What inspires a young woman of today to leave behind the chances at having her own husband and children, and give her life to God and serving others? PIX11 got a rare view behind convent doors to explore the secrets of being a sister.
Their numbers have been dwindling for decades. The numbers of women signing up to serve God are down by two thirds from 180,000 strong some 50 years ago to just 50,000 today in the US. Yet for those young women who feel the call to serve God for a lifetime, they say it is a life rich in rewards.
Sister Heather Ganz, a Long Island native whose parents were Catholic and Jewish entered the Sisters of St. Joseph at 25 after Googling to find the right order of nuns for her calling. Her choice of ministry? To share her love of the environment and teaching young students at this small farm on the grounds of their Brentwood Convent.
“I felt this pull to something else. To a way of life, a community, that always has prayer and service to it,” recalls Ganz.
Sister Preenika Dabrera is also in the years’ long process of professing herself. Born in Sri Lanka and educated by nuns, now a New Yorker, she’s studying to become a chaplain at a local hospital. She, too, felt the calling. Although her mother had another goal for the young woman. “My mom was looking for husbands for me, and I needed to explore more.”
And that brings up one of the biggest questions — celibacy. Why would a young woman, close off that part of her life forever? The sisters each have a thoughtful and eloquent answer. Sister Preenika described it this way. “Being a sister, I get to love everyone, and not just be tied down to my family.”
While the sisters of St. Joseph choose not to wear the habit, the Salesian Sisters in North Haledon, New Jersey do serve God in this more traditional way. At their school and convent, young nuns are found in the classroom. A traditional vocation to help form young minds, but with a decidedly modern twist.
While speaking with a group of novices, all women in the 20’s who are partway through professing their vows, we spoke about their lives. From social media to leaving behind relationships, they spoke openly of what it’s like to be a nun today. I asked about Facebook, and if they used it as part of their ministry. All raised their hands and nodded.
Following in the footsteps of the Pope, an avid Twitter user, the young novices spoke of their passion for social media. Sister Kelly Schuster explained it this way: “Don Bosco, our founder, said 'Always go to where the children are.' So they are all on social media. So we go there.”
This group of aspirants, young women still in formation who haven’t taken final vows yet, hail from across the U.S. The women are all in their 20’s and are exploring issues far weightier than the best selfie pose for their social media feeds. They’re in the midst of writing papers on topics they will be teaching in the classroom. I take a poll on what they all: the death penalty, assisted suicide, ministering to gay congregants.
They do not make their commitment lightly. Some nuns-in-the-making in their group have already chosen to leave after reflecting about the lifelong commitment. Many will easily talk of their struggle with their decision, to make sure they were certain of their choice. Sister Geurlain Joseph, a fully pledged Nun, recounted her journey. At one point she said, “I thought about being a sister in high school. And then in college I was like, no, not me God!”
They also talk about the vow of celibacy, and how they draw on past romantic relationships as a teaching tool for their young charges. Sister Christina Chong recounted how she was in relationships before taking her vows. “I was in a couple of serious relationship and very grateful for those experiences. Although I may not have a spouse, we do have our community. And now I can draw on this when teaching my young students.”
And their community provides these women with all the true support of a family, unified in one goal, giving back to the greater world around them.