A few years ago, Lindsey Martin envisioned herself working in her home state of Georgia for the Atlanta Falcons or maybe the Atlanta Braves.
Martin, who grew up with three brothers and played softball in high school and Ultimate Frisbee in college, studied sports management at the University of West Georgia, with an eye on a potential career in the operations of a professional sports franchise.
But soon after she earned her degree in 2013, Martin began realizing that, while a career in the sports world might pay the bills, it would never sustain her soul.
So last November, just before the epic storm that dumped as much as seven feet of snow in Western New York, Martin moved to Buffalo to explore another possibility: joining with a small group of Catholic women in launching a new community of women religious.
Martin, a lifelong Catholic, was looking to become a young nun.
“There are dying souls, and there are people who need to know who Christ is,” she said.
Nuns have long been the bedrock of the Catholic Church in Western New York. At the height of their numbers in the late 1960s, more than 3,500 sisters ministered in the region, teaching and healing hundreds of thousands of people in schools and hospitals. Hundreds of sisters remain active in the area today, but most are well into their 60s and 70s, and their communities have long passed the stage of being able to replenish themselves with fresh-faced recruits. Most communities of women religious in the area haven’t welcomed a new nun in decades. Some have given up on looking for candidates.
Yet, on the Lake Erie shoreline in Derby, a Catholic retreat house now teems with the youthful exuberance of Martin and four other women, all in their 20s and hoping to become nuns together in what could be the first religious community built from scratch in the Buffalo diocese.
Martin, 24; Nicolette Langlois, 28; Kristen Leaderstorf, 28; Alycia Murtha, 27; and Catherine Chance, 25, awake each morning by 5:30 a.m. and pray together for 45 minutes in the retreat house chapel. They eat breakfast and attend Mass together. They also pray together three more times throughout the day and eat dinner as a group. They call themselves Marian Franciscans and keep wooden Tao crosses draped around their necks and simple chains on their wrists, symbols of their devotion to St. Francis of Assisi and Mary, mother of Jesus.
A full-fledged new congregation of women religious is still years away from being a reality. The group will need at least 40 members before it can receive official recognition from the Vatican. But Diocese of Buffalo Bishop Richard M. Malone already has given the small group his blessing to move forward. And on Saturday, Malone celebrated a special Mass in Our Lady of Victory when the five young women received their common garb as postulants.
As postulants, or candidates for admission to a religious order, they will wear long, dark skirts and white blouses. Eventually, if they become full members of the community, professing vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, they will don full habits, including veils on their heads. “It’s a way of expressing who we are without words,” Martin said.
“Right now, they’re just at the very beginning stages. I don’t know what kind of impact they’ll have down the road,” said the Rev. Joseph Gatto, president and rector of Christ the King Seminary. “I’m hoping and praying it takes off.”
Gatto serves as spiritual director for the Marian Franciscans, and he meets with the group at least once a month to provide guidance and support.
“They want to respond to the contemporary needs of the church,” he said. “They’re normal, balanced, bright young women.”
Recruiting young nuns
Some new religious communities in other parts of the country have had success in growing their numbers, and a few congregations with long histories have been able to add many younger sisters in recent years.
“Where there is a group that has caught fire and is attracting people, they attract what is by modern standards a lot of people,” said the Rev. Martin X. Moleski, a Canisius College professor of religious studies and theology.
The Franciscan Sisters of Penance of the Sorrowful Mother, T.O.R., in Steubenville, founded in 1988, now has 36 women religious, including 25 fully professed nuns.
The Community of Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal, also started in 1988, has 20 members, all younger than 35, including four postulants who started in February.
The Dominican Sisters in Ann Arbor, Mich., grew from fewer than 10 women to more than 100 within a decade or so, according to Langlois.
Gatto said he knows three young women from Western New York who have left the area in recent years to join religious communities brimming with women of their generation, such as the Sisters of Life in Suffern.
“Most younger women are looking for some vitality and new life,” he said. “They don’t want to be the nurses in a nursing home for elderly sisters.”
The members of the Marian Franciscans said they’re not concerned about numbers or how fast they will grow. “That’s up to the Holy Spirit,” said Langlois, “and I’m OK with that.”
But they said more young people seem to be interested in religious life, even though it remains radically countercultural.
“The zeal of young people to respond to a call they received or a stirring in their heart is happening more and more,” Langlois said.
One with local roots
Just one of the members of the Marian Franciscans has roots in Western New York. Leaderstorf grew up in Alden and was home-schooled throughout her youth. She enrolled at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, where she met Langlois, of Rochester, N.H., and Murtha of McDonough, Ga., in 2005. Leaderstorf had long felt a pull toward religious life, and as a teenager did a couple weeks of service work with the Felician Sisters.
“My mom said she’s known since the day I was born that I was going to enter religious life,” Leaderstorf said.
In college, the pull intensified for Leaderstorf. At the same time, Langlois and Murtha felt drawn to the sisterhood, as well. Langlois even considered leaving school to join a congregation of nuns. Murtha grew up near the South Carolina border and was part of a parish where Buffalo native the Rev. Gregory Hartmayer, a Franciscan friar, served as pastor. Hartmayer was appointed bishop of the Diocese of Savannah in 2011.
“I’ve always had that Franciscan influence growing up,” she said.
All three women soon realized they sought the exact same things in a community, though they hadn’t discussed it before.
But as they looked around, they couldn’t find an order that offered the combination of spirituality and mission that they desired, including a highly contemplative community that also offered ministry outside the motherhouse focused on fallen away Catholics and “rebuilding” the church within a highly secularized culture.
“It was a specific call to start something new,” Leaderstorf said.
After they graduated from Franciscan University in 2009, each with a bachelor’s degree in theology and catechetics, the three friends lived for about a year and a half with a group of Carmelite Sisters to get a better sense of whether they were heading in the right direction.
They parted ways in 2012 and returned to their respective hometowns with the understanding that they eventually would reunite.
Leaderstorf landed a job at St. Joseph Cathedral, and Buffalo became the reunion site when Langlois was hired in 2013 by a local Catholic radio station. By that time, Chance, who graduated from Franciscan University in 2011 with a degree in English literature, had become better acquainted with the group and was stirred to join them.
In 2014, Chance and Murtha joined Leaderstorf and Langlois in Western New York. Martin followed nine months later.
Support from families
Reaction from their families has varied from reluctant support to genuine joy. Langlois said her parents were hoping for grandchildren from their only child.
Martin said her father, “like all good dads,” worried about how she would survive financially.
“My family was caught off guard,” said Martin, who acknowledged that being so far away from them has been challenging for her.
In pursuing religious life, the women were agreeing to forsake marriage and child rearing. Chance, who comes from a family of eight siblings, acknowledged in herself “the natural instinct to want to be a mother.” But she doesn’t look at her calling as a sacrifice.
“I like to view it more as what I’m gaining, not what I’m losing,” she said.
Chance pictures herself being able to provide a kind of motherly love and care to anyone who needs it.
“What I’m gaining is spiritual children,” she said. “I can still nurture people, pray for them, guide them, whatever they need me to do.”
The women are in a somewhat awkward phase of the development of their community. Two women are still paying off college loans. Four hold part-time jobs to support the community, putting a crimp in their ability to do the “new evangelization” they want to emphasize.
But the group already has displayed signs of the resourcefulness and organizational abilities that have been characteristic of many communities of women religious. They elected Langlois as “mother.” She is the only one not employed in a secular job, allowing her time to put together the group’s paperwork for official incorporation status as a nonprofit entity.
The others also have defined roles. Murtha is vocations director, Leaderstorf is treasurer, Martin is secretary, and Chance oversees music and liturgy. They’re working on a book of customs, and they have a website at vocation2newevangelization.blogspot.com.
Plans for motherhouse
When they raise enough money, they plan to buy a place that will serve as a motherhouse, with enough property to allow them to grow their own produce. Someday they want to open a coffee shop in Buffalo, where they could minister to people who might never wander into a church. Whereas many orders of nuns focus on the economically poor, the Marian Franciscans talk about “serving the spiritually poor,” including middle-class Catholics who have had a crisis of faith and no longer practice.
“We have to take the church into the world,” Martin said.
They also want to host retreats and other activities aimed at bringing spirituality back into the lives of people who crave it.
“There is a need. People are searching. People are looking. They want more joy in their lives. They want more peace,” Murtha said.
The group spent the past week preparing for Saturday’s Mass, which marked the community’s establishment as a “public association of the faithful.” They gave away most of their clothes, shoes and other accessories, and visited a local seamstress for final fittings on their skirts and blouses. They welcomed family and friends into town Thursday and Friday.
No one is exactly sure what will happen to the group from here.
Moleski, the Jesuit priest from Canisius College, remembers when he first met Langlois a few years ago and learned of the group’s plans.
He figured then that little would come of it. But the group already has advanced much further than he imagined, and he’s been impressed by their patience and persistence.
“They’re willing to stake their lives on the thought that if they become visible witnesses of the faith, others will want to do the same,” said Moleski. “The only way to find out if the fish are biting is to go fishing. They’re going fishing.”