Detroit Convent Finds Success in Online Recruiting

Many Catholic convents around the country are dealing with an aging population, and finding difficulty recruiting new sisters. But one religious order in Detroit is boosting recruitment — particularly of young women — by finding them online.

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From NPR News, this is DAY TO DAY.

The Catholic Church is looking for a few good nuns. Well, more than a few, in fact. There is a serious nun shortage. One convent in Michigan, though, is having remarkable success in recruiting over the Internet.

From Detroit Public Radio, Celeste Headlee reports.

CELESTE HEADLEE: Religious communities in the U.S. are facing a crisis. In 1965, there were more than 180,000 Catholic sisters in the nation. In 2006, there were only 67,000. The median age for sisters nationwide is about 75. But journalist Russell Shaw says many religious officials are still waiting for new recruits to come to them instead of reaching out.

Mr. RUSSELL SHAW (Journalist): That kind of defeatist and passive attitude is absolutely a prescription for disaster. And the pattern of disaster is already pretty clearly etched in the story of many of these religious communities in the last 40 years.

Unidentified Group: (Singing in Latin)

HEADLEE: But one convent in Michigan is so overwhelmed with interested young women that they've had to expand their facility and even send some on to other religious communities. The Dominican Sisters of Mary in Ypsilanti has seen a 1,725 percent increase in the past 10 years.

Sister JOSEPH ANDREW (Dominican Sisters of Mary, Ypsilanti, Michigan): Women move the world. We think fast, move fast, decide more quickly, and yeah. That's our nature.

HEADLEE: Sister Joseph Andrew says when a girl feels a pull to God, she needs an immediate response. The sister communicates with most prospective recruits through e-mail. She says she gets about 10 e-mails a day from young women wanting to learn more about becoming a sister. She gets dozens of prayer requests as well, and many are not from Catholics. Sister Joseph Andrew never used e-mail before she started this convent. Now, she's totally conversant in the lingo.

Sister ANDREWS: Many would find us on the Web site, and that's...

HEADLEE: She has a souped-up PC with a large flat-panel screen. Above it on the wall is a picture of Pope John Paul II working on his computer. Her screensaver is a picture of the Polish Madonna.

Sister ANDREWS: We all have our favorite screensavers. And you can tell a lot about the sister by her screensaver.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HEADLEE: Sister Joseph Andrew says most of the postulants are college-aged women. But one had a successful law career in New York that she abandoned in order to take vows. Another left a full scholarship in the Ph.D. program in engineering at the University of Michigan. She was a year away from finishing. Mary Gloria is a 31-year-old New Yorker. She was originally a Protestant, but converted when she felt pulled to religious life. She says some of her family members still don't understand the significance of her vows.

Ms. MARY GLORIA (Novice, Dominican Sisters of Mary): A lot of people also ask, when are you going to retire or graduate from it, as though it were a job or a school. It's that misconception that this is some kind of institution from which you matriculate or something, but it's not. It's more like a marriage, and that's the biblical image given to this life.

HEADLEE: The religious life is extremely constrained. For years, the postulants are not allowed to use computers, and they can send only two letters to their families each month, along with limited visits. But Sister Krystal says her relationship with her family has improved since she joined the Dominican Sisters.

Sister KRYSTAL GATES (Postulant, Dominican Sisters of Mary): I think I have better communication with them now than I did when I was in college or at home.

Unidentified Woman #1: Yeah.

Sister CRYSTAL: Because the time that we do share and the time and that we spend in the letters, it's more precious.

HEADLEE: The Dominican Sisters of Mary are still recruiting. A retreat for interested women last year drew more than 170 people. And even young men send Sister Joseph Andrew e-mail from time to time.

For NPR News, I'm Celeste Headlee in Detroit.

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