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Monday, August 18, 2008

New Generation of Sisters

From Naples News

Sisters Mary Grace and Maria Frassati have heard the jokes and noticed the stares, and they understand where it comes from.

The habit. The black and white robes. The everpresent rosary. The cross. Nuns are walking anachronisms, committed to an ideal in a way that very few other Americans can fathom, much less muster themselves.

Which is OK with Grace, who adds that she knows she dresses like “someone medieval.” Then she laughs.

Before Frassati (pronounced FRA-sati) entered the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, she had much the same thoughts about cloistered life.

“You kind of have this cooked up idea of somewhere between ‘The Sound of Music’ and ‘Sister Act’ is what religious life is going to be like,” Frassati says.

Grace is 34 and Frassati 25, so they use the deadpan wit and pop culture references like other 20- or 30-somethings. They play basketball and have funny knickknacks. Frassati has a homemade box with a drawing of a nun that reads, “Sista, please!”

Still, in fundamental ways to go beyond their clothing and rosary beads, these women are different from their peers.

It’s in the way they talk. Exclamations, even on the basketball court, don’t run stronger than “Goodness!” The nuns giggle when it’s revealed that one of the card games they play at night is called “Oh, Hell.”

It’s in the way they entertain. To greet a reporter and photographer in their Ave Maria home, Frassati and Grace, along with two other Dominican Sisters living on mission in Ave Maria, create a still life of refreshments: Eight brownies on a clear glass plate sit next to a pitcher of water and four empty glasses.

It’s in the way they describe their way of life. Becoming a nun is like nothing so crass as starting a “career,” even one that combines teaching, charity work and prayer. Instead, it’s a vocation, a calling. This calling has led them to turn over decisions about what many consider life’s basics — how to live, work, play and generally spend their time — to someone else.

But it was less a life they chose, the four nuns said, than one chosen for them by God.

“It wasn’t like a voice from the sky,” Frassati says. “But it was like an intense conviction of what I was made for.”


Mother Mary Assumpta Long, a founder and superior of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, described succinctly how her nuns behave. “We’re in the world,” she said. “But not of the world.”

In practice, though, the difference between those two ideas is a subtle one.

A typical day during the school year begins at 5 a.m. Prayer and breakfast fill the morning until they leave their home at 7:10 for the mile-long trip to Ave Maria’s K-12 private school. The school day starts at 8 with Mass and ends at 3:20 in the afternoon.

During their teaching stint last year the nuns taught mainly the younger students a variety of subjects. They were home by 4:15 p.m. to prepare for evening prayer at 5 p.m. They played cards for an hour at 6:15 p.m. and then prayed some more. In the hours before lights out at 10 p.m., the sisters prepared for their next day.

They say they like the strictly structured life. And they’re well aware of what they’ve given up: marriage, children of their own, parts of their individuality. (The nuns declined to give their birth names for this story because they didn’t want students to know them by anything other than the names chosen by Assumpta.)

They prefer to speak mostly about what they’ve gained: a purpose, a community, a sense of what it means to be a woman.

Modern feminism, Frassati says, “is really anti-feminine.” She prefers former Pope John Paul II’s idea of the “feminine genius,” which focuses on maternal and nurturing qualities of a woman’s potential.

“I think it’s a beautiful thing,” Frassati says, “to embrace the way God made you feminine with all the feminine gifts you have.”

It’s ideas like these as well as dusty notions like sacrifice and duty that give life as a nun an authenticity, excitement and a counter-cultural appeal, the nuns say.

The youth of today, Grace says, have a “call to be great. We want to be challenged.”

Not by striving for prototypical ideas of success and power. Instead, it’s to radically live what they believe, and do it joyfully.

“We’re not exactly like everybody else and we wouldn’t want to be,” Frassati says. “It’s not that we’re not different, it’s just that we’re not the kind of different people think we are.”


Grace was raised in a Catholic family in suburban Chicago, but growing up, she had no idea she would become a nun until her father died unexpectedly when she was 16. At his wake, she looked at his body and suddenly realized human life was fleeting.

“God gave me these new glasses,” she says.

And so she began to direct her gaze toward the spiritual life. It helped her maintain a connection with her father, the same way she now believes she can connect with anyone spiritually through prayer. Her discernment process — what they call their determination of whether to become a nun — was slow. Grace started attending Eucharistic adoration, a practice of intense prayer before the consecrated host Catholics believe to be Christ’s body and blood. At college she studied to be a nurse, but found that unsatisfying. She transferred to Franciscan University of Steubenville, a charismatic Catholic school in Ohio, to major in theology. Her undergraduate thesis was on redemptive suffering.

She became a teacher, but that wasn’t right either. She craved helping people physically and spiritually. Soon after, Grace met Assumpta on Steubenville’s campus and she was hooked. She entered the order six years ago.

Grace speaks with a Midwestern accent that has a slight Valley girl lilt. Her manner inside and outside her Ave Maria classroom is earnest, but grounded. Her classroom had a wall with her students’ names and a sliding scale titled, “Virtue.” If students practiced virtues, they would go up the scale and receive a reward. She sat with her students on a rug and asked who would be willing to make a sacrifice. Any kind of sacrifice would do.

“Jesus would be, like, thrilled,” she says.

Her mother, Nancy Kamp, 68, who still lives outside Chicago, calls her daughter’s vocation “beautiful.” But they don’t get to talk as much as she would like. So Kamp handwrites a letter to her daughter every week to tell her what’s new. Grace writes back when she can.

“I love writing those letters because it makes me feel close to her and makes her feel part of the family,” Kamp says.

Grace has made sacrifices to pursue this life of faith. She reminds herself that sacrifice is a gift of yourself.

“Imagine someone you love in Alaska,” she says. “And you’re wearing this fur coat and you’re warm and they’re freezing. But because you love them so much, you give up your fur coat for them even if it meant you would be cold. So you’ve made that sacrifice for someone else based on love. But, in a way, you’re happy, too, because you love them so much they’re warm now.”

That’s the link, she says, between giving of yourself and sacrifice.


There are about 59,000 nuns in the United States, according to data from a Catholic research institute. That’s less than a third of the peak in the 1960s. The median age is in the mid-70s.

The average age of the 75 sisters that make up the Dominican Sisters of Mary is 26, according to Sister Joseph Andrew, the order’s vocation’s director. And the average age of a woman entering the religious order is 21.

So how to they do it? With all the pressure to achieve, to find a great career, to be the most beautiful, to have the perfect marriage and the perfect children, how have the Dominican Sisters of Mary have been able to attract young women?

“That’s a question I get a thousand times a day,” Andrew says.

She counts off a list of reasons, mostly revolving around the order’s clear devotion to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

It’s God’s “coolest order,” joked Sister Thomas Aquinas, 25, another of the Dominicans at Ave Maria.

“The conventional wisdom is that the more traditional or conservative orders seem to be getting younger members,” said Sister Mary Bendyna, executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate in Washington, D.C. The center, which is affiliated with Georgetown University, plans to release a statistical study on the matter soon.

These more orthodox religious orders are tapping into the same network of homeschooled and retreat-going conservative young Catholics that Ave Maria University attracts, says Sister Patricia Wittberg, a sociology professor at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. Wittberg, who studies religious communities, says these groups have a strong sense of mission.

“To be perfectly blunt,” Wittberg says, “the more liberal groups don’t know who they are.”

Read the rest of the article HERE.

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