Meet the Millennial Nuns
Sunlight streams through stained glass windows and washes across four women in front of the altar. They stand before 500 family members, friends, coworkers and fellow members of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, including Patricia McDermott, R.S.M., president of the institute. Sister Patricia asks the four women about to profess their final, or perpetual vows, “Will you strive for holiness in your love of God and God’s people by living the Gospel with all your heart and faithfully observing the constitutions of this institute?”
The woman on the far right, wearing a simple black dress, her dark brown hair pulled back, is Marjorie Tapia, who more often goes by Margie. At 33, she is the youngest of the four. Her parents, both attorneys, had Margie baptized and confirmed, sent her to Catholic schools, but were not the type to make her go to Sunday Mass in high school if she preferred to sleep in. They were taken aback when their only daughter told them, after graduating from Boston College with a nursing major, that she wanted to be a nun. The images of schoolteachers in habits from their youth did not match the image of the independent woman they wanted their daughter to be. They did not approve.
“Yes, I will,” Margie answers along with the other women in the 2019 ceremony.
On those Sunday mornings she stayed in bed instead of going to Mass, Sister Margie would never have imagined herself in this moment. Though she attended Mount Saint Mary Academy, a Catholic high school in Watchung, N.J., run by the Sisters of Mercy, she had never considered becoming one herself. “I didn’t see any young sisters while in high school,” she said, “so I didn’t really think it was an option for me to become one.”
The median age in the Sisters of Mercy is 81, which mirrors the general population of women religious in the United States. In 2009, the last time this data was compiled by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, there were more Catholic sisters in the country over the age of 90 than under the age of 60.
Sister Margie represents a small but steady number of millennial women who are joining religious orders in the United States. While becoming a religious sister may seem out of character for a generation that largely rejects organized religion, millennials like Sister Margie may in fact be drawn to religious life by characteristics peculiar to their demographic. In communities of women religious, the number of aging members who are dying is much larger than the number of those entering; but these women are not only continuing the mission of those orders and congregations, they are also perhaps healing the heart of the church, for that is what they have become.
Half a century ago, women religious, readily identifiable by their habits, were the face of the church and served as distinctive role models. Though fewer habits are visible now, the sisters remain role models. A 2021 survey by America and CARA found religious sisters and nuns were the most trusted of the nine groups of church leaders named in the survey question. Seventy five percent of respondents said consecrated religious women were “somewhat or very trustworthy” in offering guidance on matters of faith and morals.
Still, the number of women religious in the United States has dropped. The number peaked in 1965 at 179,954; today, there are only 42,441, according to CARA—a 76 percent drop. “In the ’50s and ’60s, young Catholic women tended to see a lot of women religious out there doing heroic things, even teaching high school,” said Mary Gautier, who spent 21 years as a sociologist and senior research associate at CARA. “So they considered the religious life.”
Consecrated religious life provided a route to a career or doing good works before the Peace Corps or other such avenues were available to women.
Consecrated religious life provided a route to a career or doing good works before the Peace Corps or other such avenues were available to women. “When the average Catholic woman in the United States from the 19th century through the ’60s looked around her for opportunities in education, work and leadership, she saw the sisters,” said Kathleen Cummings, a historian and associate professor at the University of Notre Dame. “Since the late ’60s, the opposite is true. Where the average Catholic woman sees opportunities in education, work and leadership today is outside the church structures—it flipped.”
Millennials, born between 1981 and 1996 (ages 25 to 40 today), are not a religious lot. Only one in four (27 percent) attend religious services weekly, half as many as those in the Silent Generation (born between 1928 and 1945), according to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study. About 40 percent of millennials report religion is “very important” in their lives, compared with more than half in the older generations. Also, roughly half of millennials say they believe in God with absolute certainty, compared with 70 percent of those in the Silent Generation and the baby boomers (born 1946-64).
Generally speaking, millennials don’t like rules, which is one of the reasons they cite for resisting religion, said Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—And More Miserable Than Ever Before. She also sees them as products of the trends in American culture during the past half century. “This precipitous decline in religious commitment and participation is likely due primarily to the rise in individualism, with more reliance on the self than on social rules,” she said.
Given these trends, it would seem a miracle would need to take place for a millennial woman to enter religious life—but it is happening.
In 2020, 75 women professed final vows, with an average age of 38, according to CARA. The average age of those entering religious life, or beginning the process toward final vows, was 28.
Community and Commitment
Sister Margie considers herself a typical millennial in many ways. She is confident, optimistic, educated, posts on Facebook and Instagram, relies on Amazon and consults YouTube videos for guidance on tasks like how to cut a friend’s hair. “If you give me a list of stereotypes of millennials, I probably fit 80 percent,” she said, almost two years after professing final vows and now 35. “But millennials don’t make commitments. In that way, I’m very different.”
A U.S. Census Bureau report in 2017 found millennials to be commitment-averse, at least when compared with previous generations.
A U.S. Census Bureau report in 2017 found millennials to be commitment-averse, at least when compared with previous generations, often delaying marriage, children and purchasing a home. But Sister Margie has pledged herself to a life of chastity, poverty, obedience and service “to the poor, sick and ignorant.” (All consecrated women and men religious take vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. Some orders add an additional vow. For the Sisters of Mercy, it is a vow of service.) And so that announcement to her parents upon graduation from college finally came to fruition.
It was not always a sure thing. When Sister Margie returned home on breaks from Boston College, she would visit family, friends and the sisters. The Sisters of Mercy were the only women religious she had really known and the only congregation she considered joining. She was drawn to their sense of community and commitment to social justice.
Founded in 1831 by Catherine McAuley of Dublin, the group took the name Sisters of Mercy of the Americas in 1991, when nine provinces and 16 congregations of Sisters of Mercy consolidated. With 2,147 members living in the United States today, they are the largest community of women religious in the country, though their numbers are down from nearly 13,000 in 1970. Known for their works of mercy (hence the name) “that alleviate suffering,” they have identified five “critical concerns” to which they devote their work: the earth, immigration, women, anti-racism and nonviolence.
That has led to their active engagement in the communities where they live, from an 85-year-old sister who runs a homeless shelter in Rochester, N.Y., to another sister leading a hospital in Arkansas. Sisters of Mercy marched in the protests against police violence in 2020, educated voters on issues before the November election, and a pair of sisters held a weekly vigil outside an immigrant detention center in Chicago (in 2019, one of those sisters, then-90-year-old Sister Pat Murphy, was arrested in an act of civil disobedience in Washington, D.C., where she protested the treatment of immigrant children at the U.S.-Mexico border). The sisters also stand on the front lines of the pandemic, like Sister Karen Schneider, who is a physician and assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Sister Margie had come to admire these women, but when the vocation director called her one evening while she was watching television with her parents, flustered, she ran upstairs to her bedroom. “Who was that?” her mother later asked. “A friend from school,” she fibbed. Sister Margie’s parents had raised her to make decisions for herself, but she feared they might not approve of this one.
Sister Margie’s parents had raised her to make decisions for herself, but she feared they might not approve of this one.
From the time she was young, Sister Margie had seen herself in health care. But several months after that phone call, she casually mentioned to her parents she was considering becoming a religious sister. They said little in response—which she interpreted to mean they had a problem with the idea. Eventually, Sister Margie’s mother told her daughter she worried that her strong loyalty to commitments might cause undue influence on whether or not religious life was a good fit, that she would stick it out even if it was not right for her. Her brother, six years younger, was more blunt when he got into the car after a get-acquainted lunch with several Sisters of Mercy and the family before Sister Margie actually entered: “What is she doing?”
Sister Margie’s family is not unusual. Almost a quarter of the women who professed final vows last year reported in CARA’s survey that their fathers encouraged them to enter religious life, and a third reported that their mothers had done the same. But 39 percent of the women said their fathers had discouraged them from entering religious life. Similarly, 36 percent of the women said their mothers had discouraged them from joining.
Nevertheless, Sister Margie followed her yearning and entered the Sisters of Mercy in 2011. Three years later, she discovered doubts of her own, when it came time for her to move to St. Louis for the year of novitiate required by church law, during which she would study with other novices the theology behind the vows she would take and the history of her congregation. She was enjoying her work as a nurse practitioner and did not want to be uprooted, she said. She remembers thinking: “I don’t think I should be doing this.”
She went, but her doubts came with her. Having grown up with material comforts, she worried about taking a vow of poverty. And then there was the vow of obedience. She had always made her own decisions. Would she feel like she was being controlled? The vow of chastity had not seemed a big deal when she started at 25 but she wondered, as she got older, if she might want to be a mother. Service was the only vow that never gave her pause. “I knew I wanted to make a difference in the world regardless of whether I was a Sister of Mercy or not,” she said. Joining them, “gave me the feeling of being a part of something bigger than myself, belonging to this group of women crazy enough to try to make a change in the world.”
Being part of a community, and the relationships she formed within it, sustained her.
Being part of a community, and the relationships she formed within it, sustained her. “What had always been grounding for me was the relationships I had with the other women I professed my final vows with,” Sister Margie said. “They were dealing with the same things. That made the other moments [of doubt] much smaller compared to the relationships I had.”
The longer she stayed with the community, through her profession of temporary vows in 2016, the deeper those relationships became, and the deeper her faith. “The spirituality of the community formed my understanding of my relationship with God,” she said. “In my giving of mercy, I’m a recipient of God’s mercy.”
Sister Margie’s parents did attend her perpetual vows ceremony. “It has taken them a while to understand that what they knew as religious life [growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s] wasn’t what I was entering into,” said Sister Margie. “They see me happy and are supportive now.”
During the ceremony, after Sister Margie and the other three women—Jen Barrow, 37; Danielle Gagnon, 39; and Marybeth Beretta, 57—had answered Sister Patricia’s questions but before they signed their vows, the four of them prostrated themselves before the altar. The three-hour long ceremony was the culmination of eight years of formation—or incorporation, as the Sisters of Mercy call it—and months of event preparation. But this moment, lying face down on the tiled floor, was the most beautiful—the most powerful of all for Sister Margie. “It’s a moment of total surrender, a sign to God you’re giving your total self,” she said. “There’s a bit of discomfort; it’s an awkward thing to do in front of 500 people. But that’s part of what makes it so powerful. This moment of giving it all to God.”
A Desire for Something Deeper
The desire Sister Margie has for something deeper, and to be part of something bigger than herself, runs through her generation. Millennials “are seeking both a deep spiritual experience and a community experience, each of which provides them with meaning in their lives, and is meaningless without the other,” write Richard W. Flory and Donald E. Miller in The Embodied Spirituality of the Post-Boomer Generations.
While some pursue that in Crossfit, Soul Cycle and dinner parties, as noted in the 2015 Harvard study “How We Gather,” others are seeking that experience in religious institutions. “One large attractor for today’s new generation of sisters is community on many levels,” said Sister Mary Johnson, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur and professor of sociology at Trinity Washington University. “It comes from the sense of isolation and fragmentation in society, the yearning to be with people who share the same deep values about mission as found in the Gospel.”
The desire Sister Margie has for something deeper, and to be part of something bigger than herself, runs through her generation.
For the past few years, Sister Margie has done just that in a rented, rust-colored, Victorian house with gray shutters on a city street in Plainfield, N.J. She shares the house with two other Sisters of Mercy, both in their 70s, one a health care worker and the other an administrator in their institute. The three have formed a micro-community. They take turns cooking (Sister Margie’s specialty is pasta dishes), share meals, pray together (on the wraparound porch when the weather is nice) and support one another. The backyard is filled with flowers and a vegetable garden that Sister Margie tends. She has the third floor to herself, a large space that doubles as bedroom and office.
Sister Margie completed her master’s degree in advanced practice nursing with a specialty in geriatrics at New York University, and then her doctorate in nursing practice with a focus on healthy leadership and policy change at Yale University. During the last four years, she has served as director of health and aging for another community of women religious, the Religious Teachers Filippini, at their mother house in Morristown, N.J., before taking on her current role of assistant professor of nursing at St. Elizabeth University in Morristown in June 2021.
Now a fully professed Sister of Mercy, Sister Margie can vote on issues within the institute and be elected to leadership positions, but little has changed in her daily life. Her reasons for joining, she said, have become her reasons for staying—growing in her relationship with God, feeling part of something bigger: “The reasons are the same, but the understanding has grown with me, having lived in the community for 10 years.”
The video of the perpetual vows ceremony shows Sister Margie walking down the center aisle at the close of the ceremony, alongside her newly professed sisters. She looks almost giddy with happiness, glancing back and forth at those in the pews. When she spots her two housemates, she smiles broadly and—to their apparent delight—gives a spontaneous double fist pump of joy.
The Sisters of Mercy may be the largest order of women in the United States, but their numbers, like those of 90 percent of U.S. women’s religious orders, are shrinking—rapidly. In 2019, the year Margie and her three classmates professed perpetual vows, 144 members of the Sisters of Mercy died. Last year, when Covid-19 delayed the profession of two members ready for perpetual vows, 162 members of the congregation died.
‘A Freedom That Comes From God’
But a handful of communities of women religious have grown steadily over the past two decades. The Sisters of Life is one such community. Established in 2004, the institute has 117 members—almost half of those (57) are in formation—living in New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Washington, D.C., and Toronto, Canada. They take a fourth vow “to protect and enhance the sacredness of every human life,” with an emphasis on “serving women who are vulnerable to abortion.”
A handful of communities of women religious have grown steadily over the past two decades.
Their mother house in Suffern, N.Y., is reached by a gravel drive through a wooded lot that opens to a marble statue of the Virgin Mary in the middle of a circular flower bed, greeting visitors in front of a three-story red brick building flanked by a chapel. Three dozen sisters live here, including 37-year-old Sister Pia Jude.
Sister Pia Jude speaks via Zoom while seated at a table in a common room. The wall behind her is stark white except for a framed oil painting of The Madonna and Child. She is wearing her community’s blue habit and a white headpiece, a sliver of brown hair rimming her face. A rosary, four-feet-long with wooden beads the size of pinto beans, hangs from a brown leather belt. She occasionally grips its four-inch-long cross in her palm. “A reminder he is with me,” she said, referring to Jesus hanging on the wooden cross she holds in her hand. When she professed her final vows in August, the presiding archbishop placed a ring on her finger, saying, “Sister, receive this ring, for you are betrothed to the Eternal King. Keep faith in your bridegroom so that you may come to the wedding feast of eternal joy.”
It is, in effect, a wedding band, and the habit—which the sisters sew for themselves—a wedding dress, befitting the women who see themselves as “brides of Christ.” “This is a real marriage,” Sister Pia Jude said with a cheerful earnestness. “We get to wear our wedding dress every day.”
Born Christen Furka (she took the religious name Pia Jude upon her profession of first vows), she grew up comfortably middle class in Secaucus, N.J., her father and mother both employees of the U.S. Postal Service. She did almost everything with her twin sister, Natalie: piano and flute lessons, dance, cheerleading, track, working at Mike’s Ice Cream shop and college at St. Peter’s University. As a 19-year-old sophomore home on break, she prayed one day in church before the Eucharist, “Lord, what is your will for my life?”
At that moment, Sister Pia Jude happened to spot a woman in her early 30s she had not noticed before wearing a full white habit. It scared her. She returned her gaze to the Eucharist on the altar, praying: “Oh, Jesus. I could never do that.”
She had attended daily Mass, served as an altar server, joined the youth group and attended C.C.D. classes but could not see herself as a religious sister. “God called saints,” she said. “I knew I wasn’t one. I was just an ordinary girl from Jersey.”
So Sister Pia Jude finished college, graduated from Rutgers School of Law and practiced as an attorney for five years at a Wall Street firm. She had friends, a good apartment she shared with her twin sister, and money to travel and buy the stylish clothes she liked. She thought she had been following God’s direction for her life, but something was missing—the invitation left unanswered.
As a 19-year-old sophomore home on break, she prayed one day in church before the Eucharist, “Lord, what is your will for my life?”
Her spiritual director suggested she go on a retreat over New Year’s Eve with the Sisters of Life. “On the retreat, I saw the sisters had a freedom I didn’t,” she said, “a freedom that comes from God because they had given everything to him.”
She made two more retreats focused on discernment about whether to enter religious life. By the end of the third, she was willing to say yes to the invitation she had first experienced 10 years earlier at 19. It had been hard to tell her twin sister, harder still to be separated from her. So she was thrilled three years later, in 2016, when Natalie answered the call herself, leaving her job as an attending physician at Hackensack University Medical Center to join her twin in the Sisters of Life.
The sisters at the mother house lead a regimented life, rising at 5 for morning prayer and Mass before breakfast. Each day follows the rhythm of praying, eating and working together, ending with night prayer at 8:15 p.m. Sister Pia Jude currently works in the office of the superior general, Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, doing administrative work. Her previous assignments include ministering to women who have had an abortion—“listen them back to life”—coordinating volunteers, advocating for prolife issues and meeting with students on college campuses, “to let young women know they have a purpose.”
Much has been written about millennial malaise. Having been raised with the notion they were special and could do whatever they wanted, they launched into adulthood in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, which wiped out their self-esteem portfolios. They are more anxious than other generations, suffer burnout earlier and worry about money. “You were told your dreams could come true: Study, work hard and the doors will open for you,” Sister Pia Jude said. “Yet that angst and loneliness can only be filled by Jesus Christ.”
Though Sister Margie and Sister Pia Jude both responded to a spiritual calling and sought out their places within religious communities, the institutes they chose reflect some of the differences among women religious orders and the different values or charisms that define them. Each, too, may be responding to influences characteristic among millennials, those beyond the desire for spiritual community.
“There’s a fair number of women that enter religious life today that are advocates of social justice.”
“There’s a fair number of women that enter religious life today that are advocates of social justice,” said Margaret McGuinness, professor of religion and theology at Lasalle University and author of Called to Serve: A History of American Nuns. “That, combined with their faith is what drives them to religious life, not existential or millennial angst. It’s almost the opposite.”
A Mature Call
Sister Margie and Sister Pia Jude and their institutes each belong to a separate national umbrella group of women religious. The largest, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, founded in 1956, has about 1,350 member institutions, including the Sisters of Mercy, and represents nearly 80 percent of all women religious in the United States. Its member institutions tend to be seen as more progressive, though that is a term the members are often reluctant to use, and their demographic skews older than the members of the other major association. The Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, founded in 1992, represents about 5,700 sisters, including the Sisters of Life, with an average age of 58.
Each year, approximately the same number of women join the L.C.W.R. communities as join C.M.S.W.R. communities. But the number joining the L.C.W.R. communities are spread out over a larger base, which means there are fewer new candidates per order, according to the most recent data analyzed in 2014. The significant ongoing growth of the Sisters of Life and several other traditional orders since then suggests these orders are likely to expand; yet they remain relatively small. The largest among them, the Dominican Sisters of the Congregation of St. Cecilia, based in Nashville, Tenn., has a total of 299 members, including 27 in their first four years of formation and 22 in the second phase.
For any woman entering religious life, the process can be arduous.
For any woman entering religious life, the process can be arduous. Communities of women religious institutions now screen candidates with more scrutiny than in decades past, including psychological testing. They are asking women to finish college (and pay off student loans) before joining. They have extended the formation period. As a result, 71 percent of those who professed final vows in 2020 had at least a bachelor’s degree, according to the most recent CARA study. The median age at final vows was 34 (average age 38). This is significantly older than in the ’50s and ’60s, when many young women entered right out of high school. “They are more self-aware, recognizing they have a call from God,” said Dr. Gautier. ”But it’s a mature call, not just because of something Sister So-and-so said in high school,”
The Heart of the Church
Despite the growth of some religious communities, the total number of those joining is nowhere near large enough to offset the number of religious sisters dying each year. Some communities of consecrated women religious already have consolidated. More seem likely to do so in the future. Others have resigned themselves to “completion,” as they call it, which means they are no longer taking on new members. They have closed schools, sold property and turned over hospitals to lay staff. But many still hope that women like Sister Margie and Sister Pia Jude will continue to hear and answer the call to religious life, assuring the future of at least some religious orders. “The hunger for religious virtuosity is too strong,” said Patricia Wittberg, a Sister of Charity, sociologist and research associate at CARA. “Religious life is not going to die out. But it is going to be much smaller.”
Women religious still outnumber priests roughly four to one. They remain an essential force within the very heart of the church. “I think women’s religious orders are as necessary to the Catholic Church as the priesthood is. They perform two essential service functions for the church.” said Sister Wittberg. “Priests keep the lights on. Religious women’s institutes change—they drive the church into the next century, making the church relevant. They’re absolutely necessary.”