Nuns from the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the nation’s oldest African American order, sat before a group of middle school girls from St. Francis International School in Maryland last week.

They made their pitch: In a world of choices, give the convent a chance.

Sister Mary Pauline Tamakloe talks with students Favor Okerie and Nickayla Calixte at the Oblate Sisters of Providence convent, outside Baltimore, Maryland. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)
Sister Mary Pauline Tamakloe talks with students Favor Okerie and Nickayla Calixte at the Oblate Sisters of Providence convent, outside Baltimore, Maryland. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

“Do I want to marry Joe Blow?” Sister Trinita Baeza asked the middle school girls. “Or do I want to marry Jesus Christ?”

Declining numbers

It’s a tough sell nowadays. As American women have far more career opportunities that don’t require giving up the chance to marry and have children, interest in religious orders has declined precipitously. The number of nuns in the United States dropped from almost 180,000 to just under 50,000 between 1965 and 2014. The number of priests declined far less in the same half-century: from more than 58,000 to more than 38,000.

In 2017, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, only slightly more women than men entered Catholic religious life in the United States. Interest is particularly low among African American women. In 2017, 69 percent of new nuns were white, CARA reported, though Pew research says 59 percent of U.S. Catholics are white. Only 3 percent of new nuns were black, including both African American women and women from Africa who entered U.S. orders.

The field trip

A primary purpose of the St. Francis International School field trip to the convent was to show the girls that black women can be nuns, said Kirk Gaddy, the teacher at the school who organized the trip.

The students at St. Francis occasionally interact with nuns but don’t have nuns as classroom teachers, as some Catholic school students do, Gaddy says. So for many of them, their image of a nun is an older white woman, he said (despite the enduring legacy of Whoopi Goldberg in “Sister Act”).

“It’s less common for women of color, particularly African American girls,” he said. “We need to begin to intentionally cultivate this — let these young ladies see that they too can become religious. There’s nothing taboo about this. One of the best jobs you can get now is saving souls for Christ. I want to make sure we offer them that opportunity.”

During the trip, Gaddy also told the students they can pursue a variety of professions, from doctor to lawyer to engineer, while simultaneously serving as nuns. Many sisters enter the convent after college or even after graduate school and work outside the convent after they take their vows.

The Oblate Sisters

The Oblate Sisters — founded as a groundbreaking African American order in Baltimore in 1829, when Maryland was still a slave state — dispelled the notion that nuns are all white for the girls from St. Francis, where the student body is predominantly black and Latino, with a large concentration of immigrants.

The Rev. Kenneth Gaddy, the teacher’s brother, celebrated Mass for the nuns and students. He, like his brother and like the nuns, encouraged the girls to consider whether God is calling them to join the convent someday.

“What about you, young sisters? Can you hear God’s voice calling you? Do you hear his voice? These sisters that you’re sitting next to, they were in your place, you know,” Gaddy said in his homily. “Today we are asking you simply to keep your heart open that maybe God is calling you to religious life. … We’re asking you to be generous with your life. Because the fact of the matter is God has been very generous with you, with us.”

Sister Virginie Fish prays with student Rene Boating. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)
Sister Virginie Fish prays with student Rene Boating. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

Then a nun named Virginie Fish told them that she heard such a call, and she is glad she forsook marriage for religious life.

“I am very happy that I said yes to God,” she said.

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