To most of my classmates at Our Lady of the Angels Catholic elementary school in Chicago, our teachers, the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, were quite mysterious. Except for their face and hands, the sisters remained hidden behind an outfit known as a habit and they all lived together in a special house called a convent.
However, I was privileged to know the sisters personally as I spent many Saturdays in the convent kitchen enjoying milk and cookies with them while my father volunteered to complete little repairs. They were very kind to me and I loved and admired them.
Those fond memories flooded back while researching for my book, Seven Principles of Sainthood Following Saint Mother Theodore Guerin when I stayed in the convent of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. The experience was memorable on many levels. The sisters welcomed and cared for me like one of their own. They were encouraging and helpful with my research and included me in their fascinating philosophical and intellectual conversations. They also were so much fun to be with.
The sisters certainly are prayerful. They attend daily Mass and pray throughout the day. And they work. Every able body has a job as there is much to maintain at the convent, college, multi-level care facility, banquet room, gift shop, archives, farm, alpaca ranch, and acreage in addition to those who are employed off-site.
But the sisters also are playful. They extensively walk the grounds and engage in board and card games in the evening. Overall, they are a joyful group that laughs often.
The Sisters of Providence were founded by Saint Theodora, fondly known to them as Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, in 1840. Today there are more than 300 members throughout the United States and Asia.
The sisters live simply sharing their possessions, ministries, and leisure. Together, they strive for a more just world through prayer, education, service, social and ecological justice, health care, and church.
Single, Catholic women between the ages of 18-42, preferably with at least two years of professional, college, or life experience after high school, are invited to apply. The formation process begins with a tour and meeting with a vocation director. If the candidate feels called, she may stay with the sisters to observe their way of life. She then may make temporary vows thereby promising to live the life of a Sister of Providence for a specific period of time, so she may learn about the sisters’ ministries, and history and deepen her spirituality. The formation process concludes with final vows to remain a Sister of Providence for the remainder of one’s life. The discernment period may last for three to nine years.
We commonly use the word nun and sister interchangeably for a woman belonging to a religious order. But there is a difference. A sister is a member of an apostolic community of women. This is a group that is active in the world serving through a variety of activities such as teaching, nursing, or canon law.
A nun is a member of a contemplative religious community of women. These members serve God though meditation, prayer, and solitude. They also may be cloistered, living enclosed within a monastery.
Religious communities (also called religious orders or religious congregations) of consecrated virgins, date back to at least the 2nd Century. They consecrate themselves, body and soul, to serving God their entire lives without distraction. They are dedicated to a life of prayer and service.
The number of religious sisters in the United States has steadily declined from a total of 179,954 in 1965 to last year’s (2017) total of 45,605. The type of woman the communities are drawing also differs from those of decades ago. Previously, most women entered a community straight out of high school. They gained their education and experience as a sister. Today, most are older, more experienced, and educated prior to entry.
There are many kinds of religious communities in the Catholic Church. Each follow one of four religious rules: The Rule of Saint Basil, Saint Benedict, Saint Augustine, or Saint Francis. They typically observe vows of chastity, obedience, and poverty in addition to ones specific to their particular order. They also are classified as observing simple or solemn vows. Members who profess solemn vows renounce all claims to inheritances while simple vows allow for inheritance. All are governed under the authority of a superior general.
If you would like to know more about religious life, you will find the pamphlet, The Vocation to the Religious Life, is quite informative. You also may contact any order, such as the Sisters of Providence of St Mary of the Woods, Indiana, and they will happily tell you about their community.
(Seven Principle of Sainthood Following St Mother Theodore Guerin is available from Amazon.com, ACTA Publications, and my website.