One new commitment is occasion for celebration among Oblate Sisters


March 26, 2009|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,

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 past year. On went a black one that she may keep for life.

Taking the black veil Wednesday 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 Catholic congregation, based since 1961 in Catonsville, Nwoga's decision brings a fresh dose of hope at a time of declining numbers at religious orders. In the past 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.

"Our newly professed sister," declared the order's superior general, Sister Annette Beecham, to about 80 applauding guests, including a few women wearing vibrantly colored Nigerian head scarves.

For the Nigerian-born Nwoga, taking the black veil moves her further down a path she set out on five years ago. Then in her late 30s and living in New Jersey, she was seeking a congregation to call home. She found the answer while browsing A Guide to Religious Ministries for Catholic Men and Women.

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."

On Wednesday, she celebrated jubilantly and gave thanks for having gotten this far. "Now I have roots," she said, beaming, after the late morning ceremony. "Because it has been pronounced publicly."

One of the first hugs came from 91-year-old Sister Mary Alice Chineworth, who joined in 1936, when most orders were closed to black women. She frets about the future of an organization long dedicated to teaching inner-city children, as exemplified by its St. Frances Academy on East Chase Street.

"It's more life coming into the order," she said of Nwoga. "It's something for which we're very grateful, something for which we pray daily. It gives us a lot of hope."

The ceremony had the giddy feel of a graduation. And in the past, that's what these occasions resembled, before religious orders saw interest wane. Sisters attribute the decline to forces such as rising materialism and wider opportunity for women to take part in church life without becoming nuns.

As late as the 1960s, annual classes - or "bands" - of up to 18 young women entered the Oblate Sisters of Providence. At its peak, the order had about 300 members. Today, it's down to 80 or so, the result of deaths and the steady drop-off in candidates.

While the order remains mostly African-American, it has long had Hispanic members from Latin America. 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.

Beecham said it remains to be seen whether looking overseas is the key. And her order has had better recruiting luck than some others. Not so long ago, two sisters became permanent members ("perpetual profession"), and two others are well into the phase that Nwoga just entered.

"I'm very hopeful," Beecham said, adding: "It's not always about numbers, although you need numbers. If you have those who feel commitment and dedication to the mission, you could have 25 sisters."

That Nwoga was the lone star Wednesday didn't diminish the excitement. If anything, the rarity of such events might have raised it a bit as the 11 a.m. Mass began in the convent chapel on a knoll just off Interstate 95.

Because this was Nwoga's show, she was able to put her personal stamp on it. That was evident even before the first hymn, when professional dancer Janice Greene glided up the aisle wearing a pink and gold Nigerian dress and head tie, dancing with outstretched arms to a percussive African tune.

The African flavor extended to the priest who led the service, the Rev. Abel Agbulu. He, too, is Nigerian and at one point said a few words in Igbo, the language Nwoga grew up speaking in Nigeria.

And Nwoga had 10 or so friends and relatives in the pews. They included her brother and his family, a few cousins living in Northeast Baltimore and an elementary school friend from Nigeria who by coincidence ended up in Rosedale.

During his homily, Agbulu gestured to the balcony where a line of half a dozen or so aged Oblate sisters sat, some with walkers beside them. "See those women there whose hair has turned gray," the priest said. "Spend time with them. Ask them, how did you make it this far? And you will gain wisdom."

Nwoga has developed a bond with Chineworth and other members. She has also gotten out and about since moving to the convent, teaching summer camp at St. Frances and volunteering at a soup kitchen.

About 45 minutes into the service, it was time for Nwoga to proclaim her desire to take the black veil. Beecham joined her at a lectern next to the altar. In her gently lilting accent, Nwoga said, "I give myself with my whole heart to this religious community."

Then she knelt before Beecham.

"Receive this veil," the superior general intoned, "by which you are to show that you are totally given to Christ the Lord and dedicated to the service of the church."

Before she stood up, Nwoga adjusted the veil. It seemed like a good fit.

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