Vatican officials have just wrapped up an unprecedented four-day gathering, all about the sexual abuse that’s shaken the church to its core. At the same time, the population of what researchers call “women religious” – people like nuns – in the United States is experiencing “a dramatic decline.” But in the Central Texas city of Georgetown, a new Catholic convent, an outpost of the order of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, just opened its doors.
The convent is an expansion of their mother house in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The new convent is a 60-acre campus where the grass still hasn’t taken root and the jet-black pavement is still spotless. Inside the building, everything has that “new smell.” Mother Assumpta Long leads the tour.
“I’m still learning my way around here, so I might take you in the wrong direction – no – really,” Long says. “I come here and ask ‘where is the kitchen?’’
Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz interjects. “It is a large house, there is no doubt, but we will get used to it and we will grow into it before we know it!”
Bogdanowicz’ confidence about growing into the campus, from the handful of nuns who currently live there, to the 115 they ultimately hope to house, comes from the fact that they’ve done it before. Since 2009, their original home in Ann Arbor has been snug. They’ve recruited dozens more sisters than they can house. And that is mostly the work of Bogdanowicz.
We’re walking through the chapel whispering. I ask how she attracts new nuns?
“The rest of the story is essential – we get out the hope, the joy, the fun of life! I happen to love life!” Bogdanowicz says.
Did you hear that? It’s about hope, joy and even fun. Her love of life is contagious and that is one reason others, like Sister Irenaeus Schluttenhofer, have joined in.
“It was really the joy of the sisters that won my heart,” Schluttenhofer says.
Their story is the silver lining of reports like one from Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research of the Apostolate that notes the Dominican Sisters as one of the few orders of religious women in the U.S. that’s adding numbers to its ranks. And they’re young sisters!
A recent publication found the largest population of Catholic sisters is 90 or older. The average age of a Dominican Sister of Mary is only 32.
Schluttenhofer is 28 but she was in college when she felt called by God
“He still does call.” Schluttenhofer says.
She felt called to be a nun but also – to be a middle school science teacher, even though a common criticism is that the church is a reluctant supporter of science.
“I love to share with my students how – especially St Pope John Paul II – he had such a love for science and was always asking questions and having conversations with people to find the truth, because if Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, no truth is contrary to the person of Jesus Christ,” Schluttenhofer says.
One difficult truth the church is currently dealing with is the truth of sexual abuse and sexual assault to children and adults, including nuns. I tell Mother Assumpta that no matter how much joy there may be in service, this truth can prevent some women from taking a habit for life.
“You know, I’m glad you asked the question because you know? I’m the first one to say: ‘thank God it’s out in the open.’ You have to recognize it for what it is – it’s evil,” Long says.
This truth has hurt the church and the faithful, especially Long, who’s wanted to be a nun since she was a little girl growing up in Tennessee. She is hurt but her faith is intact.
“We can’t become discouraged because of the sins of others, you know? That can’t discourage us from doing the right thing or the good thing,” Long says. “You know? This may sound crazy, but one of the greatest gifts that God gave us is Judas – I mean – because Judas was with our Lord three years – and didn’t get it.”
Judas was closest to Jesus and went on to betray him. As Long says, he didn’t get it. But she’s in it for those who do get it and for those who want to get it. She’s the recruiter and says it takes a special kind of person to carry a torch in the middle of a storm and that’s why they came here.
“I think Texas has our spirit – that pioneering spirit, that energizing, that bigger and go for it and give it everything you got – that’s us! Yeah,” Bogdanowicz says.
They are giving it everything they’ve got – waking up at 4:45, sewing their own clothes, teaching and following a daily regimented schedule. It’s a counter-cultural lifestyle for a woman in the 21st century. But they follow another woman who was countercultural for her time too - La Virgen de Guadalupe. Before I leave, they honor her with a song, “Salve Regina.”