When Claire Roufs enrolled at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, she expected to have the typical college experience, filled with parties and late-night cram sessions. In the long term, Roufs imagined a similarly run-of-the-mill American life for herself: A steady job as an accountant, a husband, a few kids. And while she was vaguely aware that a small number of the 10,000 or so students at the Catholic university planned to become priests, Roufs figured those were the just boys who couldn't get dates.
Roufs had grown up going to Catholic school and Mass with her family of 13, but, she says now, her social life didn't mesh with devout Catholicism. So when she was invited by a friend's brother to a Christian party with those future priests and faithful Catholics the first weekend of her freshman year, Roufs was skeptical. She went, telling herself she'd go to a "real college party" afterward. Instead, she stayed.
"I was shocked to be having such a good time," she tells me, sitting at a dining room table in the convent she now oversees as Mother Mary Clare.
There are more sisters over the age of 90 than there are under 60.
While Roufs remained friends with those future religious friends throughout the rest of college, she continued to insist the religious life wasn't for her. That finally changed the year after she graduated, in 2002, while visiting a group of young consecrated religious men and women in New York City on a road trip with a friend. At Mass there, she says, she felt her own calling.*
"I just experienced at that Mass an invitation to be all Jesus', to be his bride and to care for his children," she says. "Everything in me said, 'Yes!'"
Now 36, Roufs is the mother superior of the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus, an order of 15 sisters in rural New Ulm, Minnesota. The order was established by Roufs in 2010, when she couldn't find a convent in her home state with sisters her own age. The Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus, who only accept women under the age of 35, wear full habits, rise before 5 a.m. every day to pray, and pay devotion to the Eucharist twice daily. They also all, above all else, "want to please the Lord and live for Him."
While the number of consecrated religious is plunging—although it's the Year of Consecrated Life, as deemed by Pope Francis, anyone glancing at statistics on religious communities in the United States might wonder exactly what he's intending to celebrate—Roufs is far from alone in her journey from Catholicism-at-arms'-length to a full embrace of the religious life.
So who are these women taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in 2015?
The number of Catholic sisters in the U.S. has steadily declined from a peak in 1965 of 181,421, to about 49,883, according to a 2014 report by researchers at Georgetown University. By 2009, just one percent of sisters were under the age of 40. In fact, there are more sisters over the age of 90 than there are under 60.
Those one percent of under-40 nuns appear to be clustered in several convents throughout the country. In 2006, those same Georgetown researchers found about 85 new orders in the country, although they caution that those numbers are about as constant as Silicon Valley start-ups. The researchers also detailed six female-oriented religious institutes that had doubled membership between 1970 and 2013.
Sociologist Patricia Wittberg, of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, emphasizes that, while these new sisters get their fair share of media attention (the Dominican Sisters of Mary, called Mother of the Eucharist, appeared on Oprah in 2010), teens are not in fact running to the convent in droves (as they did in the 1950s). "These are the minority of the minority, those who are furiously Catholic, kids who are homeschooled because the local parish school is too liberal," Wittberg says. "They have a hunger for doctrinal certainty ... or, a spiritual fervor." Communal religious life almost completely eluded Generation X (a comparatively high 20 percent of that generation claims to be unaffiliated with religion), so the fact that anyone under 30 enters a convent now seems newsworthy.
Becoming a full-fledged nun takes at least six years, more typically eight, from discernment (a period of about two years when a woman confirms she has a vocation) to solemn profession. The 15 women living in New Ulm represent a range of those stages: Roufs is perpetually professed, eight others are temporary professed, two are novices, and four are postulants.
The Handmaids get a few emails a day from women inquiring about vocations, and follow up by phone with about five to six of them. That translates to two or three women joining each year, according to Roufs, one of whom will usually decide to leave during the first few years of formation, either because religious life isn't for her, or simply to find a different convent. That's consistent with the national average, according to Wittberg: About half who begin the process of entering a religious order exit before taking final vows. Most who leave remain active in Catholicism.
"You leave all your cutesy clothes and high heels and earrings and make-up and doing your hair."
The number of young women choosing convents is small enough that many Catholics seemingly don't even know it's still an option. Family members are often taken aback, especially when rules prohibit much interaction between sisters and the outside world.
"It was very baffling at first for us at first," says Molly Millerbernd, Mother Mary Clare's biological sister, who didn't know convents for young women existed. "I thought she was crazy, quite honestly."
After a couple of years of questioning her, however, Millerbernd turned those questions inward, and says she deepened her own faith in the process. Now, she attends the convent's monthly volunteer days, and her kids have "this extra group of aunts who are part of our family."
"Often it is difficult for families to accept their daughter [or] sister's vocation because they do not think it will make them happy," Roufs says, "but usually they discover not only is their daughter [or] sister happy, but they themselves have experienced ... the peace and joy that comes from that."
Unlike their immediate predecessors, today's young nuns gravitate toward traditional types of prayer—such as the daily Eucharist and Eucharistic Adoration, according to research on recent vocations—and prefer the full habit that many set aside after Vatican II, the shift toward modernizing the Catholic church in the 1960s. Many wear the garment even when they go running.
"You leave all your cutesy clothes and high heels and earrings and make-up and doing your hair," Roufs adds, admittedly a difficult sacrifice in the beginning.
In any religion, Wittberg says, the most devout hunger for more than weekly Mass or services or prayer. Catholic women like Roufs have either started new orders, or joined conservative orders that have survived. Roufs puts the idea in secular terms:
If you look at an athlete, you can go shoot hoops out here anytime, but only a few people are going to play in the NBA. ... Those who are going to be playing in the NBA are those who are dedicated, and given to a mission and something bigger than themselves. They're not just playing hoops by themselves whenever they want; they're playing with a team, they're playing in obedience to their coach, and they're living a disciplined life. They shine in a way no other can because their life is ordered to that great end they're pursing. So too with religious life.
To be sure, research shows that Millennial sisters place more importance on community, and, for some, the absence of digital life may be a welcome change.
"It's a hunger for quiet," Wittberg says.
Ironically, while many convents eschew cell phones and social media, the Internet has also made it easy for young women to find them. If a 20-year-old woman thinks she has a vocation, chances are the first place she'll inquire about it is Google. Websites, podcasts, blogs, and recruitment videos are prolific. (Here are the steps in becoming a Catholic sister via a Nun's Life, for example.) Some sisters specialize in online ministry. For those who are intrigued, women attending Catholic colleges might find a representative evangelizing on campus—usually a sister who's "young, drop-dead gorgeous, and doesn't have grey hair," according to Wittberg. "She'll say, 'Oh, Sister Suzy says hi and she's so happy at our convent.'" Women who are intrigued are often invited on "come and see" retreats hosted at the recruiting convent. When one interested young woman visited a convent in Texas over Homecoming weekend, the sisters presented her with a corsage that read, "Jesus is my homecoming king."
When I enter the convent in New Ulm, I pull a heavy rope until an old school bell rings, summoning a barefoot, smiling sister. I take off my shoes and walk across wooden floors that the nuns sanded and re-finished themselves. The wide hallway evokes the convent's former life as a schoolhouse, with classrooms turned into offices, a sewing/craft room, dining/communal area, and a kitchen with rows of ripening tomatoes and zucchini donated by local parishioners. In keeping with their vow of poverty, everything here is donated, including the quarter shares of cows from local farmers stored in the deep freezer.
The Handmaids rise at 4:50 a.m. every day to gather in the chapel for rituals of prayer, which includes a mile-long, outdoor Rosary Walk and ends with Mass. After a communal breakfast, they go to work or study. Those still preparing to take vows iron quietly in the sewing room. Sisters spend the workday teaching at the parish school or working in the offices of the diocese or the convent. Others prepare for a trip to spread the Gospel to high school students. Silence at midday lunch extends to rest or exercise, and the afternoon has time for spiritual reading in addition to chores and prayer. The days end with night prayer and grand silence. One day a week is devoted to prayer and quiet, which can include time for long runs or writing poetry or letters.
"When a woman gets married, she leaves her family because that guy is better. That guy for us is Jesus."
Although it may seem like a place of refuge, the nuns here insist that it not be somewhere to run away from the outside world.
"I think that the biggest surprise for me was how in the convent I could still be my normal self," says Sr. Regina Marie, 29, who will take her final vows next June. "I think I had this image in my mind that I would have to be super pious and rigid; it was almost like I thought I had to change myself to be in the convent to fit this image. But we're still the same people, and we still laugh and do goofy things."
In addition to the age limit (which is typical of many orders), the Handmaids require that women have a college degree. Some exposure to independence is important, in other words, but not too much.
"The longer you're in the world, the harder it is to give it up," Roufs says. "For a woman to come after the age of 30, when she's lived in the world and had her independence for a long time, most likely she has a house and a car and established relationships—to leave all of that to submit to a communal way of life, a disciplined way of life, is very difficult.... It's much easier for a women to be formed in the life and live the life when she's younger."
"When a woman gets married, she leaves her family because that guy is better," Roufs continues. "And starting a family with this guy is more fulfilling. So too with us. That guy for us is Jesus. I just want to spend my time with him. We start to see we don't need make-up to make us beautiful. I start to see myself as beautiful, as God sees me."
Despite the dire statistics, convents will survive, Wittberg says—in part, because of the influence of the 20-somethings, adds Mary Johnson, co-author of New Generations of Catholic Sisters, alongside Wittberg and Mary Gautier.
"In any organization or group it's important to have new members from the newest generations because they bring the perspectives of their peers and their take on reality," Johnson says. "This generation is shaped deeply by the Internet and social media, and it's important for older people and sisters to hear about that dynamic. It will enhance the whole group."
When the work of establishing a new convent gets hard—which it does, Roufs says, because not everyone supports their choices—the young sisters remind themselves of that future.
"When we're like, 'Oh, it's so hard,'" Roufs says, "then we say, let's do it so there's a place for the next girl to find a home."
Lead Photo: Sisters of the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus on a nature outing near their convent in New Ulm, Minnesota. (Photo: Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus)
*Update — October 23, 2015: This article mistakenly stated that Claire Roufs visited a group of young consecrated religious men and women in upstate New York.