by Jocelyne Zablit
NEW YORK (AFP) - 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, told AFP.
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.
They include a Yale graduate, a former navy officer, a former medical student, an opera singer and a Web designer.
All have college degrees, are well-travelled and were more cosmopolitan than cloistered growing up.
They have abandoned cell phones, I-Pods, daily Starbucks runs and, in some cases, fiances for dorm-like rooms, or "cells" as they call them, and a wardrobe that consists of a 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 5:00 am -- 5:30 or 6:00 on weekends -- and spend the major part of the morning praying or in 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 -- veil and all -- on bike rides, playing basketball or rollerblade hockey, a sight that has some passersby frantically whipping out their cell phones to take pictures or shouting "Go Sister".
According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), there are currently 66,608 Catholic nuns in the United States compared to nearly 180,000 in 1965. Worldwide, there are an estimated 776,260 nuns as opposed to some 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 .
"These women are looking for something deeper," said Brother Paul Bednarczyk, executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference. "They are looking to develop their Catholic identity and given our secular values in the United States where we promote sex, money and power, it is a very counter cultural thing to profess celibacy, poverty and obedience."
Bednarczyk and others also credit the late John Paul II's charisma and his effort to reach out to younger Catholics for the mounting popularity of some communities.
"The John Paul II generation is a generation of young people, a generation of authenticity," said Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, vocation director at the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, located in the midwestern state of Michigan.
"They have seen the emptiness of many worldly values and many want something more," added Bogdanowicz, 54, who founded her community in 1997 along with three other women.
The convent today counts 71 women whose average age is 24. Next summer 20 more postulants are set to join the order which is rushing to raise funds for a new building to house the inflow.
"God in his goodness is sending us so many young vocations that we can't build fast enough to keep up with the number of young women entering our community," Bogdanowicz said.
But apart from divine intervention, those interviewed also credit the Internet with breathing new life into the nunnery. Most orders today have Web sites and about 20 nuns run their own blogs.
"The (Church) today needs to be on the Internet because that's where young people are going to go," Bednarczyk said.
He said women interested in religious life can even turn to a "match-making" Web site for guidance on which community is best suited for them.
"We took the concept of finding your love match, like when you're looking for a husband (...), and applied it to religious life," Bednarzcyk said. "We've gotten over 2,000 hits in two months."
Julie Vieira, 35, who began a blog entitled "A Nun's Life" last July to chronicle her experience as a sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, said she gets about 600 hits a day and at least a half dozen e-mails from people inquiring about religious life.
"One of the reasons I started the blog was to explain what it's like to be a nun and to address the stereotypes out there," Vieira, who works at Loyola Press, a Catholic publisher in Chicago, told AFP. "I just wanted to tell people 'Hey I'm an ordinary person'."
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