When Sister Katherine ‘Kit’ Gray felt God’s calling to enter religious life, she was influenced to enter the community of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange.
After all, the sisters taught her all through Holy Family School. They were joyful, related well to each other and made religious life look attractive, Sister Kit recalls.
“I was thinking about my future and they were in my life in a way that made it look really wonderful to be a sister, to be in community and in service to others,” she says. “We’re not perfect as a congregation, but what I’ve experienced as a sister is a certain joy and a great sense of service to the Church and the world.” It has been 53 years since Sister Kit took her final vows. She serves as Director of Mission Integration and Ongoing Formation at Christ Cathedral.
Like Sister Kit, many women called to religious life choose to become sisters, not nuns; and there are important differences. Sister Eymard Flood, vicar for religious for Christ Cathedral explains the distinction: Nuns belong to contemplative communities and do not have the freedom to come and go from their enclosed convents. Their primary goals are prayer and meditation. Sisters are women who are in religious life and are free to hold ministry positions in schools, colleges, universities, hospitals and more.
“A woman’s choice of community suits her personality and background, her education, and the ministry she wishes to be involved in,” Sister Eymard notes. “Yet the call to religious life is a call by God, not a choice on our part.” Rather than a career, service in religious life must be discerned together with a trusted pastor or spiritual director, friend of within a community, she adds.
When advising women who feel they are called to religious life, Sister Eymard encourages them to research and read about different communities, their ministries, locations and members. Once they determine interest in a particular community, women are advised to make plans for a weekend or weeklong visit to spend time in the community and experience their ministry and way of life, she says. Once a woman has narrowed down her interest to one or two ministries, their spiritual adviser will discuss with her which is best.
The formation process can last two to three years, she says, before a woman makes her vows. At the end of that period the woman must discern if her community is where God wants her to be.
Once they make final vows, women serve for their lifetimes, Sister Eymard says. They join the workforces of their community and continue in religious life.
Sister Eymard, who is a member of the Sisters of St. Clare, celebrated her Golden Jubilee of 50 years two years ago. She was a young girl in Ireland when she was impressed by the sisters.
“I was impressed with the kindness that the sisters showed my parents when I was in high school,” Sister Eymard remembers. “It had a big effect on me. We were not very rich for our parents to come up with monthly tuition, and the sisters always made concessions. Consideration was given and it really impressed me.”
The Sisters of St. Clare were very pastoral in their relationship with parents and girls, she says. “They tried to help and advise us on life issues as a time when we thought we knew everything.”
St. Clare’s vision for women is for them to be what their community’s Gospel needs are, Sister Eymard says. “In Assisi, she took women in to reach them, ministered to the poor, worked within the convent to empower women so that they could go out and help the less-fortunate.”
The women Sister Eymard serves have entered the Poor Clare Missionaries, the Eucharistic Ministers of the Holy Trinity, the Society Devoted to the Sacred Heart and the Sisters of St. Joseph as they have worked to discern their religious life.
Apart from their spiritual formation, women must be emotionally and physically healthy with the capacity for educational accomplishments and participation in the work they’ll be doing before they can enter a particular convent, Sister Eymard notes. Some convents take members of different ages, while others are open only to younger women.
She recalls one woman who recently became a sister over her parents’ strong objections. “She entered a community and now has reconciled with her family and their relationship is much better. They were afraid of losing her, that she would be sent outside the country and they wouldn’t see her. Those are natural fears of parents with young daughters.”
Everyone recognizes that fewer women enter religious life these days, and Sister Eymard says there are many reasons why.
“There weren’t a lot of career choices for women to make in the past,” she says. “Today women can virtually do anything and they have lots of opportunities. In the past, entire high school classes would enter the convent together.” Still, she says, convents remain viable with dwindling members because of the Providence of God.