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

Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Sister Beatrice Siratavic, 94, of Whitehall, says goodbye to Erika Bastion (center), 21, and Regan Cerisano (right), 19, both of Grove City as the two leave after spending the night visiting the convent at Sisters of St. Francis of the Providence of God in Whitehall on Saturday, November 9, 2013. The Grove City College students were part of a group of single Catholic women invited along on a 'Convent Crawl,' which included four area convents in a 24-hour introduction to the sisterhood and religious lifestyle.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Sister Beatrice Siratavic, 94, of Whitehall, says goodbye to Erika Bastion (center), 21, and Regan Cerisano (right), 19, both of Grove City as the two leave after spending the night visiting the convent at Sisters of St. Francis of the Providence of God in Whitehall on Saturday, November 9, 2013. The Grove City College students were part of a group of single Catholic women invited along on a 'Convent Crawl,' which included four area convents in a 24-hour introduction to the sisterhood and religious lifestyle.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Catholic sisters greet each other inside Evergreen Covent in Millvale on Saturday, November 9, 2013. A group of Sisters of Saint Francis live in the house, which was the last stop on a 24-hour 'Convent Crawl' meant to introduce single Catholic women potentially interested in a life in the sisterhood to the ins and outs of religious life.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Catholic sisters greet each other inside Evergreen Covent in Millvale on Saturday, November 9, 2013. A group of Sisters of Saint Francis live in the house, which was the last stop on a 24-hour 'Convent Crawl' meant to introduce single Catholic women potentially interested in a life in the sisterhood to the ins and outs of religious life.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Sister Mary Joseph Rowley of Little Sisters of the Poor in Brighton Heights prays before talking on a panel of Catholic sisters during a 24-hour 'Convent Crawl' on Saturday, November 9, 2013 at Sisters of St. Joseph in Baden.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Sister Mary Joseph Rowley of Little Sisters of the Poor in Brighton Heights prays before talking on a panel of Catholic sisters during a 24-hour 'Convent Crawl' on Saturday, November 9, 2013 at Sisters of St. Joseph in Baden.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Katherine Lee, 25, of Fox Chapel, clasps her hands next to a prayer book inside Evergreen Covent in Millvale on Saturday, November 9, 2013. A group of Sisters of Saint Francis live in the house, which was the last stop on a 24-hour 'Convent Crawl' meant to introduce single Catholic women potentially interested in a life in the sisterhood to the ins and outs of religious life.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Katherine Lee, 25, of Fox Chapel, clasps her hands next to a prayer book inside Evergreen Covent in Millvale on Saturday, November 9, 2013. A group of Sisters of Saint Francis live in the house, which was the last stop on a 24-hour 'Convent Crawl' meant to introduce single Catholic women potentially interested in a life in the sisterhood to the ins and outs of religious life.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Sister Annie Bremmer (left) of Millvale, leads a prayer inside Evergreen Covent in Millvale where she lives with other women religious of the Sisters of Saint Francis on Saturday, November 9, 2013. Praying with her are Sister Lorita Kristufek of Bellevue (center) and Sister Lois DiFalco, of Ross Township. The sisters were talking, sharing, and praying with single Catholic women potentially interested in Religious Life, who were along for a 24-hour 'Convent Crawl' of convents across the region.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Sister Annie Bremmer (left) of Millvale, leads a prayer inside Evergreen Covent in Millvale where she lives with other women religious of the Sisters of Saint Francis on Saturday, November 9, 2013. Praying with her are Sister Lorita Kristufek of Bellevue (center) and Sister Lois DiFalco, of Ross Township. The sisters were talking, sharing, and praying with single Catholic women potentially interested in Religious Life, who were along for a 24-hour 'Convent Crawl' of convents across the region.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Sister Lorita Kristufek of Bellevue holds up a poster of the history of Franciscan Sisters during a panel of Catholic sisters during a 24-hour 'Convent Crawl' on Saturday, November 9, 2013 at Sisters of St. Joseph in Baden.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Sister Lorita Kristufek of Bellevue holds up a poster of the history of Franciscan Sisters during a panel of Catholic sisters during a 24-hour 'Convent Crawl' on Saturday, November 9, 2013 at Sisters of St. Joseph in Baden.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Khaela Butera (far left), 23, of Brighton Township, picks out food in the cafeteria at Sisters of St. Joseph in Baden during a 24-hour 'Convent Crawl' on Saturday, November 9, 2013. Butera is at the beginning stages of exploring thoughts of becoming a woman religious, and attended the event that took single Catholic women to visit four convents in the area on Saturday.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Khaela Butera (far left), 23, of Brighton Township, picks out food in the cafeteria at Sisters of St. Joseph in Baden during a 24-hour 'Convent Crawl' on Saturday, November 9, 2013.  Butera is at the beginning stages of exploring thoughts of becoming a woman religious, and attended the event that took single Catholic women to visit four convents in the area on Saturday.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Sister Nancy Gerth of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in Bardstown, KY sings inside Evergreen Covent in Millvale on Saturday, November 9, 2013. A group of Sisters of Saint Francis live in the house, which was the last stop on a 24-hour 'Convent Crawl' meant to introduce single Catholic women potentially interested in a life in the sisterhood to the ins and outs of religious life.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Sister Nancy Gerth of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in Bardstown, KY sings inside Evergreen Covent in Millvale on Saturday, November 9, 2013. A group of Sisters of Saint Francis live in the house, which was the last stop on a 24-hour 'Convent Crawl' meant to introduce single Catholic women potentially interested in a life in the sisterhood to the ins and outs of religious life.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - The setting sun streams across a statue of St. Joseph the Worker at Sisters of St. Joseph in Baden on Saturday, November 9, 2013. As women choosing life in the Catholic sisterhood declines across the US, members of convents are getting creative with how they try to attract new women to religious life.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>The setting sun streams across a statue of St. Joseph the Worker at Sisters of St. Joseph in Baden on Saturday, November 9, 2013. As women choosing life in the Catholic sisterhood declines across the US, members of convents are getting creative with how they try to attract new women to religious life.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - The convent at Sisters of St. Francis of the Providence of God is reflected in the windshield of a car as Eleanor Linton, 21, of Grove City buckles her seatbelt to leave after sleeping over at the convent in Whitehall on Saturday, November 9, 2013. A number of Grove City College students were part of a group of single Catholic women invited along on a 'Convent Crawl' which included four area convents in a 24-hour introduction to the sisterhood and religious lifestyle.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>The convent at Sisters of St. Francis of the Providence of God is reflected in the windshield of a car as Eleanor Linton, 21, of Grove City buckles her seatbelt to leave after sleeping over at the convent in Whitehall on Saturday, November 9, 2013. A number of Grove City College students were part of a group of single Catholic women invited along on a 'Convent Crawl' which included four area convents in a 24-hour introduction to the sisterhood and religious lifestyle.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Khaela Butera, 23, of Brighton Township, asks questions to a panel of women religious at Sisters of St. Joseph in Baden during a 24-hour 'Convent Crawl' on Saturday, November 9, 2013. Butera is at the beginning stages of exploring thoughts of becoming a woman religious, and attended the event that took single Catholic women to visit four convents in the area on Saturday.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Khaela Butera, 23, of Brighton Township, asks questions to a panel of women religious at Sisters of St. Joseph in Baden during a 24-hour 'Convent Crawl' on Saturday, November 9, 2013.  Butera is at the beginning stages of exploring thoughts of becoming a woman religious, and attended the event that took single Catholic women to visit four convents in the area on Saturday.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Hilary Park (left), 22, and Regan Cerisano (right), 19, both of Grove City, talk to Sister Theodora Shadis, 98, of Whitehall in the gift shop at Sisters of St. Francis of the Providence of God in Whitehall on Saturday, November 9, 2013. The Grove City College students stayed overnight at the convent, and were part of a group of single Catholic women invited along on a 'Convent Crawl' which included four area convents in a 24-hour introduction to the sisterhood and religious lifestyle.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Hilary Park (left), 22, and Regan Cerisano (right), 19, both of Grove City, talk to Sister Theodora Shadis, 98, of Whitehall in the gift shop at Sisters of St. Francis of the Providence of God in Whitehall on Saturday, November 9, 2013. The Grove City College students stayed overnight at the convent, and were part of a group of single Catholic women invited along on a 'Convent Crawl' which included four area convents in a 24-hour introduction to the sisterhood and religious lifestyle.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - From right to left: Sister Amy Williams, Sister Marlene Kline, Sister Annie Bremmer, all of Millvale, and Sister Nancy Gerth (front left) of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in Bardstown, KY share a laugh during dinner at the Evergreen Covent in Millvale as a 24-hour 'Convent Crawl' visiting convents across the region comes to a close on Saturday, November 9, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>From right to left: Sister Amy Williams, Sister Marlene Kline, Sister Annie Bremmer, all of Millvale, and Sister Nancy Gerth (front left) of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in Bardstown, KY share a laugh during dinner at the Evergreen Covent in Millvale as a 24-hour 'Convent Crawl' visiting convents across the region comes to a close on Saturday, November 9, 2013.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Katherine Lee, 25, of Fox Chapel, takes a peek into the bedrooms of the group of women religious that live at Evergreen Covent in Millvale on Saturday, November 9, 2013. The convent was the last stop on a 24-hour 'Convent Crawl' meant to introduce single Catholic women potentially interested in a life in the sisterhood to the ins and outs of religious life.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Katherine Lee, 25, of Fox Chapel, takes a peek into the bedrooms of the group of women religious that live at Evergreen Covent in Millvale on Saturday, November 9, 2013. The convent was the last stop on a 24-hour 'Convent Crawl' meant to introduce single Catholic women potentially interested in a life in the sisterhood to the ins and outs of religious life.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Religious art hangs on the walls of the convent at Sisters of St. Francis of the Providence of God in Whitehall on Saturday, November 9, 2013. As women choosing life in the Catholic sisterhood declines across the US, members of convents are getting creative with how they try to attract new women to religious life.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Religious art hangs on the walls of the convent at Sisters of St. Francis of the Providence of God in Whitehall on Saturday, November 9, 2013. As women choosing life in the Catholic sisterhood declines across the US, members of convents are getting creative with how they try to attract new women to religious life.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Sister Nancy Gerth (front left) of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in Bardstown, KY talks to Katherine Lee, 25, of Fox Chapel as they fill their dinner plates in the kitchen of Evergreen Covent in Millvale on Saturday, November 9, 2013. The convent was the last stop on a 24-hour 'Convent Crawl' meant to introduce single Catholic women potentially interested in a life in the sisterhood to the ins and outs of religious life.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Sister Nancy Gerth (front left) of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in Bardstown, KY talks to Katherine Lee, 25, of Fox Chapel as they fill their dinner plates in the kitchen of Evergreen Covent in Millvale on Saturday, November 9, 2013. The convent was the last stop on a 24-hour 'Convent Crawl' meant to introduce single Catholic women potentially interested in a life in the sisterhood to the ins and outs of religious life.
By Megan Harris
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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