The last time many of us saw a nun in a habit was in “The Sound of Music” or “Sister Act.”
The number of religious sisters in the United States has fallen from roughly 180,000 in 1965 to less than 48,000 in 2016,” according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Yet a look behind those statistics reveals that women haven’t disappeared from the realm of spiritually based service that so many nuns once occupied.
Modern day monastery
Women are “called” differently today, says Sister Katherine Mullin of Visitation Sisters of Holy Mary. They’re no longer “creatures of habit” wearing black and cloistered behind monastery walls. Instead, women such as Mullin work in their communities and, in her case, doing holy work in one of Minneapolis’s toughest neighborhoods. Mullin has been a nun for over 50 years and previously worked as a teacher and admissions director at Visitation School in Mendota Heights. Then, she says, “I felt a calling. The holy spirit gave me a nudge.”
That nudge sent her to inner city Minneapolis, where she began to assist with activities at the first sustainable inner-city monastery within the order. In 2001, she joined the four nuns who started the project. They live in two houses kitty corner from each other in North Minneapolis. “Now there are seven of us, including one novice, so we are growing,” she says.
Rather than charging into the neighborhood with an agenda of opening a soup kitchen, distributing clothing or running a school, they trusted that their work would begin organically. “We knew the neighborhood would have its own agenda,” Mullin says. “The action comes to us. People come for prayer and community. Our houses are like a sanctuary for them.”
The women live on alms, contributions from individuals and churches, to do their work. Fondly called “Nuns in the Hood,” they meet the challenges of crime, drugs and violence in the area with what she calls prayerful presence.
Says Mullin, “This community has never been threatened, but we have had two or three break-ins. And we have had to put a restraining order on one man. So we do deal with reality, but without the emotion of fear plaguing us.”
The first year the sisters were there, a man was shot outside their house. “Two sisters ran out and held his head, praying, talking to him, until the police and ambulance came,” Mullin says. “That word got around with his family, his friends and with gang members and it seems from that time on, the sisters were totally accepted and respected.”
She adds that after 28 years, “the neighborhood sees our staying power and that, too, speaks volumes. We have had people on our block declare more than once, ‘Sisters, we have your backs’, as we walk by. We could not really be able to do this, if everything scares us. We, are however, aware of our circumstances and live with our eyes wide open.”
“We live a life of discernment,” she says. “Each day is different, and sometimes decisions have to be made on the spot. Larger decisions we make together.”
They pray four times a day – a contemplative life yes, but one of action, too. The sisters give out grocery gift cards and bus tokens for transportation to job interviews and medical appointments. They send neighborhood children (105 this year) to summer camp, run an annual retreat for women of the neighborhood (about 55 this year), among many other activities.
While the number of nuns may be down, more women (and men) are taking up many of the tasks of religious orders, but as lay people. The Visitation Sisters have created a lay residential community comprised of young adults who keep their regular jobs, but live together ministering in the many ways they can. The Visitation Intern Experience enables young people to live together and minister to neighbors for a year. Women sometimes live with the sisters for six months to a year living a life of community, prayer, and ministry.
Another order, The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, offers opportunities for laywomen ages 21 to 30 in the St. Joseph Worker Program. In this program, 12 young women spend 11 months living together in an intentional community housed in Rita House, a former convent in Minneapolis. Its vision is to foster “the self-empowerment of women through the values of the leadership, spirituality, social justice, intentional community and living simply, to allow them in the tradition of the Sisters of St. Joseph, to serve where the need is greatest.”
Mariana Arriaza, who participated in the program in 2015-16, says she has always had an interest in social justice and wanted to do service work in a tangible way. She graduated from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota before joining the program. She says, “I thought about the Peace Corps, but decided I wanted to be closer to my hometown of Faribault.”
The opportunity allowed her to explore the possibilities for the work she wanted to do, while living with other young women who were following their passions for social justice. They all continued their own social lives and family activities, but also enjoyed sharing and community nights. “Some had a goal of expanding spiritually. They came from a variety of faith traditions,” she says.
Every participant works with a nonprofit and volunteers 36 hours a week. Arriaza worked at Holy Rosary Church, as outreach coordinator for the neighborhood comprised mainly of Latino people. She also worked at its Centro Guadalupano after-school program. Now those organizations employ her. “It was a 100 percent great way to get started and learn after graduation,” she says.
Arriaza says she’s still exploring the possibilities for her social justice goals.
Communities of religious women are happy to facilitate that process. Sister Katherine Mullin says simply, “The spirit is leading the church in different ways.”