AUDIE CORNISH, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Across the U.S., Roman Catholic convents are closing, nuns are aging and there are few new recruits. But in Nashville, one convent is bucking the trend. The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Convent is seeing a boom of new, young sisters; 27 last year and 90 in the past five years.

These young women, inspired by Pope John Paul the Second, are embracing the convent's conservative Catholicism, complete with traditional habits and communal living.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty has their story.

(Soundbite of church bell)

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Outside the stained glass windows, it is still pitch black.

Unidentified Group: Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death...

HAGERTY: Inside, the soaring chapel is candescent as more than 150 women in white habits and veils pray in unison. They kneel and bow in precise timing, filling the space with their songs of praise.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

HAGERTY: A few elderly sisters sit in wheelchairs, but most of these women have unlined faces and are bursting with energy, even at the 5:30 a.m. mass.

The average age of the Nashville Dominicans is 36, four decades younger than the average nun nationwide. Watching them, you wonder, what would coax these young women with so many options to a strict life of prayer, teaching, study, and silence? And did they always want to be nuns?

Sister BEATRICE CLARK: No. I didn't even know that they still existed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HAGERTY: That's 27-year-old Sister Beatrice Clark. She says while she was at Catholic University, she began feeling that God was drawing her to enter a convent. Over Thanksgiving vacation in 2004, she broke the news to her family.

Sister CLARK: My parents just sat there and looked at me, and they cried. And I said I think I'm supposed to enter soon. And my father said, this is the time of life to take leaps.

HAGERTY: She joined the Nashville Dominicans on her 22nd birthday.

(Soundbite of plates and utensils)

HAGERTY: The sisters eat breakfast in silence, sitting side-by-side at long tables served by the novices.

Sister Joan of Arc stoops to pour coffee. At six-feet-two inches, the former basketball player for the University of Notre Dame is hard to miss. Joan of Arc, who was born Kelsey Wicks, like the others here, adopted a new name when she entered. She worked on refugee issues after college, then received a scholarship to Notre Dame Law School.

But she says her plans shifted when she went on a medical mission trip. In Africa, she saw abject physical poverty.

Sister JOAN OF ARC: And when I came back to the United States, I saw a true poverty of the heart and of the mind. And I saw the loneliness, and it really made me want to give my life to the church. So I was more open to the advances of God when he asked...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sister JOAN OF ARC: ...lay down your life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HAGERTY: Her parents were less certain.

Sister JOAN OF ARC: So I just remember my mother sent me Notre Dame Law School bumper stickers...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sister JOAN OF ARC:...when I was deciding, because she did not want me to pass up that opportunity.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Unintelligible)

HAGERTY: Joan of Arc forsook law, but not basketball entirely. Now in her second year, she regularly drills her sisters on the court behind the convent. They dribble and shoot in their long habits; the first year postulates in black, the second year novices in white. And when they break into the three teams: Our Lady of Victory, Cecilia and the Martyrs, it's not all that sisterly.

Unidentified Group: Let's go martyrs, let's go.

(Soundbite of clapping)

HAGERTY: Lady of Victory wins followed by Cecilia.

Sister JOAN OF ARC: Sadly, the martyrs always have a rough go of things. But...

Unidentified Woman #2: Our victory is in heaven.

Sister JOAN OF ARC: In heaven, they'll be victorious.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sister JOAN OF ARC: We hope.

Ms. VICTORIA MARIE LIEDERBACK: You just can't even imagine how much fun we have.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HAGERTY: Victoria Marie Liederback is 23.

Ms. LIEDERBACK: We really do become sisters and we're each others' best friends and we just have a blast.

HAGERTY: I'm sitting with a half dozen novices. They range in age from 23 to 27. They all have college degrees. There's a nurse, an archivist, but like Paula Marie Koffi, they felt torn by their ambitions.

Ms. PAULA MARIE KOFFI: I was working as an accountant. And I remember telling to one of the managers one day, I'll either be a partner in this firm or a nun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HAGERTY: It's a mysterious call to what they describe as a love relationship with Jesus. And for them, it's literal. They consider the white habit a wedding gown.

Sister MARA ROSE MCDONNELL: It's beautiful. It's a reminder that you are a spouse of Christ.

HAGERTY: But it's more than that, says Sister Mara Rose McDonnell.

Sister MARA ROSE MCDONNELL: It tells others that there's a reality beyond this world. There's heaven. We're all orienting ourselves towards heaven.

HAGERTY: To the world, the habit is the most visible symbol of their commitment, one that Victoria Marie Liederbach acknowledges exacts a price.

Ms. LIEDERBACH: Yeah. Like motherhood and children, that's the desire of a woman's heart. And being desired and pursued by a man, that's something for sure that's a real sacrifice.

HAGERTY: But for Anna Joseph Van Acre, in a world of shallow relationships rooted in texting and Twitter, she finds a certain depth in God.

Ms. ANNA JOSEPH VAN ACRE: He has the love that you don't find by someone leaving a message on your Facebook wall. It's way better than someone saying, I'm eating pizza for dinner right now. Or, you know, whatever your Facebook, you know, your status says right now. You don't get fulfilled by that. Ultimately, all you want is more. And here, we're thirsting for more but we're constantly receiving more as well.

HAGERTY: Anna Joseph, who's 23, says her generation is hungry for absolute truth for tradition, something they found in the messages of Pope John Paul II.

Ms. JOSEPH VAN ACRE: I know it because I've seen in university setting, young people love who not only love JP2 because he was a nice looking old man, and he gave great hugs or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JOSEPH VAN ACRE: But because what he spoke and wrote was the truth, and it spoke to their hearts.

HAGERTY: Of course, not everyone is cut out for this life and a few drop out in the first two years.

Sister CLARK: The day-to-day is hard.

HAGERTY: Sister Beatrice Clark, who's in her fifth year.

Sister CLARK: The day-to-day can be mundane, and it's the little stuff. But in the large choices, this is the most freeing thing I could have chosen, because everything else would have been trying to find this. This defining relationship that would give value to everything.

HAGERTY: Including her work teaching sophomores at St. Cecilia Academy.

Sister CLARK: He feels filthy. He feels sinful. So he's kind of wanting to spread that to other people. (Unintelligible)

HAGERTY: Sister Beatrice, who planned on being a litigator, handles the discussion of "The Scarlet Letter" like a cross examination.

Sister CLARK: Right. Okay. So kick that up to the allegorical. If he's feeling better physically, what does that say about like the relationship between his soul and body?

Unidentified Woman #3: Because his soul and body are so closely related that it also shows...

HAGERTY: Bishops beg the order to send their young sisters to their parochial schools. And more than a hundred of them now teach in 34 schools in 13 states. They're a huge hit with students, as well. Breanne Lampert says they don't fit the stereotype.

Ms. BREANNE LAMPERT: You hear stories from your parents about like getting spanked with rulers and stuff, and that's not true at all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LAMPERT: But seeing like, the sisters here compared to other schools, are so much younger. I don't know, they just understand you really well.

HAGERTY: And the young sisters' lives have a certain appeal for Isabel Aparicio.

Ms. ISABEL APARICIO: Seeing these young women just make these really hard decisions and then seeing so many of them make it, it's kind of inspiring. And I mean, it's actually even made me think about it possibly. And one of my friends also is thinking about it.

HAGERTY: But what about doubt? I ask Sister Beatrice: Do you think you'll have any regrets? She pauses, then shakes her head slowly.

Sister CLARK: I met the person for me. I've been known by him forever. I've known him more or less throughout my life. And now I know that this is where I'm called to.

HAGERTY: Called to the unbending rhythms of prayer and teaching, silence and worship.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

HAGERTY: And as the Nashville Dominicans close another day together, it seems evident that these conservative sisters in their long habits are the new radical.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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