ANN ARBOR, Mich. — When Sister Meaghan Boland was discerning which women’s religious community to join after graduation from college, she began the process on the Internet.
After finding four orders she liked, the Northborough, Mass., woman visited two and served on a mission trip with another before making a retreat with the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. That sealed her decision to join the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Dominicans, where she began a six-month period as an aspirant Aug. 28.
Similarly, when Sister Taryn Stark began thinking seriously about religious life in her mid-30s, she immediately went online to find out more about the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, a community she remembered fondly from her childhoodin Palo Alto, Calif. After the sisters advised her to look at other communities as well, she did some further exploring on the Internet. But after two “Come and See” weekends, she decided to enter their formation program. She is now in her second year as a novice.
For many women discerning religious vocations and communities seeking new members today, the Internet serves as both matchmaker and meeting place. Whereas in the past, most young women learned about religious communities from sisters in schools and other Catholic institutions, the decline in numbers of religious women has caused communities to find different ways of reaching those whom God may be calling to vowed life.
Chief among these new practices has been use of the Internet, where communities can easily connect with possible candidates. Many, if not most, communities today have some kind of Internet presence — at minimum, a website explaining their history and charisms. Others, like the Mercy sisters, have gone even further by adding chat rooms, blogs and Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts.
Sister Cynthia Serjak, director of the Mercy sisters’ new membership office, credits social media with an increase in inquiries her community is receiving through the website. Since hiring a full-time social-media staff member, she said the number has gone from eight to 10 a month to at least one a day.
Indeed, use of new media was listed among the “best practices” for vocation promotion in a 2009 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) for the National Religious Vocation Conference.
Other best practices included instilling a “culture of vocations” and involving membership and leadership in vocation promotion, having a full-time vocation director, offering discernment opportunities for possible candidates, and exposing college, high school and elementary students and young adults to religious life. The CARA study also found that although such practices are effective, “the example of members and the characteristics of the institute” most influence a candidate’s decision to join a particular community.
Willing to Have Conversation
The Sisters of Mercy, which have 3,800 vowed members in 12 countries in the Americas and 30 new members in various stages of formation, employ to some degree all the “best practices” identified in the CARA study. For example, in addition to a full-time vocation director, the sisters have a dozen full-time vocation ministers in the U.S. alone. These are complemented by a team of sisters in other ministries who help by giving vocations talks or attending gatherings where they can meet young people.
The Mercy sisters also offer the “Mercy Challenge,” in which women, college age and older, spend time with sisters in prayer, ministry and theological reflection. In addition, the community provides “Busy Persons’ Retreats” and “Come and See” weekends for women who want to learn more about the community.
Sister Cynthia said she has seen a rekindled interest in religious life in recent years among younger women. “There’s a hunger in these young people to first of all learn about sisters because they’re not exposed to them, and they’re also very open about talking about it. We went through some years where people were reluctant to be public about talking about a vocation. It’s refreshing now because young people are willing to have the conversation.”
Nowhere has this been more evident than in newer, more tradition-minded communities like the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, which has grown from four to 118 members in its 14-year history. The average age of new candidates in the community is 21. Currently, the sisters have 16 aspirants.
“The John Paul II generation really wants to know God’s will,” said Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, one of the community’s four founders and its vocations director. “It’s a great age to be alive and working with young people. They are absolutely beautiful and heroic in some ways.”
Although the community maintains a website that is updated frequently and sends Sister Joseph Andrew out to give vocations talks, much of the sisters’ growth has come via word of mouth. Young women who attend one of three vocation-discernment retreats offered annually tend to tell their friends.
“Young people are so attuned to what they like that they become megaphones,” Sister Joseph Andrew said. As a result, she gets up to 150 emails a day; when traveling, she keeps up with contacts on her BlackBerry.
In fact, when some of the sisters appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2010, Sister Joseph Andrew said that helped the community a great deal. Sometimes email inquiries to the community will mention that the person saw the sisters on Oprah.
Holy Hour’s Fruit
Regardless of the recruiting methods they employ, however, not all communities have experienced success in attracting new members. The Sylvania Franciscans in Ohio, for example, have adopted many of the “best practices” cited in the CARA study, but with limited results.
In her two years as vocations minister for the community of 180 vowed members, Sister Julie Myers has had three serious candidates who started the pre-candidacy process, but none stayed. She is currently working with another woman in pre-candidacy and is talking with three others who are interested in the community. The newest vowed sister is a member who had been with the Sylvania Franciscans previously and left for personal reasons, then returned and made her final profession.
Sister Julie said she has tried various methods, including school talks, but finds that it’s difficult to establish a connection with students when they might not see a sister after she leaves. She does find the Internet a good place to reach young people and often receives referrals from Vocation Match, a National Religious Vocation Conference service that offers an online questionnaire to help potential candidates find religious communities. Sister Julie said the sisters also work to keep their website interactive and current with links to a blog and Facebook page.
Sister Barbara Vano, who joined the Sylvania Franciscans in 1994 before the Internet was in widespread use, found the community through a referral from the Franciscan friars in the Detroit area. Now a member of her community’s vocations team, she said that, ultimately, it was contact with the sisters that convinced her she belonged there.
“For me, it was walking on these grounds and meeting sisters of St. Francis who were passionate about what they were doing.”
One community that has attracted new members despite minimal recruiting is the Sisters of the Visitation in Toledo, Ohio. Seven of the contemplative community’s 23 members are in formation, and three of those soon will be making their solemn profession.
Mother Sharon Elizabeth Gworek, the community’s superior, said one reason the sisters do not do extensive recruiting is that they have room for only 30 women. Their outreach to potential candidates includes advertising in their diocesan newspaper’s vocations issue and on CloisteredLife.com, maintaining a website, offering vocation retreats, and giving occasional school talks.
The sisters’ own “best practice,” however, is their vocation of prayer. In addition to regularly praying for vocations, the community has a daily Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament. Since beginning this practice during the Year of the Eucharist in 2004-05, Mother Sharon said the sisters have seen an increase in vocations.
Mother Sharon said when the sisters receive queries from candidates, it is often through their website. Typically, she added, potential candidates want to know about the sisters’ prayer and community life: if they have daily Mass, if they wear a habit, and whether they are faithful to the magisterium.
Sister Marie McRoberts, a Visitation postulant, said that pretty much describes what she was seeking in a community when she found the Visitation Sisters.
However, when she first saw that the sisters’ schedule called for prayer five times a day, she said it seemed overwhelming. But during a 10-day retreat with the community, she concluded that theirs was a beautiful way of life: “That’s what I was looking for.”
Register correspondent Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.