As a high-school student in Baltimore, Tara Showalter admired the Dominican sisters who taught her. They were smart. They were good at sports. They were fun to hang out with.
But spend the rest of her life with them?
Nope, not what Showalter planned. She was going to college, intending to become a scientist, a wife and a mother.
But in late July, as Sister Maria Faustina, Showalter took permanent vows in the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, an order based in Ann Arbor Township.
"God puts this call in your heart; he places it there, and it’s a gentle call. You can choose to ignore it, and I tried to for three years," said Showalter, 27.
The Sisters of Mary, founded in 1997, are growing at a time when many other Catholic religious orders are shrinking or simply disappearing. Four young sisters, including Sister Maria, made perpetual vows in July and six more made their initial vows in August. A new group of 17 postulants – beginning sisters – is expected in September, which will bring the community total to 64.
To meet the growth, the Sisters of Mary are adding a new residential wing and a large, domed chapel to their property, essentially doubling the 26,500 square feet built by Tom Monaghan, a Catholic philanthropist and the founder of Domino’s Pizza.
When finished later this year, the convent will have space for 100 sisters.
The order is different from many others today in that members wear the traditional, floor-length habit; place strong emphasis on community life; and spend at least three hours each day in traditional, communal prayer, some in Latin.
Some church observers say that the sisters are attracting young women because they are doing something different – even countercultural – and their clear, strict standards appeal to such women. In a number of cases, the women have rejected religious orders that revised or moved away from traditional ways, including the habit, after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The council relaxed some of the more strict, traditional rituals in the Catholic Church.
This newer crop of sisters deeply desires the traditional habit, the hours specifically set aside for communal prayer and communal life, said John J. Fialka, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the author of Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America.
Now an article of this type can’t be left alone with out the following near-mandantory statement..
Some church observers, however, question what they see as an attempt by small but wealthy and politically powerful groups to turn the faith clock back to a supposed golden age.
"There’s always been a rear-guard action among Catholics who don’t like Vatican II," said the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, the former chairman of the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame and a longtime observer of Catholic life in America.
Get that. A growing convent is in response to rich and politically powerful groups who don’t like Vatican II. Funny though how a "rear-guard" action is larger than the supposed Vatican II (Spirit) embracing convents where the word novice has dropped from their lexicon. In fact to be a novice master in some of these convents is like getting the job of high-impact aerobics instructor at a nursing home.
"Young women are attracted to the total gift of self," said Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, the vocations director for the Sisters of Mary. "They trust Christ and are willing to pour out their lives first to him, then through him, to all his people. This total commitment is most attractive to a generation starving for authenticity."
As a community, the sisters operate two Spiritus Sanctus Catholic elementary schools. Add to that the hours committed to prayer and the duties of running the convent, and the sisters put in long days.
Fialka, in an interview, compared such traditional religious life to another difficult one: "It’s like joining the Marines: full regalia, tough mission."
Teaching and nursing are burn-out jobs, Fialka said, but nuns can do it for 50 years. "The secret is prayer life, living together in the convent, bucking each other up."
Sister Ave Maria Hayes agrees.
Hayes, 33, came to the Sisters of Mary as a registered nurse a year out of Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. She had met Mother Mary Assumpta Long, a founder of the Sisters of Mary and now its prioress general, at a Mass arranged by Monaghan.
Long invited Hayes to a cookout at the convent. Later, she and the other sisters allowed Hayes and a roommate to live in a house next to the first Spiritus Sanctus Academy while they worked as nurses at the University of Michigan Hospitals.
These days, Hayes follows the Dominican tradition of teaching. The past two years, she has taught kindergarten. "I never would have guessed I could teach, much less kindergarten, but I’ve enjoyed it, loved it," she said.
The sisters acknowledge that life in a convent isn’t easy. Community time sometimes conflicts with desires to be alone. Personalities sometimes bump and scrape against each other. Schedules must be followed, and sometimes work assignments are just plain hard.
They rise at 5 or 6 a.m. each day, depending on the time of year. They meet in the chapel for prayer and Mass, then usually go off to school, or in the case of novices, remain at the convent for theology classes. Noon brings more prayer as well as lunch; teaching sisters remain at school until the late afternoon, when the community gathers for spiritual reading and more prayer.
At dinner in the convent refectory, the sisters listen to spiritual instruction either recorded or read aloud. Afterward, there is another hour of recreation followed by a last hour of prayer.
At 8 p.m., community silence begins, and lights are turned out at 10.
The sisters organize their days with careful thought. They say that there is never enough time for all that needs to be done. "But when you’re giving a total gift, and can’t give more," Sister Maria said, "God takes care of the rest." [Source]