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Today’s sisters: A different face

Women entering the church’s established religious orders in the past 20 years bear little resemblance to their predecessors of 40 years ago. They were in most cases older on entry, far better educated and from very different backgrounds. Here is a sample from attendees at the Loyola conference:

  • Jackie Hittner, 41, a native of St. Louis, entered the Mercy order at 26 after earning master’s degrees in library science and business administration at a college in Georgia. “I wanted to establish myself with women whose work makes them bigger than themselves,” she says, “and I saw the joy they had in life. I knew I’d be OK.” Since her profession, Hittner has served largely as a librarian, most recently as library director at St. Joseph College in Maine. She does not regard herself as a wilting Marian-the-librarian type. “It’s the constant interaction with students and faculty I most enjoy,” she says. “I’m teaching people how to think critically, how to organize their ideas.” In August she will become reference librarian at St. Louis University.
  • Caryn Williams, 38, remembers being distracted one day in high school when a teacher asked the class what each wanted to do after graduation. “The girl in front of me said she might want to be a nun,” says Williams, “so I just said the same thing.” In fact, she had given no previous thought to the idea, but once said aloud, the idea stayed with her. After college in Ohio, Williams worked as a reporter with a small newspaper in Indiana, earned a master’s degree in social work and served with the Peace Corps in Gabon. She decided to enter religious life while on a retreat; she picked the Notre Dame de Namur order out of a vocation catalog “because they were big in communications and social services.” She entered in 1994 at the age of 30 and made her final profession in June. “My mom was pretty angry when I entered,” she says. “She thought I’d have to wear a habit and she’d never see me again. But it hasn’t worked out that way.” Williams is a child psychotherapist at a large hospital-affiliated clinic in Cincinnati.
  • Juana Mendez, 51, has just left the young-sister category, but she has been a member of Mother Seton’s Sisters of Charity only since 1995 and is still one year away from final vows. Besides being a religious woman working as a pastoral associate at a parish in Covington, Ky., Mendez is a mother of three children and grandmother of four. “Religious life had been burning in my heart,” she says, since she came to this country with her family from Puerto Rico as a child. Nevertheless, she married at 18, had three children in five years, and was divorced at 26. The marriage was later annulled. Mendez worked in Cleveland public schools while raising her family. When they were finally on their own, she tested the waters of sisterhood living for a time with a group of Marianist sisters, then made her decision. It wasn’t easy for her grown children at first, she confesses. “They thought they had lost me forever. Now they’re OK. We see each other often, and they call me ‘Mom, the sister.’ ” Religious life wasn’t easy for her either at first. “I found poverty and obedience difficult,” she says, “but I had lived with my mother and a niece when the kids were young, so I’ve always been in a community of one kind or another.” Mendez relishes her work in a largely Hispanic parish where she assists with immigration problems, attends court hearings and teaches English as a second language.
  • Kay Kramer, 39, acknowledges that religious life may look very different in the future. But meanwhile, she is so fully occupied bringing new life into the world as a nurse-midwife at a medical center in Cincinnati that she has little time to worry. In college she was torn between interests in liturgy and in nursing. She chose nursing because the needs of poor minority women seemed more pressing. She chose religious life (with the Congregation of Divine Providence) because, she says, “I wanted to be present to those in need for a lifetime.” Her cheerful, lifelong faith in God was shaken recently, she admits, when she was diagnosed with cancer just five months after her mother was stricken with the same illness. “I didn’t know how to trust or what to believe,” she says. However, her trust has been restored, she says, because of the great support she received from members of her community during treatment. Kramer considers trust a very important aspect of her job: “I have to trust that God guides my hands to do what must be done every time I deliver a baby,” she says.
  • Evelyn Ovalles, 48, entered the Sisters of Providence (of St. Mary of the Woods, Ind.) in 1997, ending what she calls “many long years of running away from the call. I used to dream a lot that I was being chased and I kept trying to get away. Since I became a sister, I don’t have that dream anymore.” Born in the Philippines, Ovalles came to the United States early in life, earned a law degree and worked as a paralegal in the Los Angeles archdiocese chancery office. “I waited so long to become a sister because I felt unworthy,” she says, “and always I was seeking a community.” After a period of discernment, she made the move. Now Ovalles is working in the marriage tribunal for the Gary, Ind., diocese and is studying canon law. Though the work is similar to what she did in Los Angeles, her attitude is different, she says. “That was a job, this is a mission -- to bring justice and mercy to people.”

-- Robert McClory

National Catholic Reporter, July 5, 2002