e-mail us
Young nuns find strength in numbers


At 31, Sr. Meg Coursey is by far the youngest member of her religious order, the St. Joseph Sisters of Springfield, Mass. No one had entered the order for more than a decade before her arrival five years ago and no one has entered since.

Sr. Heidi King, 28, is the youngest member of her order, the St. Joseph Sisters of Nazareth, Mich. A convert to Catholicism nine years ago, she will profess her temporary vows in July. There have been no other candidates since she entered in 1998.

One might wonder how young women like these cope in what many consider a dying way of life. Yet Coursey and King show no signs of anxiety. Nor was there evidence of alarm among the other 390 sisters, all under the age of 50, who met June 14-16 at Loyola University in Chicago for a multi-congregational conference titled “Gathering Voices for the Future.” Indeed, the mood was so upbeat, it contrasted vividly with pictures of grim-faced U.S. bishops on the front pages of every newspaper in the country during the same days the sisters were meeting.

Said Coursey, “I know what I’m doing doesn’t make any sense on paper, and as permanent vows get closer, it gets kind of scary. But I do not believe I’ll be the last member of this order. If you’re doing what you should be about, if you’re faithful, it will work out.” What Coursey is currently “about” is teaching English as a second language at a job-training site in Holyoke, Mass.

King, who was not raised in any religion, read news accounts of Catholic sisters working in inner cities when she was in high school and felt drawn to that life. After graduation, she went through the program for adults wishing to join the Catholic church, was baptized and earned a degree in elementary education at the University of Michigan. Since entering the order, “my commitment to serve has deepened,” she said. “It’s for real, and professing the vows will make it public.”

Both Coursey and King consider themselves modern, liberal Catholics and both favor the ordination of women. “I want women to be ordained before the church makes priestly celibacy optional,” said King. “If it’s the other way around, they’ll have enough male priests and women will never get in.” Similar support for women’s ordination and calls for greater openness in church decision-making were voiced by many during conversation at the conference.

The nearly 400 young sisters (along with another 150 older sisters in attendance) represented some 115 religious communities. The idea of promoting intergenerational and intercommunity discussion originated with three sisters who met over the Internet in the mid-1990s. Two previous, smaller conferences, held in 1995 in Wisconsin and 1999 in Pennsylvania, led to the creation of a newsletter, Giving Voice, aimed at younger sisters from many congregations. Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Kristin Matthes, one of the original organizers, said young sisters, numbering two or three in congregations of 300 or more, can easily become marginalized. “We needed to get together to share ideas,” she said.

Matthes, 36, has been in religious life since she was 17. After seven years in one congregation, she transferred to her present order because, she said, “I needed more involvement, more space to dream dreams and the choice to live among the poor.” She teaches courses in social justice and the sacraments at a high school in the Cincinnati area. “Younger sisters tend to be more passionate about social justice,” said Matthes. “We’re going back to what our founders were -- liminal people on the margins reminding the church what it ought to be.”

Another conference organizer, Mercy Sr. Judy Eby, 38, said she resists the “death and diminishment mode” that can affect any rapidly aging sisterhood. Still, it’s only natural, she said, for young sisters to wonder, “How will we carry on 20 years from now? So we need peer groups to formulate ideas and plans.” After 17 years, Eby is still high on religious life. Some of her high school students in Cincinnati recently commented to her, “You make being a nun seem like fun.” Eby, who has a doctorate in historical theology, will begin teaching at a Catholic college in Omaha, Neb., in the fall.

The major speakers, Notre Dame de Namur Srs. Barbara Fiand and Mary Johnson and Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sandra Schneiders, challenged the gathering to think outside the box in developing ideas and plans for the future. The fundamental concern of modern religious women today, said Fiand, should not be simple accord with their founders’ wishes or maintaining survival of their order or conforming to canon law. “Our work must be the transformation of all things of Christ, bringing about the reign of God,” she said, and whatever is not conducive to that goal needs to be jettisoned, even if that should include the traditional notion of perpetual vows.

Fiand contended that the dualistic worldview that held sway for some 5,000 years is yielding to a new, emerging, unitive view through the discoveries of quantum physics. Once stable concepts of permanence, order, measurability and certainty are “imploding before our eyes,” she said, as we begin to understand “the flow and connectedness of all things.”

Because of this shift, Fiand said, religious women must revisit all their preconceptions. Should membership in religious communities be absolutely tied to permanent vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, she asked, or should membership be tied to a call to serve and a commitment to do what is just? Fiand said she was not talking about limited volunteer corps service or temporary memberships or third orders but full memberships based on a not-yet-clear “reincarnation” of religious commitment in keeping with modern insights. “Young people are no more selfish today than they ever were,” she said. “But their way of serving is different.”

It became clear during a lively question period that not everyone was comfortable with Fiand’s radical insights. Later, she and Schneiders dialogued before the whole group and expressed contrasting views of the centrality of perpetual vows in religious life. Matthes said she appreciated Fiand’s willingness to “ask the big questions -- but for me the perpetuity of the vows is a very important thing.” Several young sisters like Coursey concurred, saying the requirement of permanent commitment was a major factor that attracted them to religious life in the first place.

Robert McClory is an NCR special report writer.

Related Web site

Giving Voice

National Catholic Reporter, July 5, 2002