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Mother, grandmother, and now a religious sister: the rise of late vocations

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Dominican Sr Patricia Dual, holding a grandchild, poses with her family members in 2011 after celebrating her final profession of vows. Sr Patricia is part of a small but significant segment of women entering religious life after having raised children. Photo: CNS/Sr Patricia
Dominican Sr Patricia Dual, holding a grandchild, poses with her family members in 2011 after celebrating her final profession of vows. Sr Patricia is part of a small but significant segment of women entering religious life after having raised children. Photo: CNS/Sr Patricia

The way Sr Rita Cameron sees it, her grandchildren didn’t lose a grandmother when she became a sister. They gained 106 great-aunts.

“Everybody loves them,” said Sr Cameron, who is vocations director for the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Dubuque, Iowa.

Sr Cameron is part of a relatively small but significant segment of women entering religious life having grown children and, occasionally, grandchildren.

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Sr Mary Johnson, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, who is a sociologist at Trinity Washington University, found in a 1999 study of sisters who had entered religious life since the end of the Second Vatican Council that of the 2740 women who responded, 3 per cent reported having been divorced (and their marriages annulled) before entrance, and 1 per cent had been widowed. Four per cent had children.

Ten years later, a survey undertaken by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate and the National Religious Vocation Conference found that of 985 female respondents who had entered religious life in the previous 20 years, 10 per cent said they had been previously married, and 7 per cent had children.

“We are not talking about a huge phenomenon,” Sr Johnson told Global Sisters Report. “We are talking about a small but significant phenomenon that does bring some women who have different life experiences to religious orders.”

As these women undergo a distinct change of life, they bring with them not only a prior marital history but ongoing responsibilities as parents. (Women with younger children must wait to become sisters until their children are independent.) The mothers interviewed for this story were clear that they would not have considered religious life if it had come between them and their children.

The Catholic Church places a high value on parenthood as a vocation. But the entrance of previously married women into religious communities also raises another possibility: more than one sacred calling.

Sr Johnson said this particular phenomenon, while not new, is another sign of increasing diversity in the “very dynamic reality” of Catholic religious life.

The stories of how these women were drawn to religious life are as diverse as the women themselves.

Sr Cameron had been a public school music teacher and then a guidance counselor before her husband died.

“If he had lived, I’d be a happily married woman today,” she said.

When she met the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Sisters after taking a guidance position in a parochial school in Mason City, Iowa, she found a new purpose in life.

“I had so much fun. Their prayer was so rich,” she said. “Spending time with them showed me that this was what I was looking for.”

At the time, her son was in his early 20s.

“How do I tell my friends my mom is a nun?” Cameron said he asked.

“I was happy for her,” said JoAnn Csapos, Cameron’s daughter. “Growing up, she allowed me the opportunity to do different things, like the 4-H Club and an exchange program in Switzerland. She was lovely with me; it was time for her to try things in her own life and go for it.”

As a young married mother raising small children, Patricia Dual, now a Dominican Sister of Peace, walked away from the Catholic Church for about 11 years. But as her relationship with her husband frayed, “I came back at a low point in my life. I guess I was feeling that my life as defined had to change.”

Her return to the church, particularly ties to her local parish, enabled her to build a network of support that ultimately helped her leave the turbulent marriage.

“God brought people into my life to help me heal emotionally,” she said.

After attending a National Black Sisters conference in 2002 and meeting a “sister mom” already on the road to religious life, Sr Dual launched the process that would take her from Norfolk, Virginia, to Columbus, Ohio, in 2005, when she entered formation as a member of the Dominican Sisters St Mary of the Spring (now part of the Dominican Sisters of Peace).

While there are many sisters who have had children, each woman’s experience is different, Sr Dual said.

“What’s common is that the community embraces the sisters and the family,” she said. “It’s not like (the family) has lost a mom. It’s like they have a lot of adopted moms.”

When a marriage ends, it can sometimes prompt soul-searching as well as pain.

Until she got divorced, Sr Linda Mershon said she thought her marriage was her vocation. She is a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

In the early 1990s, she was living in Arizona, working toward a master’s degree in spirituality, and praying for guidance about her future path.

“I had to begin over again and say, ‘This is no longer it. What is it you want me to do in this world?’“ she said.

Her quest led to her to a month’s practicum experience in Mexico sponsored by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. During that month, she said, one of the two sisters she lived with asked her if she might consider religious life, assuring her that the congregation was open to previously married women.

“It hadn’t really occurred to me before,” Sr Mershon said.

Two years later, her youngest child ensconced in college, she applied for entrance to the La Crosse community. She made her first vows in 1998 and her final ones in 2001, and she was elected to a position in congregational leadership in 2006.

Mershon’s son, Joe, was 20 years old and in the Navy when his mother made the decision to enter religious life. Though he still relishes surprising new friends with the news that his mother is a nun, he said he wasn’t surprised at her decision.

“It felt like a natural progression,” he said.

There are practical considerations, including financial ones, for women entering religious life with children and grandchildren.

Even before she made the decision to pursue religious life, Sr Dual said she found herself making financial decisions that would open the door to a life change, including paying off her debts and making sure her two sons were financially secure.

Sr Cameron gave her South Dakota property to her children, along with her cash and investments; sold her house; and donated her car, cash and investments to her children, she said. Her teacher’s retirement pension accompanied her into her community.

Sr Mershon demurs when asked if her life as a sister is a calling. “I feel that every human being is called by God to be their true self,” she said. “I don’t know about ‘call.’ I know that God was involved in presenting me the opportunity to make this choice.”

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