 nuns—an elderly one, in her middle 70’s and one in her 40’s. Neither wore a habit, and the “convent” they lived in was actually a house, provided by the church. There were 4 nuns living in it. The younger nun was sent out of state, which left the senior nun. Thus the “convent” had 3 nuns—and once in awhile a younger nun would stay there when she had an assignment. Before I retired Sr. retired, and went to another small convent, in the same state, where she died. 2 nuns left. Not a huge number of women are entering a religious life in the order the nuns I knew were in. Oh, while I was teaching, the Catholic superintendent of schools was a nun—but she left her order—but did keep her job as head of the Catholic schools. She just wasn’t Sister anymore but Miss.

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