From The Tennessean
By Bob Smietana
When it comes to ultimate Frisbee, the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia don't mess around.
On a recent afternoon, a dozen young sisters, dressed in full-length habits or in postulant uniforms — white shirts, black skirts, black vests — and wearing sneakers and blue aprons, gathered at the edge of the convent's playing field.
Then they screamed at the top of their lungs, and rushed another group of nuns as a white Frisbee flew overhead. "Did you see that?" said Sister Mary Emily, watching over her young charges. "They're trying to intimidate the other team."
There are 23 postulants this year at the Motherhouse of Nashville's Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia. It's the largest group of new nuns in training in the United States.
While many religious orders in the United States are declining, the Nashville Dominicans are flourishing. Most of the new sisters are in their 20s and want to be traditional nuns — wearing full habits and living in a convent. They say that life as a nun offers more than the secular world could ever give them.
The new sisters, known as postulants during their first year, are a diverse group. Sister Maria, from Pennsylvania, is 17 and straight out of high school. One, a nurse of Vietnamese descent, came from Sydney, Australia. Another sister is from the Ivory Coast. Others are from Ohio, Michigan and other Midwestern states. One is from Knoxville. Three were engineers before coming to the convent.
They love Pope Benedict XVI and the retired nuns at the convent, as well as Christian rock bands Third Day and Jars of Clay. And they've left everything behind — families, friends, careers, even their iPods, cell phones, laptops and Facebook accounts — all for the sake of Jesus.
"God showed me that everything I longed for in my heart was here," Sister Angela said. "My vocation was a romance with the Creator."
These sisters are younger
The 1940s and '50s were the glory years of American convents, says Sister Mary Bendyna, senior research associate for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, which studies American Catholicism.
"In the '40s, '50s and '60s, we saw large numbers of people in the Catholic Church going into religious life," she said. "That was unusual.''
By 1965, there were 179,954 nuns in the United States. Today, there are 59,601. Most are senior citizens, said Sister Mary, who recently completed a study of American Catholic religious orders.
"There are more over 90 than under 60. That was particularly striking," she said.
By contrast, the average age of the 252 Nashville Dominican sisters is 36. And they have 54 candidates in their training program, known as the novitiate.
It takes seven years to become a full-fledged sister. The postulant year gets the incoming sisters accustomed to life at the convent. Then they become novices. In their third year, they take temporary vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, followed by permanent vows at the end of the process. At that point, most go out to teach in Catholic school through the order's 22 missions, each with about four to five nuns.
Those first two years are a kind of spiritual boot camp.
"They get up at 5 a.m. and begin the day in the chapel, with prayer, including meditation, the Divine Office, and then the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass," Sister Mary Emily said.
Breakfast is at 7 a.m. Then they are off to class until 12:30 p.m. at Aquinas College, or, if they are novices, in silence meditation or study at the Motherhouse until 12:30 p.m. In the afternoon, they have recreation and classes at the Motherhouse, followed by vespers.
All the nuns eat in silence, while a sister reads from the Bible or a spiritual book — currently they are listening to a biography of Cardinal Stritch, a Nashville native who became archbishop of Chicago. There's another hour of recreation in the evening, followed by spiritual reading, night prayer and an evening service, and then silence. Lights out at 10 p.m.
Postulants and novices are not allowed to make phone calls. Their only contact with family is through twice-a-month letter-writing days or a family visiting day. There's no going home for the holidays.
"It's a real immersion," said Sister Mary Angela, who oversees the novices. "They can't live one foot in and one foot out. They have two solid years where they are really separated, and they can see, 'Can I do this with God alone?' "
Driven by love of God
Life at the order has changed a great deal since Sister Mary Angela first entered the convent 49 years ago. She and many of her peers came straight out of high school, inspired by the nuns who taught them as Catholic schoolchildren.
Sister Mary Angela is encouraged to see all the new sisters coming to the order. Like many Catholic religious orders, they went through a hard time in the 1970s, after Vatican II had modernized many church practices. Some sisters left. But unlike other orders, many of which abandoned wearing the habit, the Nashville Dominicans retained many of their traditional practices.
John Allen, senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter newspaper, said that in the 1970s, many nuns rebelled against the Catholic culture they had grown up in, which was seen as stifling and over-controlling.
"That world no longer exists," he said.
The young nuns in Nashville don't seem driven by conservative theology or ideology. Instead, they seem driven by a love for God.
Sister Mary Emily said that the nuns are glad to have the young women join them.
"We love our life, and we want to share it with others," she said.
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