Twelve years ago, Tracy Kemme, 21 at the time, was volunteering in Ecuador when a 12-year-old girl told her that she wanted to be a nun. “Why would you ever want to do that?” Kemme asked, pressing the girl about marriage and children.

But when Kemme met up with a friend later, she began to sob. A secret emerged: Just a few days earlier, Kemme was sitting on the beach when the words “You should be a nun” sprung into her mind. God was calling her, too, and she wanted nothing to do with it.

“God, seriously, what are you doing to me?!” she wrote in her journal that night. “The life of the nun is not the kind of life I want to lead.”

Kemme was a practicing Catholic and an active member of her home parish in Cincinnati, but had never considered religious life before. She didn’t even know that young women were still entering the church. Besides, Kemme was falling in love with a fellow volunteer.

Still, Kemme couldn’t shake the feeling God was calling her. When the service trip ended, she moved to El Paso, Tex., to live and volunteer with a community of sisters she met in college — even as she began a long-distance relationship. The sisters were strong, socially aware and dedicated to their work: a nurse, a massage therapist, a doctor-turned-youth minister. “I really felt like I was falling in love with the sisters and falling in love with him at the same time,” Kemme says, referring to her long-distance boyfriend.

She wanted to give her relationship a chance. So, with the sisters’ support, she moved to Boston to be with her boyfriend, a man she loved enough to marry — that is, if she wanted to marry. “There was still this nagging in my heart that [marriage was] not what I was created for,” Kemme says. “When I thought about being a sister … it felt like a place of great possibility.”

Kemme, 33, is now a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. She chose a path that few today would associate with possibility. Forty percent of her generation eschews religion altogether. A majority believes religious people are generally less tolerant of others. And as millennials raise children, this generational dismissal of religion seems destined to continue.

Tracy Kemme photographed in Chicago. (Lucy Hewett for The Lily)
Tracy Kemme photographed in Chicago. (Lucy Hewett for The Lily)

Millennials devoting themselves to the church is unusual, says Daniel Cox, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who recently studied millennial secularity. This is a generation that bucks traditional patterns of religious engagement long thought of like the tides — receding as young adults age, then returning as they settle down.

The tide of the Catholic Church is particularly far out. Haunted by the sexual abuse scandal and unyielding stances on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion, the church is facing the biggest decline of any major denomination, according to Cox. There are currently just over 44,100 U.S. women religious, the formal term for nuns and sisters. That’s less than a quarter of its peak in the mid-1960s, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).

“It still seems like a patriarchal, hierarchical organization that a lot of young people, young women, just don’t want to be involved with,” says Cox.

Still, for the past decade, roughly 100 women have professed final vows each year, a testament of an enduring faith that receives little attention, says Mary Gautier, a senior research associate at CARA. (Some have suggested that the number of women considering religious life has actually increased, but Gautier says CARA did not find this statistically significant.)

Becoming a nun — a Catholic woman under vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to the church — is an extensive process. An aspiring sister finds a community in-person or online, seeking either an active life of service work (technically considered a sister) or a contemplative life of prayer in a cloistered monastery (a nun). After living with the community for a time, the sister-to-be is formally accepted as a member and begins a lifelong commitment of prayer and service; she professes first vows after about two years and final vows another three to nine years after that. If a woman elects contemplative life, someday her cloister could elect her to lead as its “mother superior.”

Armed with college degrees and work experience, the newly vowed women of today are more diverse than former generations and, as Gautier notes, defined by their commitment to social justice. But new entrants do not, at this time, outnumber those passing away. More U.S. sisters today are over 90 than under 60. And yet, this small cohort of millennial women continues to fight against the grain of their generation to make the church better — and keep it alive — with a level of diversity and adaptability often considered antithetical to the institution they operate in.

For Kemme, deciding to become a sister was no small feat: “It takes a lot of courage when there aren’t many people who are making that choice.”

Growing up in Arizona, Sister Christa Parra knew of religious life only through films like “Sister Act” and “The Sound of Music.” She used to think she “would never make a good nun.” She was a cheerleader in high school, partied with her friends, dated a boy who would become her fiancé. Like most sisters, she grew up Catholic and attended Catholic school, but believed the seemingly naïve, sheltered life of a nun was not for her.

Then, while working at a bank in her early twenties, Parra met a sister in church and the two struck up a friendship, despite their 40-year age gap. Parra visited the sister’s community and immediately felt at home. The sisters seemed down-to-earth, no longer wore habits (religious clothing typically consisting of a black veil, robes and other accessories) and did the kind of service work Parra wished to do at the U.S.-Mexico border, just 10 miles from where she grew up.

What she found was not the sisterhood of innocence or even horror, which is often sensationalized in films. “There is something scary about women who congregate together, something scary about women who don’t live some kind of idealized American womanhood,” says Sister Mary Therese Perez, 36, of the horror nun genre. As one young sister wrote, “a morbid fascination” persists about a young woman who would dedicate themselves herself to a life of poverty, chastity and obedience today.

Still, especially at the beginning, Parra was struck by being the only woman of color among Irish and Polish sisters. “The place where I saw my own face reflected back was in the kitchen in the staff,” Parra says.

While women entering religious life are much more diverse than they were in the past, white women are still the majority. Parra struggled with how the sisters could fully serve communities they don’t represent, a disparity that increased her desire to work at the border, where she felt there were not enough sisters. For Parra, the church needs to do more not only to invite women of color into the church, but also to make them want to stay.

Religious life wasn’t always so taboo. With religious engagement spiking post-war, the 1950s and 1960s were a boom time for nuns; many entered straight out of high school. “There [weren’t] really any options for women, especially women who desired a career or some sort of life outside of married life,” says CARA’s Gautier. “But in religious life you could serve the poor, you could teach, you could work in health care.” Being a sister allowed women to work in the church and rise to leadership roles, and the life was largely encouraged.

Today, as women have more choices inside and outside of the church, religious life may seem restrictive rather than freeing. More than half of women religious say that someone discouraged their entering, slightly higher than men.

Kemme says her parents, though supportive, struggled to realign their expectations for her future. “I’m just afraid you’re going to be lonely,” Kemme remembers her dad telling her a few years ago.

Tracy Kemme photographed in Chicago. (Lucy Hewett for The Lily)
Tracy Kemme photographed in Chicago. (Lucy Hewett for The Lily)

Many sisters shared similar worries at first, as evidenced in blog posts detailing their resistance to the call, their evolving interpretations of the vows and the difficulties of modern sisterhood, such as watching peers get married or experiencing the deaths of older sisters.

“I had learned that religious life wasn’t magic,” Kemme wrote this past summer. “[I]t wouldn’t save me from loneliness, anxiety or self-scrutiny. It wasn’t perfect; living with women from different generations and backgrounds was challenging and even painful at times. It wasn’t an escape; ministry with the suffering can be exhausting and heartbreaking.”

As much as posts like this demystify religious life, some sisters still seek the religious life’s structure as an antidote to their generation’s anxious desire for meaning and connection in an era of choices. “When I was out in the world, things were hazy,” says 20-year-old Sister Miriam Elise, a cloistered nun in Loretto, Pa. In religious life, “there is a bedrock to hold onto with all the waves of change that’s going on.”

As Elise puts it:

“A lot of young [sisters], they want traditional habits, customs, everything traditional. They want to go back to the raw, the authentic, because they’re not getting it out in the world.”

Elise lives a contemplative life, so her days are strictly planned and revolve around prayer. Her contact with the outside world is limited, as she never leaves the monastery (which she found online, as most new entrants do). She learns of natural disasters and shootings when her mother superior tacks the news to a bulletin board. As physically sheltered as her life is, Elise doesn’t see religious life as a refuge so much as a chance to hold the weight of the world in her prayers.

Kemme’s lifestyle is quite different than Elise’s; as a sister in active ministry, she has a career. She used to minister to the Latinx community at her Cincinnati parish and now studies theology at graduate school in Chicago (her current roommates highlight the varieties of a sister’s career: dietician, historic building preservation expert, affordable housing expert, hospital ethics board member). But Kemme too sees the vows as “an embrace” rather than “a renouncement or rejection” of the world. As she detailed in a blog post, Kemme believes that chastity opens one up to love more; that poverty recognizes common ground; and that obedience signifies deep listening.

Tracy Kemme photographed in Chicago. (Lucy Hewett for The Lily)
Tracy Kemme photographed in Chicago. (Lucy Hewett for The Lily)

These vows have long remained the same, but many sisters’ lives shifted dramatically in the 1960s when Vatican II aimed to modernize the church, launching a series of changes that tried to integrate women religious into the world. Many orders no longer had to wear habits; they left convents to live in apartments; they developed social justice work, protesting against nuclear war then and plotting resistance movements against pipelines today.

“[The older sisters are] a real inspiration to those of us that are entering now, to understand that in the church and in religious life, tradition is change,” says Kemme. “Religious life brings a certain stability of identity, like anyone finding the career that fits them or the family that fits them, but the life itself is not stable.”

For many sisters, the uncertainties outside and inside the church define their daily work. After the 2016 presidential election, Kemme prayed and talked with her parish of immigrant families about their fears of deportation. Two years later, she traveled to Washington, D.C., to protest in support of DACA recipients, posting on social media for her followers not just to pray for her, but to call their representatives. The peaceful demonstration ended with the arrest of Kemme and others, who sang “Amazing Grace” as they were led to a holding facility.

Parra, meanwhile, is finally serving at the U.S.-Mexico border. With the backing of her community, she moved to El Paso by herself a few months ago. There, she is hosted by a group of Franciscan sisters as she supports asylum seekers. Each day, she drives to the border, parks the car, then walks across the bridge to Juárez, Mexico, to help those on the other side.

Staying in the church has sometimes proved difficult, even for the sisters. Sister Emily TeKolste, 31, was so frustrated growing up by Catholic dogma — she cites a local deacon insisting parishioners vote for the Republican candidate as an example — that, for a time, she didn’t consider herself a Catholic, even as she attended mass and Catholic school. But her social justice work eventually led her to connect with a group of sisters and her faith developed; she came to see Catholicism less as institution and more as community. Now a Sister of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, she works for Network, a Catholic social justice lobby in D.C., where she witnesses how the Catholic church is as politically divided as the rest of the country, despite common assumptions.

In a string of articles for “National Catholic Reporter’s” website Global Sisters Report, Kemme has examined her experiences within the church, both good and bad. After she heard an Ecuadorian priest instruct women where they were allowed to stand in church, she wrote: “This is all too often the story of women in Catholicism: figuring out where we can stand.” She continued, “[Jesus] calls us, even in ways the world and the Church might not yet understand.”

Tracy Kemme photographed in Chicago. (Lucy Hewett for The Lily)
Tracy Kemme photographed in Chicago. (Lucy Hewett for The Lily)

Church doctrine allows only men to serve as priests and thereby in its highest leadership roles. And the church has run into deep problems of sexism, not only within its communities but also among its vowed members. In 2018, a Vatican magazine revealed how the church exploited nuns’ “free” labor. Last year, Pope Francis acknowledged for the first time that priests and bishops sexually abused nuns.

“Some people ask me how on earth could you dedicate yourself to that institution,” Kemme says. “I get it ... and part of what keeps me going is going back to the biblical roots of the church, the word ecclesia is the Greek word for church. It means assembly. At its roots, church is an assembly of people.”

Other sisters similarly separate institution and religion, wanting to fix, rather than turn away from, the church’s problems.

“I join in critiques of patriarchal power … [I’m in] disgust at many ways women are treated in institutional structures,” says Perez. “I do not hold it against anyone for wanting to leave those structures and not be part of them.”

But, she says, “I believe that those structures do not equal Catholicism. ... For me, why I stay is because I have a sense — and my relationship with God tells me — that [the church] can be more than what it is.”

The sisters have seen their predecessors strive to uplift women’s place in the church. After Vatican II, sisters created conferences that pushed to ordain women as priests and founded social justice groups like Network, where TeKolste now works, that lobby both sides of the aisle.

These movements were not always universal. For decades, sisters have grappled with tensions among themselves about how a modern nun should live, particularly after the Vatican investigated outspoken and relativley liberal congregations in 2012 for promoting “radical feminist themes.”

“As younger people in the community, we don’t have the same kind of baggage,” TeKolste said of the older sisters’ conflicts over defining a nun’s place in the church.

Today, TeKolste sees her place as a sister “to stand in between what is and what could be, and to help bridge that.”

Many young sisters also feel similarly responsible for healing old and current wounds. At gatherings like one in January, sisters in their 20s and 30s convene to talk about how to bring together the various parties of leadership among women religious, to encourage racial diversity in the church and, most of all, to forge relationships. Even contemplative communities like Elise’s are networking: Her community now prays for its “sister” congregation in New Mexico.

These connections buoy the sisters’ fierce belief that the church will survive — and be better. “As our world becomes less connected, I think people are really searching for something to stand on,” Kemme says. She and other young sisters are making sure the church will still be that something, even if only for a small group.

Tracy Kemme photographed in Chicago. (Lucy Hewett for The Lily)
Tracy Kemme photographed in Chicago. (Lucy Hewett for The Lily)

This story of survival and adaptation is uncommon, CARA’s Gautier says. “People prefer, I think, or get fixated on the notion of decline — it’s much more enticing than perseverance,” says Gautier, noting that the mid-20th century bump in sisters was unusual. A century ago, there were about as many women religious as there are today.

“The big story is ‘Oh, religious life is going away.’ But the true story is no, it’s just changing as it always has changed.”

At the moment, Kemme is not sure about her future. After graduation, perhaps she’ll return to the missionary work that initially drew her to religious life. She knows she’ll continue to work with new vocations as she has done through the Visitation House, a living space she helped establish. Open to anyone who needs shelter, the home also serves as a place for a new generation to visit and see if this life is for them.

“The women that I know who are entering religious life today are entering it open to [a] sense of adventure or willingness to say ‘yes’ to a life that’s going to have twists and turns and lots of unknowns,” she says. “They’re really courageous people who are willing to challenge the status quo.”

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