The changing face of the novice nun: older, wiser, more activist

December 27, 1992|By New York Times News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- Ceil Roeger was 50 years old when sh decided to sell her house in Houston, get rid of her furniture and become a nun. Mary Beth Sutton, a 39-year-old insurance executive from Detroit, entered the convent as the final stage of recovery from alcohol addiction. Diana Jeffries took her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience after her eight-year marriage fell apart.

These women represent the changing face of the American nun. Although the vows they have taken are the same ones women took in the fourth century, the way they are choosing to live them out is quite different, and the effect on their orders is profound.

Thirty years ago, novices, as new nuns are called, went to the convent right from high school, usually inspired by their teachers in Roman Catholic schools. They would leave their families and friends behind as they slid into a quiet life of prayer behind tall walls and dark habits.

But the women today, while fewer in number, bring the full dimensions of other lives with them as they enter the ranks of the novitiates at places like the St. Callistus convent in Philadelphia.

Many are professionals; 80 percent have master's degrees. Some have gone through the rigors of divorce, battled addictions or raised children.

They often devote themselves to the social problems of their communities, from caring for crack babies to counseling prisoners on death row, and they go to work in everything from business suits to blue jeans, sometimes befuddling co-workers with the news of their "other profession."

The motivating factor for women who choose this option seems to be an irrepressible urge to submit to what they believe is the will of God through service to others.

"I was living the way I had learned to live in this culture," Sister Mary Beth said about her decision to join St. Callistus. "I had the right car, the right address. But at some point, you have redecorated your house for the third time, and you find that it isn't enough. I was disappointed with material goods. I wanted much more."

Sister Ceil had felt the nagging urges to become a community member after years of volunteer service for the church. For her, church had become less a pastime and more of a home.

One night, after an evening spent with Dominican sisters, she told one, "Nights like this I feel kind of lost going home." A few weeks later, she would put her plans in motion.

Far from docile, many of these women are quiet revolutionaries who stand in loving opposition to the church. Many support the ordination of women. They want nuns to have a visible role at the altar.

And they are impatient with the church's failure to make convents as racially diverse as the communities they represent; of the more than 99,000 nuns in the United States, only about 500 are black.

Although they are not screaming at the door of the Vatican, many nuns are humming loudly around the convent, saying that it is time for religious women's voices to be heard.

And this is exactly how the orders want them. Most religious orders today discourage younger women from joining, preferring instead those who bring skills that can be put to use in ministry.

"There is a great deal more respect for the experience and maturity of today's novices," said Sister Geneal Kramer, co-director of the novices at the Dominican Common Novitiate in Manchester, Mo., where Sister Ceil has joined. "It affirms that the person has had a life before they come, and that they come committed."

As the number of nuns has dropped over the past 25 years, their ages have risen. Among the 99,337 nuns in the nation today, the median age is 65, according to the Religious Formation Conference, an organization in Silver Spring. At the height of the profession in the United States, in 1968, when there were 176,341 nuns, the median age was about 45.

The future of the sister has become ambiguous since the mid-1960s, when Vatican II impressed upon lay people the importance of playing a greater part in church life. Experts say that as the role of laymen increased, and as feminism took hold in American culture in the 1970s, the number of novices began to drop sharply.

Last year, only 481 women signed up for the two rigorous years of novi

tiate life at the 530 religious orders in the country. In 1986, 844 novices entered.

Church officials recognize the decline and have stepped up recruiting efforts, and they believe that the numbers will stabilize.

Sister Leslie Porreca came to St. Callistus, her second convent, at age 35. She tried religious life the first time just after college, but quickly left it to become a social worker. "The timing just wasn't right then," she said. "I wanted to experience other things."

St. Callistus in many ways resembles a college dormitory, but spirituality whispers all around -- from the tiny statues of the Virgin Mary the novices keep in their rooms to the ritual of morning prayers. But just as for most Americans, routine dictates the shape of the novices' days.

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