Beliefs

Old-fashioned nuns say the past is key to the future

RNS photo by Ryan Gladstone

KIRKWOOD, Mo. (RNS) The light, clear tones of young women’s voices filled the chapel, their chanted prayers drifting across the wooden altar screen that shielded the sisters from the full view of those sitting in the pews.

It was five o’clock on a hot August afternoon, and vespers, the traditional evening prayer of monastic life for centuries, had begun in this Catholic convent located in this leafy suburb west of St. Louis.

The 16 sisters, novices and postulants of the Carmelite Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus had been up since 5 a.m. – “the first Resurrection of the day” as they call it – starting an unchanging routine of common prayer, quiet contemplation, morning Mass, and breakfast in silence. That was followed by a day of work with the aged at a rest home attached to the convent and with children at a day care that is also part of the 24-acre grounds.

As vespers concluded, the women filed back into the cloister for another half hour of silent contemplation before dinner. The characteristic brown habits of their order were all that could be glimpsed of them through the screen.

It’s hard to think of any image that could have provided a sharper contrast with the huge meeting that was taking place at the same time a few miles away in a hotel ballroom in downtown St. Louis, where hundreds of sisters from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious were figuring out how to respond to the Vatican’s plans to recast their organization in a more orthodox mode.

The Vatican's proposed takeover of the LCWR had been the focus of widespread interest since April, when Rome announced that the group – which represents about 80 percent of the 56,000 nuns in American religious communities – was infected with “radical feminism,” marred by dissent and in need of a top-down overhaul.

There were few habits to be seen among the 900 sisters gathered at the LCWR assembly, and the prayers and speakers evoked New Age comparisons as much as they channeled any old-time religion. Yet the LCWR delegates, buoyed by an outpouring of public support, in the end forcefully rejected the Vatican’s charges and opted to try to pursue dialogue with Rome to resolve the dispute.

But what of that other 20 percent of American nuns? Often overlooked in the coverage of the LCWR showdown, they largely belong to a separate organization, called the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, that the Vatican set up in 1992 as traditional alternative – some say a conservative rival – to the more progressive LCWR.

The CMSWR umbrella comprises convents with a total of about 10,000 nuns, including the Kirkwood Carmelites, and you probably won't be reading about any Roman investigation of their practices. These sisters tend to follow a more cloistered existence, with limited contact with the outside world and even with their families, who see them for just a week or so each year.

Most important, the CMSWR communities are growing, and getting younger, which has many fans saying that they represent the future of women’s religious communities precisely because they reflect the past with confidence and with no discussion of dissent.

“We know what we are about,” Sister Mary Joseph Heisler, the vivacious head of this community, said with a smile.

Heisler – who like all the sisters in her community took a new religious name with her lifelong vows of poverty, chastity and obedience – was a “military brat” who heard her calling while a junior in high school on a pilgrimage to the Marian shrine of Fatima in Portugal. She put aside her application to Georgetown University, her plans to become the first woman secretary of state, and her boyfriend, and entered this community at 18.

Back then, the Carmelites in Kirkwood were as stagnant as any order. But about 15 years ago they started to focus on attracting new vocations by playing up their traditional life and their “authenticity, sure identity, shared vision, awareness of purpose and community living,” as Heisler put it. 

Soon, the recruits started coming. The community now has three sisters over 70, but then there is Heisler at 45, followed by members ranging from 18 to 34, with most in their 20s. (It helps that CMSWR orders generally do not take women over the age of 30.)

“The choice has to be made either for renewal or further diminishment,” says Heisler. “We are in that period of renewal.”

In fact, the data show that the traditional orders of the CMSWR are drawing about the same number of vocations as those of the LCWR. But their relative youth and distinctive ways – not to mention their favor in Rome – have helped fuel the debate over Catholic identity and orthodoxy and the future for Catholicism in the U.S.

It is an argument that the younger sisters here have followed closely, and can take up with passion as well as humor.

Sister Mary Elizabeth Riesser, 26 and a Cincinnati native, said she knows many sisters in LCWR congregations and admires the work they do. But when she wanted to join a community, Riesser, like many of her peers considering a lifelong vocation, “wanted that radical living out of the religious life.”

“I sense that totality here more so than in one of the LCWR-type communities,” she said during the hourlong “recreation time” that starts at 7 p.m. each evening.

Strolling around the grounds as cicadas buzzed in the oak trees, several sisters – including the two novices and three postulants in preliminary stages of discernment before final vows – spoke of the visual appeal of the old cloister and especially the habit, though they quickly added that the draw went much deeper than fashion.

“It was a pretty selfish reason that had to be purified,” Sister Mary Michael Reiss, 27, said with a laugh. “I thought if I’m going to do this with my life, to give everything, I want people to know about it, darn it! I wanted the whole church. I didn’t want to wear a denim skirt the rest of my life!”

But Reiss eventually realized a deeper connection between the habit and “faithfulness to the church,” and how a habit broadcasts that stance. Indeed, when she walked into her first day of classes for a communications degree at nearby Fontbonne University – a Catholic school run by a women’s order belonging to the LCWR – her surprised professor blurted, “I haven’t seen a sister in a habit here in 40 years!”

The Carmelite sisters of Kirkwood convey joy at their vocation because of the structure and strictures, not in spite of them. And they are uniformly respectful and complimentary of the work of the nuns of the LCWR.

But like other tradition-minded Catholics in this ongoing debate, they also don’t see the path of the progressives as simply another legitimate option among many.

“I still sense the need for them to return to the faithfulness of their original charisms, and the purpose for which they were founded,” Riesser said of the LCWR communities. “In their disobedience, to the church, to doctrine, they are departing from that.”

It is a debate that won't be settled this day, or anytime soon. In a few minutes, the convent bell rings for compline, the final communal prayer of the day, to be followed by the “Grand Silence” of nighttime in the cloister, a period of sleep and individual meditation that ends only with the coming dawn.

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

21 Comments

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  • Thank you for the article and the photos are great. I’m thinking JOY might be the best ‘advertisement’ for more traditional forms of spirituality.

  • Why does it have to be one versus the other? Both forms of religious life are extremely valid. What draws you to Christ. That is the path to follow. Beware of numbers–what’s the attrition rate????? Why is one better than the other? Why is wearing a habit better than not wearing one. Both are valid and server the Lord. Recognize that the majority of Catholics don’t believe half of what Rome and the hierarchy proclaim. And speaking about charism–members of the LCWR group believe they have gone back to the charisms of their founders. Here’s one–most founders never wore anything different than the poor women of their time. They did not wear a habit.

  • Bill – If LCWR nuns want to find “their own path to Christ,” they can certainly do so without adhering to the Magisterium of the Church… Protestants do so all the time, with varying degrees of success. But they can’t be Catholic and not follow the Pope’s authority. Saying that “the majority” of Catholics don’t believe Church teachings either is both an unsupported claim, and also irrelevant. “The majority” of people who listened to Jesus preach in the Gospels probably did not go on to become devout Christians under the tutelage and authority of Peter and the Apostles – that doesn’t mean that they, and not the truly faithful, represented “true” Christianity. If the majority of self-identified Catholics don’t follow the Church’s teachings, then the majority are either truly Protestant, or living in sin (I know, for my part, that I’m not perfect, and I *do* sin by violating Church teachings – but I repent, I don’t pretend that it’s not really sin at all).

    As for your comment about habits, you’re absolutely right that what we call habits often started out as (basically) peasant dresses. But when is the last time you saw a non-habit-wearing nun wearing “the clothes of poor women” as a genuine sign of humility (not just because t-shirts and jeans are more comfortable, or because the t-shirt has a political slogan). Most of the AP photos I see have them in blouses, and often suits. (Not to say that no non-cloistered nuns are humble servants of the Church – on the contrary, many are – just don’t argue that the lack of habit is a “back-to-basics” move)

  • “In fact, the data show that the traditional orders of the CMSWR are drawing about the same number of vocations as those of the LCWR.” Is false. Please refrain from making false statements. If you don’t understand why it is false, read the comments to your link – it is straightforward. At this point, you made a math error, it was explained to you, and you are repeating it. This is now clearly dishonest. This is not good for you.

  • mnemos: I’m not sure what math error I was making. Both groups have about 500 women in various stages of formation. The overall size of each group drawing them isn’t relative to that. Neither groups is at replacement level. The median age for LCWR is 75, and for CMSWR it’s about 65. If the trends continue (always a big “if”!) the two groups would have roughly equal numbers in a few decades. So they would be equal. Would that indicate anything about their relative vitality? No doubt the CMSWR communities are drawing vocations. Great for them. But the numbers are the numbers.

    Best, David

  • David, if 80% of a group is drawing 50% of potential new members (each group has 500 in formation) they are attracting new members at a rate 1/3rd that of the 20% who are drawing 50% of new members.

    Just the simple numbers make it clear – some LCWR orders haven’t had a vocation in YEARS, while the CMSWR has anywhere from 2 to 20 and are having to build to make room.

    I know one group of CMSWR-group sisters who wear only a simple jumper as a habit, with little uniformity as to the rest of the outfit, so it isn’t the “glamour,” it’s the community life of shared prayer and work, the joyful connection to the Church through time, that makes them so successful.

    The leadership of so many LCWR groups (I know several Dominican and Franciscan groups) has gone over to the Odd Side (“beyond Christ” as one speaker famously put it), but their orders still contain many quiet, aging, faithful sisters who are no longer well represented and represent the last of their breed. Those sisters I feel sorry for; they wanted to keep their names in religion and their habits and were mocked; their desire to continue daily Office and Rosary diminished.

  • Therese Z, actually none of the communities has very many sisters in process. The CMSWR numbers look better because of their relative size now, but the vocations are spread around among many communities. It’s just the facts as they stand now. This is not to pass judgment, good or bad, on either type of life.

  • Why is it any body else’s business than the nuns and sisters themselves (and there is a difference) what the nuns and sisters wear? Why, instead of simply being thankful for the work and witness of the sisters represented by the LCWR (or the CMSWR, too, for that matter), do a minority of cranky vocal Catholics feel the need to complain about their clothes? Their clothes? Really?! And where do men, especially, get off telling the nuns and sisters how to dress? Meanwhile, the hungry are still hungry, the poor (including some nuns and sisters, by the way) are still poor, and the world still needs to be lifted up in prayer. Let’s cut out the mean-spirited, self-righteous arguing about fashion and get to work. Anthony Zarella: I work with and know a lot of sisters, and each of them dresses modestly, appropriately and inexpensively. mnemos: You believe what you want to believe about the numbers. But David Gibson isn’t wrong just because you say so. The research done by two sisters and published recently in AMERICA magazine backs up David Gibson’s explanation of the numbers. Let’s revisit this conversation in about 10 years and see how many new recruits in the institutes of the CMSWR stay. I give thanks to God and have great respect for all women religious, regardless of what leadership organization they belong to, and without the slightest concern for what they wear. Instead of harping on the nuns and sisters, I want to join them in their goods of prayer, witness, and mission. I invite other Catholics and people of good will to do the same.

  • People are arguing about the numbers of women entering various religious orders all over the web. If the number is equal, say 500 in both the LCWR and the CMSRW, then the number is equal. Both have the same number of new entrants. From the perspective of the Catholic women entering religious life, approximately half enter the LCRW communities and half enter the CMSRW communities. Looked at from their current membership, the CMSRW communities have far fewer members than the LCRW communities, so relative to their size, the CMSRW communities are attracting more members if the 500 in relation to their current membership numbers. But, that doesn’t mean that 500 does not equal 500. 500 new members will grow the smaller CMSRW communities, whereas it will shrink the LCWR. Like someone said above, the numbers in each group will grow closer together (and just think when the LCWR has as few members as the CMSRW communities, then people will be commenting how the LCWR communities are growing so fast when they have 500 members in formation!). What I think would be a more interesting statistic is how many women are leaving the Catholic Church altogether. I am sure this group is growing much faster than either the LCRW or CMSRW communities.

  • We err if we focus on secondary matters, garb, etc. If we do not focus on the essential. Imprecisely put, 100% of the CMSWR’s contribution, and perhaps 90% of LCWR’s contribution are good, holy, and in accord with church teaching and doctrine. This is better, and more precisely, stated elsewhere. The press, and world’s attention, however, is focused on the scandal, the 10% of the LCWR’s positions, which are in rebellion against the Vatican. The doctrinal conflict is damnably important.

    However, it is not new. Today’s gospel; the wedding feast in which the chosen people, then all, were invited by the Lord, who rejects one who did not obeying the rules, ie wear the proper attire, is still relevant. He is the Boss; He must be obeyed. It is essential, but not complicated, for religious or bishops.

  • Why isn’t the Vatican and the nuns concentrating on getting Bill HR 374 passed in the House, and moved up for vote into law? This bill is the Life At Conception bill, and will legally define the fetus at conception as a person, which entitles them to legal protections under the law (and moreso as endangered lives, due to the practice of abortion). They should be working together instead of getting off-focus by division.

    This bill makes legal cases concerning fetuses worth alot more money; and with higher damages and vigorous prosecution (which always follows the money), abortion in this country will go way down. There’s only a 2% approval rate in the House, but Catholics writing in could change this, and could redirect the Christian laity, in general. But why isn’t anyone even talking about it? As if it’s a secret?

    It’s the biggest breakthrough concerning saving the lives of 1.6 million children per year, but everyone’s pretending it doesn’t even exist. I want you to know that God knows everyone’s ignoring this, and you guys are about to live out Isaiah 3, as His reaction to total Christian apathy (which will certainly answer the issue of attire). At the very least, He expects priests, nuns, ministers, and those who love Him to fight for the lives of His children! (Nothing less than an all-out fight for the lives of His children will protect you). Minor quibbles over contraception and financial charges, when you CAN save 1.6 million lives per year and fail to do your utmost to do so, will just make Him very angry. But believe me, you’ll see for yourselves very soon.

  • Why is it you never hear of monks or friars wanting to discard the habit? To me, throwing away the habit is throwing away a great sign of faith, a silent testimony when in public.

    I’ve read many stories of people getting excited, even Jews and protestants, when they see a religious sister in her traditional habit.

  • The habit is a sign and also a protection.
    It is important in relgious life, especially because it comes from tradition and has a venerable history. Only a modernist or iconoclast would want to do away with venerable Catholic traditions and customs.
    One thing this article doesn’t mention are all of the women entering traditionalist orders that are not yet in full ‘official’ union with Rome.
    There are quite a few in the USA and around the world and once the SSPX is regularized we will see an increase in the presence of traditionally habited nuns reemerge.

  • I just wish the CMSWR nuns were less cloistered and out in public more. While all women including LCWR nuns are deserving of respect an honor, I would bow my head to an AUTHENTIC nun (wearing habit) walking down the street. The world needs to be exposed to that kind of faith and REAL dedication.

  • When comparing the LCWR to the CMSWR, it is difficult to arrive at “official” statistics. It is helpful, however to review a wide range of information that is available, even if one needs to spend $10 to obtain a full report on religious institute statistics from CARA.

    In the meantime, you might refer to Wikipedia, which has statistics on the CMSWR that vary from those in this article. I know many people consider Wikipedia unreliable, but they DO document their references. Click on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Council_of_Major_Superiors_of_Women_Religious
    for numbers that vary from this article…..and paint a very positive future for the CMSWR.

    For a scholarly look at the LCWR flap, there is an unusually astute and even-minded article from the National Catholic Register (not to be confused with the other NCR):
    Click on: http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/whats-going-on-with-the-lcwr/

    And, finally, for a look at an order which actually has more women in formation than that stated in this article, two year in a row, please click on: http://www.voanews.com/content/younger-catholic-women-get-into-the-habit-113267249/133408.html

    It’s sort of sad to see incomplete information bandied about the Internet.

  • Real NUNS wear habits! The LCWR is a snapshot of what has gone wrong in America – relativism, attachment to things…instead of ministering to the poor and sick. More should look at Mother Teresa for guidance.

  • David: comparing raw data is like comparing apples to oranges.

    When the FBI compared crime rates in US cities, they compare PER CAPITA rates, not raw statistics. You can’t compare the raw numbers of murders, rapes, and robberies in Chicago with those of, say, Wabash, Indiana. that’s ridiculous.

    Seems to me you’re carrying water for the LCWR ,if you don’t understand this basic principal of statistical analysis.

  • RE numbers of vocations: the “new evangelization” communities, like the Sisters of Life, Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist, were founded in the 90s and are very much formed by the thinking of John Paul II and by authentic traditions of religious life in community. In accordance with Church teaching, they are absolutely focused on their spousal relationship with Christ, from which flows their love and service of others, Also in fidelity to Church teaching, they wear the habit, and live pray recreate and work together. They are faithful to the Holy Father and the Bishops both in letter and in spirit. And these communities are getting from between 8 to 20 new postulants every year. Compare this to some communities that have not had any postulants for years and years.

    While it is true that some faithful communities do not get many postulants (notably, some of the totally contemplative nuns, who always had less because of the extremely radical nature of that life)…for the most part, the faithful communities have a much younger median age because they are actually getting new, young members. The median age of the two groups I mentioned is I think about 35, or maybe even 30.

    There is a wisdom in Church teaching on authentic religious life. It works.

    If you look at the communities of the leaders of the LCWR, they are heading towards extinction. And it is directly related to their infidelity, both in doctrine, and in disciplines/practices. It is very sad – I hope one day someone comes and restores their communities, because most of them were founded by saints, who would be weeping to see the current departures from the truths of the Faith and from solid practices of the consecrated life…if onecould weep in heaven.

  • It is not just tne USA that have non habited religious. I live in Glasgow, Scotland and could not tell you the last time I saw a habited religious. I could pass a religious on the street and not even know it. As for poverty, these sisters certainly do not practice it. Many religious orders here wear secular clothing, expensive I may add, earings, necklaces and live in very comfortable surroundings. I don’t advocate sisters living in freezing convents or going without the basic necessities, but these orders seem to be rather financially well off. Perhaps they should remember that the majority of convents were founded by donations from poor hard working famillies who believed in the sisters and their work. Now its all radical feminism and political agitating, advocating abortion and gay marriage. Do what Anita Caspary and her deluded, brainwashed cohorts did, renounce their vows, leave the church and lead the secular lives tney seem to crave. Leave tne work to real religious, who adhere to their vows.

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