`Sister act' an option for college women
By NELLIE WILLIAMS
On Saturday evening, Notre Dame junior Heather Phillips will be getting ready for a dance.
Unlike other young women, however, Phillips will be wondering what her date thought of this article.
The studio art major and theology minor enjoys aerobics, drawing and painting watercolors. She likes playing with kids and loves Hallmark cards. She enjoys writing and piecing together puzzles.
And, one day, she may be a nun.
"It's kind of a sensitive thing," she said. "I've been thinking about the sisterhood since I was 15. I would always joke around with my parents about it."
Phillips is one of only a few women studying with the Sisters of the Holy Cross in order to be a nun.
Across the country, the number of women joining convents has been decreasing.
Sister Margaret André and Sister Margaret Mary Lavonis, both in charge of the Vocation Ministry for Holy Cross Sisters, believe that the opportunities available to women today that did not exist 50 years ago have caused a decrease in women joining the sisterhood.
"When I was graduating from college, women were like second class citizens," said Lavonis. "The only women administrators of schools and hospitals were sisters."
In the 1950s and 1960s, about 50 formation classes for joining the Holy Cross Sister's Community were offered each year. Today in the U.S., there is one a year.
"A lot of people find it hard to make a permanent decision," said Lavonis.
The Holy Cross community is international and has many sisters serving in eight foreign countries, which helps bolster numbers.
"Some communities are not international like we are and are dying out,"said Lavonis.
The number of nuns teaching at Notre Dame and Saint Mary's has not decreased. Often, nuns do not wear traditional habits, which makes them less identifiable.
Although sisters are not very visible, the priests at Notre Dame are a part of everyday life and Old College is well-known on campus.
André attributes the high percentage of young men studying to be priests at Notre Dame to the visibility and daily interactions with priests around campus.
"I think it's because Notre Dame priests always talk about vocations and religious life. The visibility helps the students think," she said.
However, some students are aware of the nuns' presence on campus.
Phillips began talking to Lavonis last May and suggested the Holy Cross sisters start a vocation faith sharing group.
Phillips had been attending a vocation group with men in Old College and Father Bill Wack. However, being the only woman in the group "felt strange," to Phillips.
Now, Phillips attends the vocation faith sharing group she helped create with the Sisters of the Holy Cross once a month.
One reason Phillips believe she was drawn to learn more about the Sisters of the Holy Cross is because she is at Notre Dame.
Growing up in Sacramento, Calif., she attended a single-sex Catholic school. At home she would complain to her dad about the nun's habits.
"I used to say, `Oh, dad, I could never be a nun because I hate their shoes,'" Phillips said.
Although stereotypes about nuns exist, such as they are only teachers or nurses, Phillips said she has learned otherwise.
"I thought [nuns] were wonderful. Many touched my life by example," shesaid.
She does not feel she would be limited in life choices as a Sister.
"Part of me feels limited at times, but when I step back and look at it, it's such a liberating life choice — there's still so much freedom there," Phillips said.
Contrary to the sisterhood, Phillips still considers marriage an option.
"I think marriage is still such a beautiful option. Sometimes I think I would really miss out not having a family of my own or kids. But then I think, what if I was working in an orphanage for kids caring that way?" she said.
She also questions whether she will be lonely.
"What if I'm truly alone? What if you want someone to hold you — something like that?"
For now, Phillips will just keep praying about her choice.
Her family, Phillips said, is very supportive of her searching. Her mother once considered becoming a nun and her grandfather thought about the priesthood.
"It's something in our family. It's a way we see the best possible way to answer to God's call in complete service," Phillips said. Before joining, at least six months of discernment, pre-candidate (no set length), candidate (one to two years), noviate (two years), temporary incorporation (usually five years), and then the final vows are required steps.
Phillips is currently in the stage of discernment. She is exploring her options and learning more about the religious life.
"It's a process of `yes, yes' or `no, no' — a process of exposure," she said. "I got the impression they want people to wait and know for sure before making a commitment."
To help young women in deciding whether or not they want to commit to the sisterhood, the Sisters of the Holy Cross have created a place to help women ponder the commitment.
They have created a house, the Discernment House, also called the Upper Room. The house was created to provide a community and reflective environment while discerning whether God is calling them to religious life as sisters. The first young woman to live in this environment arrived in early January and is living in the Upper Room with four other nuns.
Not only is this Colorado-native Kathleen Hick's first time living in the Midwest, it is also her first time living with a community of Sisters. She admits it is challenging.
"It's a real challenging journey to be on. Being in my 20s, I'm the only one here my age and I am loosely connected to the community," said Hicks.
She believes it takes much courage for people to explore this commitment when they feel they have received a call to the religious order.
"This isn't a call to be a nun," she said. "This is a call about being a full person. It's not about becoming a nun — it's about becoming myself in the greatest way I can."
Hick does not feel there is a secure definition of what religious life is about. "It's a mystery," she said. "There are these old stereotypes that becoming a nun is like giving your life away. We're kind of afraid of this old tradition of nuns our mothers grew up with."
She said she thinks the nuns are also intimidated by the younger generation.
"They may be intimidated by the lack of structure our generation has. The world is a different place than it was 20 to 30 years ago, and the Sisters are trying to redefine their life with the time going on."
Hicks, like Phillips, has doubts about her call to religious life.
However, she feels drawn to having a community life.
"I realize where I am is where I want to be," said Hicks.
Hicks can live in the Upper Room for up to two years.
"As long as I feel it's where I want to be, I'll stay," she said. "I can move on if I discover it isn't." Lavonis and André believe that young women need to know the option to be a nun exists.
"The key is desire," said André. "When you keep getting the same thought over and over again- it's a signal that God is trying to tell you something."
A vocation faith sharing group, open to all, will be on Feb. 17 at 8:15 p.m. in the guest house next to the Church of Our Lady of Loretto. A discernment retreat will take place the first weekend of March at Mary Solitude.
All News Stories for Friday, February 11, 2000