Diocese looks to combat decline in women religious vocations

It’s rare to see a religious sister working in a parish or school in Arkansas.

In 1965, women’s religious vocations were thriving in the United States, with 179,954 sisters. But today, that number has drastically dropped. 

A 2021 America article on millennial nuns cited declining statistics from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate survey at Georgetown University. Today, there are just 42,441, the article stated, a 76-percent drop. 

In the Diocese of Little Rock, there are 105 women religious, including two consecrated virgins and a hermit, said Sister Cecilia Nguyen, OSB, diocesan minister to religious. The state has a variety of religious orders, including three convents (see sidebar). 

In the past five years, approximately four women have made final vows, and about two have made first vows in religious orders within the diocese, Sister Cecilia said. 

With the help of women’s discernment retreats and a push to discuss women’s vocations more at the parish level and at home, Sister Cecilia hopes more awareness will challenge the statistics.

“I hope that we have more people here in Arkansas, young girls, that answer God’s calling and are aware of that,” Sister Cecilia said. “It’s generous to give their life to God if God is calling them to enter that call. I hope vocations here grow, so we can serve and send more sisters out into the parishes.” 

WHY THE DECLINE? 

In Arkansas, several factors might be contributing to the overall decline of women religious. 

Sister Cecilia, who also serves as the vocation director at Holy Angels Convent in Jonesboro, said it’s important for religious sisters to speak about vocations in the parishes and schools but also to be present more in the day-to-day life of a faith community. 

“I’ve been going more as a vocation director to talk to the young adults. It seems to me like some of them in Catholic schools and parishes have never seen a sister before. … We don’t have enough sisters to send out in the parish and to work in the schools. They don’t see more religious sisters, and I think it never occurs in their life that they can have a calling to be a religious sister.”

While priests are naturally more visible given the nature of their vocation, Sister Cecilia also pointed out the more public and publicized priest ordinations differ from the more private religious vows.  

“It’s beautiful when a religious sister makes vows in our convent. It’s more solemn, not public, not like the ordinations for the priest. Not a lot of people see the beautiful vows,” she said. “There’s a beauty in that, too, but maybe making it more public shows how you can dedicate your life to Jesus, to God. They don’t get to see that.” 

Aside from the lack of presence, families are getting smaller. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. birthrate from 2007 to 2022 dropped by 23 percent, from 14.3 births per 1,000 people to 11.1. In Arkansas, the rate fell by 20 percent in that same period, from 14.5 births per 1,000 people to 11.7.

“Before, each family may have had five to six kids. … Now they only have one or two. That kind of reasoning adds to it because we don’t have more people to enter,” she said. 

Discussing a religious calling in a home can also take a back seat to a career and marriage. 

“Some parents may have one child, and that’s it, and they may want grandchildren. I think the parents should support their child’s calling if they want to be a priest or religious sister or brother. I think they should support it and respect that calling of their children to serve God,” Sister Cecilia said. “I think the family should talk about that too. In my family, when we were really young, my grandmother and my family just asked us, ‘Do you want to be a sister when you grow up? What do you want to do?’ And then we prayed for vocations.” 

DISCERNMENT RETREAT 

One way the diocese reaches out to young women is through discernment retreats. 

The annual diocesan women’s religious discernment retreat is April 26-27 at St. John Center in Little Rock, giving young women a chance to learn more about religious life. It is free and bilingual. 

According to a 2020 Recent Vocations to Religious Life study by the National Religious Vocation Conference (NRVC) and CARA, 74 percent of new entrants to religious life participated in a “Come and See” retreat. 

About 10 women attended last year, and Sister Cecilia said there is never pressure at the retreats to push women into a vocation. 

“I call them to come and see. You don’t have to ‘come and see and enter.’ Just come and learn and experience with the sisters how they live and what the religious life looks like. You come and learn and understand more about religious life. And check it out if this the life that God is calling you to,” Sister Cecilia said. “It’s planting a seed. They have that seed planted so sometime later on God can make it grow. If they’re called to religious life, it can bloom sometimes later in their life.” 

The overnight retreat is for women ages 17 to 35 who want to discern and learn about religious life. Rooms and meals are provided. Sister Cecilia said local and out-of-state sisters will speak at the retreat to have “a variety and fresh new perspectives.”

The retreat will include: 

N Presentations, panel discussions and Q&As with religious sisters 

N Mass, adoration, prayer and confession 

N One-on-one opportunities to talk with the sisters 

Sister Cecilia, who has been a religious sister for 19 years, said the retreats are a chance for religious sisters to share about their lives and love for their vocation. 

“I love to serve other people. I love God, and I love to be a missionary, to make other people happy to tell them about God and live a simple life,” she said. “I see the inner beauty of the sister.” 

The deadline to register for the discernment retreat is April 10. A registration form is available at dolr.org/events/2024-womens-religious-discernment-retreat. For more information, email or call Sister Cecilia at mcnguyen@dolr.org and (501) 664-0340, ext. 309.

Religious orders in Arkansas 

The Diocese of Little Rock has a variety of women’s religious orders serving the state. They include: 

Three convents: 

Carmel of St. Teresa of Jesus, Little Rock 

St. Scholastica Monastery, Fort Smith 

Holy Angels Convent, Jonesboro

Other religious include:

Catholic Teachers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus

Daughters of Charity

Daughters of Divine Love

Daughters of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary

Dominican Sisters 

Dominican Sisters of Tam Hiêp, Vietnam 

Missionary Carmelites of St. Teresa 

Missionary Catechists of the Poor 

Missionaries of Charity, Calcutta

Missionaries of Charity of Mary Immaculate

Religious Sisters of Mercy

Katie Zakrzewski

Katie Zakrzewski joined Arkansas Catholic as associate editor in 2023 after working in local media and the environmental sector. A member of St. Mary Church in North Little Rock, she recently completed her master’s degree in public service from the Clinton School.

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