New York News

Amid a Shortage of Nuns Several Local Orders Are Seeing an Uptick

The Sisters of Life have a joyful perspective on life that draws the interest of young women, the vocations director said. (Photo: Martin Jernberg Photography)

EAST HARLEM — While the number of sisters is dwindling in the U.S. overall, there are some bright spots, according to Church leaders.

The Sisters of Life, founded in New York by the late Cardinal John O’Connor in 1991 to serve a pro-life ministry, is one such example.

The sisters, who assist pregnant women and their children, started off 32 years ago with eight women and currently have more than 100 members, most of whom are still in their 30s.

“Our average entrance classes are about eight women per year,” explained Sister Maria Regina Immaculata, S.V., the vocations director. “I think honestly, we’ve just been blessed with a steady increase.”

Not only that, but hundreds of young women contact the Sisters of Life each year to express an interest in possibly becoming sisters, said Sister Maria Regina, who professed her final vows in 2018.

There are several reasons why the numbers are growing, she said. 

The first is her sense that in today’s culture, many young people are hungry for something more. 

“They’re desiring to do something radical with their lives — having the sense that ‘I’m made for something beautiful and good,’ ” she explained.

The second, she feels, is that we are living in a “counter-cultural way.”

“The way that we live and the way that we pray, there’s an attraction in the hearts of young people who are looking for something powerful,” Sister Maria Regina added.

The sisters’ pro-life mission not only includes caring for women and children but communicating to people the fact that Jesus Christ loves them and that their lives are important.

“We take vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and then as Sisters of Life, we take a fourth vow to protect the sacredness of human life,” she explained. “And so, in some ways, I believe our charism is also drawing people these days.”

Another religious order avoiding a decline in membership is the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal, which was founded in 1988 in the Bronx to work directly with people in poor and marginalized neighborhoods. The order started out with a handful of women and currently has 35 sisters — a number that has held steady for the past few years.

“We’ve actually had a bit of a slow growth,” said Sister Catherine Holum, C.F.R., the vocations director, who professed her final vows in 2010. “But we are always praying so much for vocations. I think that’s really the key — the intercessory prayer for vocations.”

The Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal, many of whom are women under the age of 40, work in soup kitchens and food pantries, distribute clothing, visit the homes of the sick, and work with inner-city youth.

The sisters live in three convents in New York  — located in the Bronx and in East Harlem — as well as convents in Atlantic City, New Jersey; Leeds, England; and Drogheda, Ireland. 

The Atlantic City convent is the newest, having opened in 2017 at the request of Bishop Dennis Sullivan of the Diocese of Camden, who asked the sisters to come and work there.

As for why the order draws young women, Sister Catherine said it might have something to do with the order’s primary mission — working with the poor, which speaks to the altruism of the Millennial and Gen Z generations, she said.

“We live in economically poor neighborhoods so that we can do outreach right from our door. So it’s very simple grassroots — serving the needy, the homeless, delivering meals to the homeless. There is that specific focus,” she said

“I can’t speak for any other community, but what’s really a blessing is that we always do our work as a group of sisters. There’s never one sister at a time doing ministry,” Sister Catherine added. “And I think that there is an attraction to that for a lot of young people.” 

Many of the young women who come to the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal do so after performing missionary work as college students, she explained, saying half the women who she speaks with who are interested in getting to know them had a reconversion or a conversion in college.

“Their first real encounter with religious life might be through their missionaries or World Youth Day,” she said. “And usually, it’s in the later end of their formative years of growing up and not so much in the younger years.” 

Luckily, the Church provides opportunities for young people to perform the type of charity work that could lead to a desire to join a religious order, Sister Catherine added. 

“I have noticed that there are so many mission opportunities for young people in the Church and throughout the country and abroad,” she said. “And a lot of young people are very much attracted to mission and the idea of giving of themselves.”

In both the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal and the Sisters of Life, the sisters wear habits, something Sister Maria Regina says is also a reason young women are interested.

“The gift of wearing the habit, I think, is very attractive to young people today — that it makes one stand out,” she said.

“People look at me on the street, and they immediately think of God,” she added. “I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had walking down the street where someone will walk up to me and say, ‘Sister, will you pray for my husband or sister?’ I feel like I’m wearing a sign that says, ‘Come talk to me about God.’ ”