WASHINGTON -- Sister Rachel Terry has a confession to make.
“I really, really like ‘90s pop music,” says the 35-year-old nun, who teaches music at Little Flower Parish elementary school in Bethesda. “I like to sing it loud in the car. I like to dance to it. TLC and Destiny’s Child? That’s my favorite music as a musician and a church member.”
Sister Rachel’s housemates appreciate her taste in pop music. They just don’t share it. Sister Ritamary, Sister Madonna Marie, Sister Saint Henry and Sister Rosemaron -- the four nuns who live with Sister Rachel in the convent next to the elementary school where they work in this wealthy Washington suburb -- are all four decades her senior. They’re a generation (or three) removed from such hits as “Say My Name” and “Baby-Baby-Baby.”
But the five sisters -- all members of the Immaculate Heart of Mary order -- believe that what they do have in common is timeless: a desire to devote their lives to service, sacrifice, teaching and prayer, and to be a reflection, they hope, of the life of Jesus. But finding others to share that journey is proving ever more difficult.
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Fifty years ago, deciding to become a nun was not at all uncommon. The U.S. population was 195 million in 1965, and there were about 181,000 nuns, the peak number for religious sisters in the country, according to a 2009 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
Today there are 321 million Americans and approximately 48,000 nuns. And the vast majority of them are retired. Sixty-nine percent of all nuns are 70 or older. Just 3 percent of nuns in the United States are under age 49.
Nuns across the country are grappling with this dropoff and what it means for their futures. Though part of the Catholic Church, their orders are mostly financially independent. Now they worry about how they will pay for increasing health care and insurance costs in their rapidly aging ranks, with many nuns no longer able to work and earn an income. They worry about whether they can even continue to exist, a concern that is all the more remarkable given what a significant role nuns played in the 20th century American church.
American nuns were both leaders and foot soldiers in education, hospitals, orphanages, old-age homes and a wide range of social services. They also took lead roles in the civil rights movement and on social justice issues.
As a young woman who chose to become a nun in the 21st century, Sister Rachel knows that she is a rarity.
“I didn’t look at our sisters and say, ‘This is a group of dying women.’” she says. “Our order is very full of life. It’s a vibrant group of women.”
Nuns were paying close attention to Pope Francis’ words during his U.S. visit to see whether he would acknowledge their contributions and suggest what might be done to ensure their continued and vital presence.