Sister Reyna Jesusa Ontón Ñahui stood before a group of women Saturday and professed her commitment to the Catholic Church and community.
The service was the first time since 2009 that a new sister took her final vows at the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities motherhouse in Williamsville.
Even in this latest instance, Sister Ñahui will not be staying in town to minister here. Instead, she will return to her native Peru to work with children with disabilities.
“You used to have groups of 50 who would all come in at the same time,” said Rochelle Cassella, director of communications for Neumann’s congregational office. “Now, we’re seeing some years we have no one coming in.”
Sisters like those in the Neumann communities have long been the bedrock of the Catholic Church both globally and in Buffalo. At the height of their numbers in the 1960s, more than 3,500 sisters were ministering in the Diocese of Buffalo, many of them running Catholic schools and hospitals.
Now, just 720 sisters are in the diocese.
The situation in Western New York underscores what has happened across the country, where the number of Catholic sisters has dropped from roughly 180,000 in 1965 to about 50,000 in 2014.
Still, the dwindling numbers didn’t deter Ñahui from returning to the Williamsville community, where she spent several months preparing for the sisterhood, to profess her vows.
“I’m very happy, particularly that I was able to come back,” Ñahui said through an interpreter. “I consider it a blessing.”
A call to serve
Nahui, 27, knew at a young age that she wanted to devote her life to the church, and by her late teens was actively researching different religious communities. She struck up a friendship with a Franciscan sister working in Peru, and was drawn to the order’s commitment to a simple life and sense of fellowship.
Her ministry includes working as a physical therapist with children who have disabilities. She also runs a church youth program. She finds that both jobs connect her to a wide network of parents and families who look to her for spiritual advice and guidance.
Now, she will return to Peru to continue that work, taking with her the prayers and blessings of the community of sisters she entered on Saturday.
“This openness has taken her on a spiritual road that not too many people travel,” Sister Roberta Smith remarked during the service.
Even on her home continent of South America, the number of sisters has been on the decline as the Catholic Church has lost its share of the population.
In some religious communities, it’s not unusual for years to pass without welcoming new members.
“You could probably count on one hand the number of people who have gone into religious communities in the last five years,” said Sister Jean M. Thompson, vicar for religious for the Diocese of Buffalo. “A lot of it is sociological. It involves life commitments, religion, practice of faith and living a celibate lifestyle.”
And the makeup of the Catholic sisterhood is shaped as much by culture and social change – including the evolution of women’s rights - as church structure.
The number of sisters climbed rapidly around the turn of the last century, fueled largely by the wave of new immigrants coming to the United States from largely Catholic countries. It was not unusual for at least one child from a family to enter a religious order. As a result, the number of Catholic sisters grew from about 900 in 1840 to 135,000 in 1930.
The growth continued through the 1950s, peaking in 1965 at a time when professional options for women were still somewhat limited.
“If you were a young woman and wanted to get an education and to do something different than live a married life, joining a convent was the only way to do that,” Cassella said.
In some cases, religious life offered vibrant career opportunities.
“When you go back to the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, women’s opportunities were still limited,” said Sister Veronica Wood of the Neumann communities. “But in religious life, women were CEO’s of hospitals. Women had opportunities in religious life to do things they otherwise wouldn’t have.”
A new makeup
The lack of new sisters entering religious life, coupled with an already aging population, has resulted in a small number of sisters still actively ministering. One national report in 2009 noted that there were more Catholic sisters over the age of 90 than under the age of 60.
Even the handful of women entering religious life tends to be older, some joining communities after being married, having careers or raising children.
“We’re finding that women who have been out in the workforce for a while are not finding what they want in life in terms of something deeper and something more spiritual,” Cassella said. “Women who are looking for a sense of community and spirituality are seeing a religious order as an opportunity.”
That includes Sister Anne Marie Saphara, who decided in her late 50s to leave a government career behind to join the sisterhood.
“I’d always wanted to be a sister when I was a child,” Saphara said. “But I got married, had a son and then got divorced and had a career in Washington. I had this beautiful condominium and a comfortable life. Why would I change it?”
Despite her material possessions, however, something was missing.
She figured out what that was when she visited a shrine near Syracuse during a trip to see family in New York.
“We went into the chapel and I just said ‘Oh my God, this is where I want to be,’” said Saphara, whose marriage was annulled. “There’s a part of me that said ‘Why didn’t I do this sooner?’ But God calls you when he wants you.”
There is also some hope – and anecdotal evidence – that a religious lifestyle could gain popularity among a new generation of young women.
A small group of women in their 20s received the bishop’s blessing to move forward, creating what could be the first religious community started in the diocese. A full-fledged congregation is still years away, but last year the small group of women in Derby were optimistic about their future.
In recent years, mainstream media have also reported on small pockets of millennial women opting in to religious service. They’ve become stars of Instagram, blogs and even reality television. One New York Times article last year characterized it as “The Comeback of the American nun.”
“All I can think of is it’s a sign of the times,” Wood said. “Over the past 20 years, we’ve become a very narcissistic, technology-driven, consumeristic society. Now, people are beginning to realize something more spiritual exists.”