An African taking vows in America

sf_1st_comm_1911From time to time, your GetReligionistas are accused — accurately, I might add — of whining about the fact that many religion stories in the mainstream media are too short, too shallow or have too many holes in them, world without end. Amen.

We’re all journalists, or have worked in the mainstream, so we know that this is a cheap shot. Reporters can write all kinds of interesting things when given the time and the space to touch all the information bases that they want to touch.

However, here’s a Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun report that is so good and so timely, that I have to point out that it really doesn’t seem to take seriously a question that is actually asked in the text of the story itself. Here’s the top of the feature by Scott Calvert, from my neck of the woods, Catonsville, Md.:

As incense smoke danced in the sunlight streaming through the stained-glass windows, Anthonia Nwoga knelt in the hushed chapel for the long-awaited moment. It took but a few seconds. Off came the white veil she had worn for the last year. On went a black one that she may keep for life.

Taking the black veil this week signified Nwoga’s first profession of vows — a key step toward a permanent commitment to the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the nation’s oldest religious order of African American women, founded in Baltimore 180 years ago.

For this Roman Catholic congregation, Our Lady of Mount Providence, based since 1961 in the Baltimore suburb of Catonsville, Nwoga’s decision brings a dose of hope at a time of declining numbers at religious orders. In the last year and a half, 10 elderly sisters have died. But Nwoga is one of only a few to don the black veil in recent years.

A few lines later, we find out an interesting fact. Nwoga is, in a sense, not an African American at all. She is a Nigerian who is taking her vows here in America — in a rite led by a priest from Nigeria, to underscore the same point. And there is a hint at the hole in the story.

You see, there is nothing all that unusual about women and men taking Catholic vows in Africa, one of the regions in the world in which Catholicism is booming — a fact noted in many of those stories about Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Africa, at least those not focusing on the politics of condoms.

This leads to the question that is asked, sort of, in this story as well as the question that is not asked.

Sisters attribute the declining interest in religious orders to forces such as rising materialism and wider opportunities for women to take part in church life without becoming nuns.

As recently as the 1960s, as many as 18 young women entered annual classes at the Oblate Sisters of Providence. At its peak, the order had about 300 members. Today, it’s down to 80 or so. The order remains mostly African American, but it has long had members from Latin America as well. There have also been white members — such as Sister John Francis Schilling, president of St. Frances.

Nwoga is the order’s third Nigerian-born member, and she thinks there might be a need to seek new sisters in Africa.

You think?

So, the implied question is this: Why are Catholic orders on the decline in American Catholicism (and in Europe, while we are at it)? The flip side of that question is obvious: Why are Catholic orders growing in Africa and in some other parts of the world, especially in the Southern Cone?

Read the Sun story carefully and tell me if you see any information that truly helps answer these questions. The references to materialism and a wider range of ministries for women are, of course, highly relevant. But is that all there is? Are there other demographic and/or doctrinal issues at play?

Photo: A look into the past, from the history page of the Oblate Sisters of Providence.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Sabrina

    It is interesting that, for example, the Argentine order of Servidoras del Señor y de la Virgen de Matará, which has sisters working within the Philly Archdiocese, has seen a very healthy number of vocations here, from young, local Latinas who have, in essence, grown up seeing the sisters serving within their community in Avondale. (Here’s an article about them that appeared recently:
    While I’m certainly no expert about vocations to religious orders in the U.S., I have thought often that the orders that at one time led in vocations (Sisters of St. Joseph, I.H.M.s, in the Philly area) used to staff the Catholic parish schools and high schools. That no longer is a workable paradigm. The orders that seem to be doing really well are out there, engaged with local communities — particularly immigrant communities — in a “cradle to grave” form. And they can speak to the immigrant Catholic communities in their own languages — something, I think both homegrown orders and seminaries have been slow to ask of their postulants or seminarians.

  • Peterk

    I believe there is one Catholic order in the US that is thriving. It is based in Nashville. here it is

    Another order that is growing slowly is found at Our Lady of Dallas Abbey which is a Cistercian Abbey. Founded my Hungarian members of the order that fled Hungary after WW2 and the Hungarian revolution. The order has been growing slowly but surely. Many of their new members are graduates of the school that the Abbey runs

  • Joe K

    The LATimes article misses the key aspect of vocational discernment regarding the consecrated life, IMO. The story nicely covers some history, the decline in numbers, as well as some ceremonial smells & bells from the pew perspective, however it does not delve into the spiritual motivation of professing ones religious vows nor were there any interview-type of questions. The only direct quote from Nwoga was “Now I have roots,… Because it has been pronounced publicly.” The story reads like the journalist was not able to get a direct interview with Nwoga.

    Nwoga still faces a monumental decision: whether to make her final vows and sign on for life. If so, she will get a ring like a wedding band. That can’t happen for up to five years. Until then, she will pray and search her soul, a process known as discernment.

    Getting a ring like a wedding band describes religious life only on the most superficial level. The priest, Rev. Abel Agbulu, during his homily, would have likely talked about the betrothal between Nwoga and her Bridegroom, Jesus. All we learned was that he spoke a few words in her native language, Igbo. The journalist could have interviewed the 80-some other attendees, many of whom were religious sisters and nuns, to get some spiritual insights.

    There are many pockets in the US where Catholic religious sisters are booming with young, vibrant women. The Dominicans are one example. Their website has a profile page with photos of the young sisters and descriptions of their paths to religious life. I’m not an expert, but it’s commonly understood that the growing religious orders are faithful to Church Teaching, traditional, disciplined, and boldly and passionately in love with Jesus Christ. I noticed that the LATimes article mentions the word, Christ, only once–in last sentence– and the word Jesus is not mentioned at all.