Tue, Feb 06, 2007 - Page 16 News List

The Internet and the monastic life

Convents are drawing new strength from a young generation of experienced and tech savvy postulants who have turned their back on worldly success

AFP , NEW YORK

One was a successful corporate lawyer, another a Mercedes-driving businesswoman and a third a navy officer who steered battleships and hunted down cocaine smugglers in South America.

They are among a growing number of women in their 20s and 30s across the United States who have shed high-powered jobs, career ambitions and boyfriends for a nun's veil and a life devoted to the church.

Though the trend is by no means spreading like wildfire, several Roman Catholic communities throughout the country say they have noticed a surprising and welcome phenomenon in the last decade as younger women join their ranks.

“The inquiries in recent years have been coming from younger and younger women, most of them in their early to mid-20s,” Sister Agnes Mary, mother superior at the Sisters of Life community in New York, said.

The Catholic community, which counted seven members when it was founded in 1991, has grown to 52 women who live in six convents scattered throughout the New York area. A seventh convent is planned within the next two years.

“I think young women are searching for something and culture is not giving it to them so they are turning to God,” said Sister Mary Karen, 33, the superior at the Sisters of Life Formation House in the Bronx, where 18 women are being groomed for a life of obedience, poverty and chastity.

All have college degrees, are well traveled and were more cosmopolitan than cloistered growing up.

They have abandoned cell phones, iPods, daily Starbucks runs and, in some cases, fiances for dorm-like rooms, or “cells” as they are known, and a wardrobe of a simple veil and habit.

“I was in the navy for a total of 10 years because I wanted to do something great with my life but I realized I could never be passionate about it,” said Angela Karalekas, 28, who entered the convent in September and will receive her habit and new religious name in June.

“I was raised Catholic but my decision has been hard on my father and three brothers.”

Once the women take their final vows, a process that takes about eight years from the time they enter the convent, they are required to give up all their worldly possessions and rely on donations for their needs.

They rise at 5am — 5:30am or 6am on weekends — and spend the major part of the morning in prayer or contemplative silence.

Those who have taken their final vows work within the community, helping the homeless, pregnant women or anyone in need.

“It was basically apply to medical school or apply to a convent and the convent won out,” said Bridget Heisler, 24. “I knew there was a love in my life and it was the Lord.”

The nuns relax every afternoon by going on bike rides, playing basketball or rollerblade hockey, all dressed in their habits. The sight inspires some passersby to whip out their cell phones to take pictures or shout: “Go Sister.”

According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), there are currently 66,608 Catholic nuns in the US compared to nearly 180,000 in 1965. Worldwide, there are an estimated 776,260 nuns, compared with around one million in 1970.

But despite the dwindling overall number, several new orders and communities, especially those founded during the 1978-2005 pontificate of John Paul II, say they have seen a surge of new blood in the last decade, a welcome turnabout for the church.

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