For Catholic women, the reforms of Vatican II and the promises of the equal rights movement in this country created a perfect storm for a profound change of habit.
We’re not just talking clothes here. What transpired was much more than allowing nuns to shed those formal headpieces and flowing tunics that reached down to their sensible shoes.
Suddenly, women who wanted to pursue a profession and be active in the church had more choices than joining a religious order and becoming teachers, nurses and administrators in Catholic schools and hospitals.
But every action has a reaction. As the choices for women rose in the workplace and in the church, the population of religious orders plunged. In 1965, with Vatican II wrapping up and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission just getting started, there were nearly 200,000 women in Catholic religious orders in America. Now, it’s about 20 percent of that.
Headlines mirror the specter of demise:
“U.S. nuns face shrinking numbers.”
“How many of us will be left?”
“Keeping the sisterhood from extinction.”
These are not the voices that Sister Juliet Mousseau wants us to listen to today.
“Often the narrative we hear in the wider Catholic world is that we are dying off, or that there is a ‘crisis’ of vocations to religious life,” she wrote a few years ago as she embarked on a book project to compile testimonials from women joining religious orders. “That is simply not the case, and I refuse to see it that way!”
That book, “In Our Own Words: Religious Life in a Changing World,” was published in 2018. Last year, Sister Juliet took her final vows with the Society of the Sacred Heart.
At that time, she was professor of church history at the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis. But this month, she started a new job — vice president for academic affairs for the Franciscan School of Theology at the University of San Diego.
Mousseau will not be alone here as a relatively new voice in the sisterhood.
There is Sister Evelyn Uchenna Oluoha, a registered nurse and naturalized American citizen from Nigeria who has made her first vows with the same order as Sister Juliet.
And Sister Maria Dela Paz, who has professed her first vows with the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia. She is working in student affairs at USD while taking theology classes in preparation for her final vows.
At 33, Sister Maria is five years shy of the average age of women professing vows, according to a 2018 national study. Sister Juliet, 42 and Sister Evelyn, 58, are older. But all three share a common desire highlighted in that study: wanting to work and engage with the world while still being part of their chosen religious community.
Here is a closer listen to their voices.
Joy and fear
Sister Evelyn, who loves to dress in the colorful clothing from her native Nigeria, laughs as she tells how parishioners at Sacred Heart Church in Ocean Beach look for her at Mass to check out what she’s wearing.
With a nursing career that has taken her from Nigeria to Ireland to Brazil and Oakland, she is in many ways the international face of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church — and her own religious order, which serves in more than three dozen countries.
She was in her 40s when she began to seriously consider joining a religious order. She worried that she was too old.
“In my country, when you are more than 30 or 25, they think you are too old to be a nun. But here at 40-something, they gave me an opportunity to join them. I never lose sight of being grateful.”
Sister Evelyn is in a training program at USD to become a nurse practitioner, while working part-time as a nurse. She wants to complete that training before taking her final vows.
“That’s the joy of my life, to be with the suffering and the sick,” she says. “Life sometimes can be so difficult, especially when you don’t feel well. I just want people to see someone who is happy and enjoying what they are doing.”
“I would do this over and over again. I am really happy.”
Sometimes, she also is fearful.
“The vocation is drying up, and if we don’t work for the vocation, there comes a time when the old ones will die and nobody will get old with us.”
She wonders if wearing a habit — a uniform that would immediately tell people who they are — would attract more interest.
Years of discernment
For a young college graduate from New Jersey, serving two years in Micronesia with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps was more than an experience of a lifetime. It was a life-changing experience.
“For the first time, I lived in a community of my peers, where I was able to share my faith,” says Sister Maria, who was still years away from this title. “We shared our dreams and hopes for the future and also the hard things about life.”
When she returned home, she craved that community.
“I did date someone after coming back to the U.S., and I realized in that experience that God was not calling me to the vocation of marriage.”
She was working as an academic adviser at a community college in Tacoma, Wash., when a priest introduced her to the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia. One of them became her spiritual director, and after meeting together for a year, Sister Maria told her she’d always wanted to be a sister but never knew one before to even talk to about it.
“I grew up with priests,” she explains.
“I discerned for a year,” she says, using a popular word for describing formation journeys. She moved in with the sisters for another year but continued with her job. Then, in 2017, she entered the novitiate in Philadelphia for two years. “I quit my job and fully discerned: is this my calling for me?”
She showed the world her answer in August 2019, when she professed her first vows.
Her parents were gracious about her choice, but worried about her financial future. She had similar questions.
“I’m looking at the sisters, and they are all 30, 40 years older than I am. What’s going to happen to me when I’m that age?”
Her order, Sister Maria discovered, is on top of it.
“We have a great finance team,” she says. “So I feel comfortable financial-wise.”
After taking her provisional vows, she came to USD to work as the program coordinator for the Center of Student Success and prepare for the next step, which includes up to five more years before the final vows.
Meanwhile, she has connected with a peer group of new sisters from various religious orders.
“They are a huge support and a place of hope for me, because we can really express our hopes and dreams for a religious life. We love this life and we want it to continue.”
Sister Maria wonders if more women would join these orders if they knew about them. Like a true child of technology — remember, she’s only 33 — she has a question: “Why isn’t there an app for discerning your religious life? Swipe left or right for God.”
She swiped right.
“I shied away from it for a couple years. But in the end, I found my home.”
San Diego, again
Sister Juliet, the new administrator at the Franciscan School of Theology, is now living at the order’s same Ocean Beach house where she was a novice. Sister Evelyn is one of her housemates.
Sister Juliet already had her doctorate and was teaching at a university when she began exploring this new vocation.
“The thought of it brought me a lot of joy,” she remembers. She began participating in a monthly Mass for lay people and sisters of the Society of the Sacred Heart. “I really felt at home. It was a place where I could grow and be fully who I am and live a very happy life.”
She continued to discern — there’s that word again — for three years before she entered the first stage, called a candidacy. That was in 2009. The next year, she moved to San Diego as a novice before taking her first vows in 2012. She made her second — and final — vows in Rome in January 2020, dashing home before COVID-19 began closing down the world.
She refuses to wave the white flag for women religious.
“I know my call. I know it’s very strong in me, and since it’s very strong in me, I trust that I’m not the only one hearing it. I didn’t enter this life to be alone in it.”
Big institutions are no longer needed, she argues.
“We used to be the workforce of the church. We used to be the teachers in all the Catholic schools and the nurses in the Catholic hospitals and those times have been gone for decades now.”
Sister Juliet, who says she makes a conscious effort to make people aware she is a sister, is clear about her ministry.
“My ministry right now is I’m professor of church history,” she told me while she was still in St. Louis. In San Diego, her ministry is being the chief academic officer for a school that is preparing men and women to be leaders in the church.
As for choosing her own spiritual path, part of it is a mystery.
“Some of it you don’t really know. I think the part that I do recognize is wanting to be more, wanting to do more, wanting to be more available, more loving, more giving.”
Is she happy?
“I am very happy.”
And the future of the sisterhood? It may come down to a matter of faith.
“I think there’s always a lot of trust involved that this will work out.”
Sisters take a vow of poverty, so they don’t actually own anything themselves. Instead, they have access to what’s owned by their religious congregation.
Here’s how it works: While their paychecks go directly to the congregation, they submit yearly budgets for their individual needs and then receive monthly checks to pay for those needs — regardless of whether that sister’s actual salary is minimal, perhaps because she is serving the poor, or substantial.
“It’s really a wonderful system,” says Sister Kathleen Warren, who directs the Office for Women Religious for the San Diego diocese. While everyone has what they need, the other money gets to be used for doing good elsewhere.
Sister Kathy, who made her first vows 51 years ago with the Sisters of St. Francis of Rochester, Minn., cites several factors to explain today’s demographics.
For example, she says those decades with huge gains of women joining religious orders — like the 1950s — were an abnormal blip.
As for Vatican II, the historic council in the 1960s that was tasked with responding to the modern world, among its most lasting impacts was upending the role of laity with these four words: “universal call to holiness.”
Sister Kathy explains: “It was a recognition that every person is full of grace and is commissioned by their own baptism and confirmation to embrace the mission of Jesus, which is the mission of the church: to assist in building the reign of God on earth.”
Simply put: “This radically changed the way men and women looked at possibilities of service in the church.”
No longer would a Catholic woman have to go into religious life to have an impact on ministry.
Listening to her, and these other three sisters, their refrain is insistent: the sisterhood isn’t about quantity.
“Religious life is about inviting others to join a wonderful way of living in the world,” says Sister Kathy. “It’s not for everybody, and it’s certainly not for the majority. But it is appropriate for some. And for any who are curious or interested or even skeptical, I say come and check it out.”
Her words, honed after more than a half century of service, sound like a benediction: “A person needs to land where one finds a home.”
That brings up another message from these sisters: They have found theirs.
Text reproduced with permission by The San Diego Union-Tribune. You can read the original digital version on their website here.