COLUMBIA — The exchange of vows, the entry into a lifetime partnership and the struggle to navigate life as an adult doesn’t apply just to contemporary marriage.
Steps to becoming a Catholic nun
Sister Francine Koehler said that after women visit a spiritual director or mentor at a church and pray regularly, many follow this transition to life as a nun.
Affiliate (1-2 years): The woman remains in her own home with a traditional lifestyle, receiving mentoring from a spiritual director.
Postulate (6 months-2 years): This period is usually a transition to community living, when the woman can still own personal material items.
Novice (2 years): This involves an enclosed, canonical, intense preparation in divine rule, history, and vows, as well as an internship with ministry in the second year and collective ownership of possessions.
Temporary Professed (3-6 years): This stage involves tentative vows, participation in a mission trip.
Final Professed: The last benchmark when the woman renounces patrimony.
The Three Vows nuns take
- Vow of Consecrated Celibacy, also known as a "Love Vow"
- Vow of Evangelical Poverty, also known as a "Simplicity" or "Sharing Vow"
Nuns hardly ever see a paycheck, Koehler said. Rather, they receive a stipend, and part is sent into the community. The goal is to live simply and share what they have with those who need it. Makeup, jewelry, designer garments and even pets are thought to be material. “These are not popular vows in society – it’s counter-cultural. And I think that’s what attracts women who enter religious life.”
3. Vow of Apostolic Obedience, also known as a "Listening Vow"
This can be considered the response of giving up self-centeredness, moving to God-centeredness through obedience to the monastic leader and the community. Monastic obedience is not a carrying out of an order, but a total giving of self to God through a monastic community. Women discern with their spiritual leaders where, when and how to serve the church. Over the years, sisters may migrate to different regions and perhaps serve in missions. “We dialogue with God and move where there are needs,” Koehler said.
Sisters Francine Koehler and Agnes Schlereth of Sacred Heart Catholic Church know this. Between them, they've been serving the faith community for more than 100 years, and they liken their experience as nuns to that shared by newly married couples.
But fewer women today are making the kind of commitment that Koehler and Schlereth made years ago. Worldwide there has been a decline in the number of women interested in becoming nuns — some statistics indicate the number has dropped by 50 percent since the 1960s.
The number of Catholic sisters in the U.S. is approximately 68,000, according to statistics from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an association of leaders of congregations of Catholic sisters.
Schlereth, 90, said she doesn’t think the issue of fostering youth interest in religious vocations is limited to Sacred Heart or individual parishes.
“That’s a national and even international problem,” Schlereth said. “Most families are smaller and give kids more independence; they’re loving but not as closely knitted. Now there’s seldom a time when everyone’s there for supper. The approach of churches has to be different.”
Life in Catholic sisterhood
Schlereth joined her religious order, Sisters of the Most Precious Blood, in 1936, right after high school. She then entered postulancy, which is a period where a woman studies with a religious community but has neither fully committed to the lifestyle nor given up material possessions. Schlereth, while in the religious order, earned a master's degree in education administration. She jokes that she has earned enough credits to wallpaper her room.
Now retiring after 70 years of service, Schlereth said the blind immediacy of becoming a nun and living by sacred vows without a period of study would be comparable to leaving to fight in Afghanistan without any preparation.
"We can't live that life before we understand it," she said. "It's a learning process. It's a striving. It gives us a chance to see if we're temperamentally fitted and if we can become a productive member of a living organization."
Koehler, a soft-spoken woman who has been a nun in the School Sisters of Notre Dame for 44 years, sees her devotion to God as being comparable to “getting hitched.” She realized it right away when she joined the order at age 18.
“You can compare it to an engagement," Koehler said. "The vocations complement each other. You take on values, and you try it out and see what fits. It has to be like a hand and glove.”
Koehler attended a Catholic high school in St. Louis, Rosati-Kain, where she said a vivacious English teacher whet her spiritual appetite.
Recalling her own youth, Koehler said it is a time when most girls and women interested in religious life decide to become nuns. When she teaches young women at Sacred Heart, Koehler said she tries to help them broaden their focus on the world and realize their gifts.
For those who become nuns like Koehler, a spiritual calling may manifest itself through intuition or a personal religious inclination. When Koehler got what she believed was a call from God giving her a spiritual direction for life, she said it was ambiguous and gradual.
“It’s hard to explain," Koehler said. "It’s like explaining, ‘How do people fall in love?’ There’s sort of a subtle unrest, a quiet ache for something more.”
There was no thunderous realization for her, she said, but noted that in the ’60s there were fewer choices for women.
The changing Catholic community
Similar to the change married couples go through as they grow together as partners, life for women choosing religious vocations has changed in the past 50 years. Koehler offered some examples: Nuns who used to wear habits no longer need to, depending on the rules of their order; the postulant stage, which spans six months to two years, has also changed. When Koehler began the process of taking vows as a nun, the postulancy was the initial stage in the process. Today, many Catholic communities require a one- or two-year period as an "affiliate" as preparation before a woman may become a postulate.
Schlereth has seen the church transform over an even longer period on both a worldwide and local scale.
“Ever since Vatican II, which was in 1962, the church has taken a slant from having been primarily working with fundamentals and dogma,” Schlereth said.
She said the Catholic Church has become more attentive to the signs of the times. Previously, the doctrine was instituted in a top-down direction. Dioceses set rules that stemmed directly from the Vatican. But in recent decades, dioceses and individual parishes such as Sacred Heart have focused on evaluating and responding to the needs of the community.
One way Sacred Heart has done that is including more worship geared toward Hispanic parishoners. Schlereth said she thinks the church is more fluid and welcoming as a result.
When Koehler joined the parish, she increased Spanish Mass to twice a month. Her knowledge of the language and interest in the culture led her to this decision for the church. As the current director of Hispanic Ministry, she holds classes with children who haven’t made first communion, and she oversees the training of Spanish-speaking lectors for the Sunday liturgy.
Encouraging religious vocations
Koehler and other sisters at Sacred Heart are part of an extended faith community that also includes representatives in Springfield and Oklahoma.
“We are an international community, so really any place where our community has presence, we could be assigned there,” Koehler said. “More often than not we’ll be assigned a place that’s connected with our province, a geographical division.”
Another part of the Catholic religious community in Columbia is the Benedictine Sisters of Our Lady of Peace Monastery, an order that does nursing, teaching, counseling, parish work, chaplaincy and care for the elderly.
“Our ministry meshes civic and local needs with the gifts and talents of the sisters,” said Sister Mary Jo Polak. Monastic communities are committed to a particular place and a particular group of people, she said. “So many of our ministries were begun in response to a need in mid-Missouri.”
“Right now we are seeing a need for retreats and spiritual guidance in the Columbia area,” she said.
“Like in marriage, there is personal and spiritual growth, self-sacrifice and learning in our small Benedictine community as we live together and share our commitment to God.”
The Benedictine Sisters work with youth and invite schoolchildren to visit the monastery to see what monastic life is about.
For the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City, getting youth interested in religious vocations is becoming increasingly important. Joe Corel, director of Youth Ministry and the Office of Vocationsfor the diocese, said they emphasize a three-prong system that includes prayer, education and invitations.
When youth are baptized in the diocese, they are encouraged to pray and attend each week’s Mass. The diocese tries to educate youth through multiple avenues: discoverthepriesthood.org, a Web site for young men interested in becoming priests; running radio ads during MU football and basketball games and St. Louis Cardinals games; and placing ads in the diocesan newspaper, Catholic Missourian.
“The educating part — all people in the Catholic faith need it,” Corel said. “It’s everybody’s business.”
Corel and a woman from one of the parishes in the diocese visit Catholic schools — there are 37 grade schools and two high schools in the diocese — and speak with young people about what it’s like to have a priest in the family.
The idea is to help foster interest in the vocations of ministry. Corel helps arrange meetings with youth who are recommended to him by others so that they can network within the diocese.
Corel said the number of young women inquiring about participation in religious orders has increased in the past five years, but the difficulty for the Jefferson City Diocese has been that it must stop short of secular advertising’s assertiveness. “We can’t seal the deal; they have to ask,” he said.
Schlereth said she would advise young women who are thinking of entering the religious sisterhood to be generous in everything they do.
“I feel that I have received a call from God, accepted the challenge and took it,” said Schlereth, who spent 24 years serving at Sacred Heart. “He strengthened me. Here I am 70 years later, still grateful to God that he called me for that type of life.”
For Koehler and Schlereth, life as a nun has been fulfilling despite its many sacrifices. Koehler parted with a boyfriend when she moved toward religious life. "You can look at it as a plus or minus," she said. "You love the whole world, and you don't focus your love on a particular man. You become a spouse of Christ."