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Western Pa. orders stage 2nd 'convent crawl' to introduce women to sisterhood

Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
 

Over bursts of laughter and clanking dinner plates, aspiring teacher Khaela Butera, 23, listened as Sister Rita Gesue, 77, recounted the night in 1963 when she lay on her bed wondering if she was ready to dedicate her life to God.

“I've thought about religious life ever since I was a little girl,” Butera said, eyes locked on Sister Rita. “The feeling comes and goes, but it's something I can't ignore.”

“Believe me,” Sister Rita said, patting Butera's hand, “If it's right, you'll know. You can't fight with God very long.”

Plainclothes sisters from eight local orders invited single Catholic women 18 and older to consider a vocation in religious life during a 24-hour introduction dubbed a “convent crawl.”

The informal program last week included free transportation, overnight accommodations and visits to four area convents where sisters welcomed participants with weathered hands and open hearts.

One hundred years ago, working-class Pittsburgh immigrants joined convents in droves, donning habits and devoting their lives to providing services the secular community couldn't or wouldn't address, Sister Barbara Ann Smelko said.

Today, Pittsburgh nuns travel, watch movies, have body piercings, hike, meditate, host Halloween parties and cheer on — and often pray for — the Steelers.

“We aren't your grandmother's nuns,” said Sister Lorita Kristufek, 70, “but we know we need new blood.”

Sister Althea Anne Spencer, 59, wonders if they have a marketing problem.

“We've had women come and go,” she said. “One when I entered, I just met her son's fiancee. I'm an aunt for another lady's twins. Sometimes they get here and realize this life is not for them. That's a part of the process, to decide if you can really do this or not.”

Most, it seems, cannot. Shrinking American orders are merging and selling property as their sister communities blossom in India and Brazil where multilingual young women are entering convents at rates similar to those in 1960s America.

Catholic leaders say recruitment efforts are pivotal as the number of American women who choose religious life has fallen by nearly 123,000 in the past 50 years. About 1,000 remain in the Pittsburgh area, according to the Diocese of Pittsburgh's department of consecrated life.

“We built hospitals, opened schools, treated the wounded in wars,” Sister Nancy Gerth, 50, told women at the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth on McKnight Road. “We come from a rich history, one we're proud of, but it's the future we're looking to now.”

Most nuns are highly educated, independent, spirited and spry. As doctors, lawyers and teachers, they lobby for the environment and women's rights, manage low-income high rises, feed the homeless and provide for the most frail of their own communities.

Boot heels echoed off slate floors in the newly remodeled chapel at the Sisters of St. Francis of the Providence of God in Whitehall where Sister Althea guided the crawl's dozen participants. Sturdy wooden chairs replaced pews, she said, to give wheelchair-bound and infirm sisters more flexibility to attend. Nearby, new carpet lays beneath faded photographs and mementos from hospital groundbreaking ceremonies and school openings, most now closed.

Born the oldest of nine children, Sister Althea, at 59, is now the youngest of her community. Their last new addition joined more than a decade ago, she said. Sister Lorita, vocation director for the School Sisters of St. Francis in Bellevue, donned her first habit before she could legally drive a car.

“It's a different world now,” she said, “but there's a lot of hope.”

At a panel discussion at the Sisters of St. Joseph in Baden, Butera peppered women in blazers with blunt questions: “How long is the discernment period?” Four to nine years. “Which community do you join?” The one that feels like home.

Fox Chapel native Katherine Lee, 25, listened alongside Butera. A recent convert to Catholicism, Lee attended the crawl to learn more about religious orders, not to join them. Seven Grove City College resident assistants and their director, Kelly Scott, left after the second venue. For them, the trip was a one-night retreat.

Like the nuns' first crawl in June, only three serious candidates attended. “If only one person signs up, we're still doing it,” Sister Barbara Ann said.

The crawls were intended to dispel myths, she said.

“My vision of a convent was of the big houses on a hill, but this is just a regular home,” said Sister Amy Williams, 42, waving to the bright pink walls she shares with the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities in Millvale.

Williams took 10 years to decide to join the order. She made final vows late last year.

“I have a lot to think about,” Butera said, recalling an old gibe from her grandparents. The pair often teased that she would become a nun, a light-hearted pleasantry they directed at her mother years before.

“They said it as a joke,” she said, lifting her gaze, “but maybe it's the right life for me.”

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com.

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