The Nuns of Philadelphia

A surprising look at the not-so-cloistered lives of today’s women religious.

Top row, from left: Sister Marian Behrle, SSJ; Sister Judy Ridley, SSJ; Sister Peg Fleming, SSJ; Sister Kathy McShane, SSJ. Bottom row: Sister Pat Madden, SSJ; Sister Mary Scullion, Sisters of Mercy; Sister Connie Trainor, SSJ; Sister Carol Ann Knight, SHCJ. Portraits by Gene Smirnov

Top row, from left: Sister Marian Behrle, SSJ; Sister Judy Ridley, SSJ; Sister Peg Fleming, SSJ; Sister Kathy McShane, SSJ. Bottom row: Sister Pat Madden, SSJ; Sister Mary Scullion, Sisters of Mercy; Sister Connie Trainor, SSJ; Sister Carol Ann Knight, SHCJ. Portraits by Gene Smirnov

A metal grille separates me from Sister Mary Caritas as we speak. Her words float through the gold-painted lattice, her voice small and strained, her lungs still infected from a tough bout of pneumonia. The oxygen machine she’s attached to whirs as the clock ticks to our right, and I stare at the small Nativity scene on the table beside her.

There are a few things I know about Sister Mary Caritas. I know she’s spent the majority of her life indoors, draped in a bubble-gum-colored habit. I know she wasn’t always named Sister Mary Caritas. She gave up the name she was born with at 19, roughly the same age at which I left for college, when she made the decision to become a nun and devote her life to God.

Sister Mary, 77, belongs to the order of the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters, or the Pink Sisters, as they’re known for their rose-colored habits. The order’s convent and Chapel of Divine Love sit quietly at 22nd and Green streets in Fairmount, where the nuns have prayed — nonstop — for more than a century. To ensure that prayer is constantly flowing at the convent’s chapel, the sisters work in shifts. At any time, visitors looking for a little company, compassion or quiet can stroll through the chapel’s arched wooden doorway and down the aisle between its cerulean stained-glass windows to find at least one Pink Sister perched on a wooden pew, facing the church’s altar in absolute silence, separated from the public by an ornate gate that stretches from one side of the room to the next.

In the weeks leading up to my meeting with Sister Mary Caritas, I spoke with many women — sisters — who lead selfless lives in Philadelphia. The majority of them dressed, spoke, walked and talked like you and me, not like Sister Mary Caritas, whose daily life consists largely of prayer and chores and who, in a way, epitomizes the stereotype of sisters: hushed, timeworn women shrouded in veils and mysticism, so often portrayed as a dying breed or relic of a bygone era, a time when the Catholic Church had more sway in Western social and political life.

Since Sister Mary Caritas joined the Pink Sisters in 1958, their numbers have halved. Where there were once roughly 40 Pink Sisters working to provide constant prayer in the chapel, there are now 20, and the average age of the order’s nuns keeps creeping higher. If the sisters continue to diminish in number as time plods ahead, their century-long chain of prayer will likely be broken.

The order isn’t alone. The number of women religious across America has been in steady decline since 1965, when there were approximately 180,000 sisters in the country. The total now is about 49,000, roughly 90 percent of whom are more than 60 years old. In Philadelphia — where one in four people identify as Catholic — there are only about 2,400 nuns, a 30-plus percent decrease in just the past 16 years.

I had virtually no experience with nuns before I wrote this story — only a strong curiosity — and I expected most of them to look like Sister Mary Caritas, or maybe like the kind of harsh, habited women you might find in films or books. But that wasn’t the case. Even as their skin wrinkles and their numbers ebb, I discovered, Philadelphia’s sisters are a force to be reckoned with.

A Holy Spirit Adoration sister at prayer in the congregation's Fairmount Chapel. Photograph by Gene Smirnov.

A Holy Spirit Adoration sister at prayer in the congregation’s Fairmount Chapel. Photograph by Gene Smirnov.

When Sister Mary Scullion enters a room, it changes. Eyes soften and shift in her direction. Smiles spread. Eager hands reach to greet her. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput might have the last word when it comes to Catholicism in Philly, but there’s a good chance Sister Mary Scullion has impacted far more people than he or any other Catholic in the city.

She belongs to the Sisters of Mercy, which, with roughly 270 members headquartered in Merion, is Philly’s third-largest congregation of nuns. Spend any amount of time with her and you’ll quickly learn why she’s known as the Mother Teresa of Philadelphia. During a freezing winter in 1988, she led a group of homeless people into the basement of the city’s Municipal Services Building, demanding it be used as a shelter. She’s been arrested — four times — for refusing to back down when helping the poor. While other nuns regularly go on weeklong retreats to reflect and pray, Sister Mary has been known to sleep on the streets to better understand the people she cares about.

She’s the co-founder of Project HOME, the influential nonprofit that, on top of helping people experiencing homelessness, works to break the cycle of homelessness itself. The organization, which has attracted international visitors and attention from the likes of Jon Bon Jovi and Bill Clinton, provides housing for the homeless, youth and teen programs, veteran assistance, and wellness and health-care services.

Sister Mary Scullion dresses no differently than any other successful businesswoman. She wears a casual sweater and black dress pants. Her cropped chestnut-colored hair frames her warm eyes, which smile behind wire-rimmed glasses. Her peaceful, welcoming nature is evident as we sit across from each other at a wooden table in St. Elizabeth’s Recovery Residence in North Philadelphia. So is her savvy. This is a woman who’s used events that shine an international spotlight on Philly — Pope Francis’s 2015 visit; the 2016 Democratic National Convention — as opportunities to call on leaders and politicians from both parties to address systemic urban problems, ensuring that the city doesn’t ignore its poor.

What drove her to join the Sisters of Mercy in the early 1970s, when she was 19, wasn’t necessarily a calling to the religious life. She simply wanted to help other people improve their own lives. “If being a Sister of Mercy was what it took, that was okay by me,” she says, grinning.

Most congregations, including the Sisters of Mercy, have roots that stretch through centuries and across continents. Historically, congregations were often established by women who pursued purposes greater than themselves, who strove to be social activists, teachers, health-care providers and overall change-makers — like Philly’s own St. Katharine Drexel, who invested her $20 million inheritance to start the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, which operates schools specifically geared toward the city’s minority and underserved populations.

“Every religious community has compelling stories of women who wanted to do something in their time,” Scullion says. These were women who chose not to become wives and mothers at a moment when those roles were largely the only ones available to them — women who achieved positions of influence in what might be the most male-dominated institution in history.

After Vatican II pushed for the Catholic Church to modernize in the mid-20th century, communities of women religious began adapting to the shifting times and looking to minister in even more diverse ways. It slowly became more and more acceptable for sisters to discard the habit and to become increasingly involved in everyday American life — often choosing not to shy away from politics.

Today, many sisters adopt progressive stances on issues like immigration, climate change, gun control and prison reform. And despite some stereotypes, they’re connected to the times: This past November, nuns from several congregations visited the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota to support the Sioux in their fight against the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.

Local nuns can be found in expected and unexpected places. The IHM sisters (officially the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary) are the largest congregation in Philadelphia and focus mainly on education. The order operates schools that include Immaculata University and Villa Maria Academy High School, and some sisters help staff Villanova University. Lesser-known is IHM’s literacy center in Coatesville, which is geared toward providing ESL courses, parenting support and computer skills to immigrants.

The region’s roughly 430 Franciscan sisters help run Neumann University in Aston and Drexel Neumann Academy in Chester, where they’ve established a presence through Anna’s Place, a hospitality center that helps connect community members to educational, wellness and social opportunities.

And the Sisters of St. Joseph, led by Sister Anne Myers, have a mission to “live and work so that all people may be united with God and with one another.” That includes helping to operate Chestnut Hill College as well as the Sisters of St. Joseph Welcome Center, located near the corner of Kensington and East Allegheny avenues, in the city’s most notoriously drug-riddled neighborhood. There, nuns offer English and citizenship classes for both documented and undocumented immigrants.

The program has been instrumental to the community, says Rosa Murcia Garcia, a Guatemalan immigrant who first began attending English classes at the center in 2003, after she moved to the United States with her young children. She’s now worked at the shelter for eight years. “Here, I found all the help that I needed,” she says. “I didn’t need to go to another place. And now I’m able to give back and do the same things for other people.”

One chilly December day, I’m walking alongside Sister Mary Scullion as we make our way to Project HOME’s Honickman Learning Center and Comcast Technology Labs, located in the second-poorest zip code in the city. Scullion leads me down a quiet street in North Philadelphia where, on both sides, Project HOME has established housing for homeless women and children. We step into the learning center, which is bustling and warm. A colorful classroom is filled with dangling cardboard cutouts and smiling students fidgeting at desks. Everyone, everywhere we go, beams at Scullion.

I’m thinking of something she said to me on the way here, after I told her I was surprised by how little I knew about Philadelphia’s sisters.

“It’s not just the stories of sisters people don’t know,” she said, strolling a step ahead of me. “It’s the stories of women.”

In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI ordered a controversial investigation into American nuns, saying they were focusing too much on social justice issues; the Vatican’s doctrinal office appointed three (male) bishops to overhaul leadership among the sisters. The investigation, which was met with outrage by many Catholics who deemed it unjust and unnecessary, was abruptly ended by the Vatican under Pope Francis in 2015.

The truth is, what attracted many women to religious life long ago — the chance to become leaders and influential change-makers — is now much more accessible in everyday society. What’s more, the limited leadership roles for women within the Church have made the religious life — and Catholicism itself — less appealing.

Perhaps, then, the question isn’t just how the Catholic Church should attract more women religious, but how it should attract more women. As Sister Patricia Wittberg wrote in a 2012 article published in America magazine: “If the lack of opportunities for spiritual leadership is a major cause of the disaffection of young Catholic women, then one obvious remedy would be to open up more opportunities for them. … More women could be appointed to head secretariats in local dioceses and in the Vatican. Women could be ordained as deaconesses and, with the appropriate change to canon law, could even be appointed cardinals — ideas that have been discussed for decades.”

For the church, the stakes are high. Studies repeatedly show that women are, historically, more likely than men to join churches, participate in worship services, and be more devout in their daily religious practice. Plus, women’s influence in the church hits home in a way that men’s doesn’t: According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, the majority of religious adults in America who say one of their parents was more responsible for their religious upbringing cite their mothers as having a stronger influence.

When I speak to Sister Patricia Wittberg over the phone one day (she’s based in Cincinnati), she criticizes Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput for a speech he gave at Notre Dame last October in which he called for “a smaller, lighter Church if her members are also more faithful, more zealous, more missionary and more committed to holiness.”

Wittberg says she is “violently opposed to that mind-set.”

“The same people who are saying this are also saying they want to be a force in society,” she tells me. “You can’t do both. If the Catholic Church wants to influence the larger culture, it can’t follow Bishop Chaput and become a small group of the ultra-pure. … I don’t think that’s Catholicism.”

When I think of “a small group of the ultra-pure,” I think of the Pink Sisters.

There are many things Sister Mary Caritas doesn’t know about what it’s like to grow up in my generation. And there are many things I don’t know about her, though I’m aware of the sacrifices she’s made: leaving her family in Akron, Ohio; missing her father’s funeral because she couldn’t step off convent grounds; seeing her sister with three happy, healthy children and being “wiped off her feet” when she realized she would never have a child of her own.

“People wonder why we give up so much, how we could be happy when we gave up so much,” Sister Mary Caritas says. “And we usually say the only thing that really makes us happy is loving God. And when we love God, we love everyone. Because God loves everyone.”

When I speak with Sister Mary Caritas, I get the feeling that in some ways I’m talking to the 19-year-old who joined the convent nearly six decades ago. I also get the feeling I’m speaking to the embodiment of the Catholic Church. Most of her views, particularly those concerning women, feel outdated. And yet her core purpose of “loving everyone” has been and will continue to be faithfully handed down to the sisters who come after her — and the women after them.

As their numbers drop and their members age, congregations are channeling funds into retirement and health care for senior sisters and repurposing and selling more and more properties to raise money. At the same time, the sisters are trying to keep their mission alive.

Many congregations have amped up their outreach in recent years. Nuns today are often quick to point you to their Facebook and Twitter pages. They’re taking to social media to appeal to a generation of young, digitally savvy women, and there’s been an uptick in sisters who blog.

Some nuns, like Scullion, think the heart and mission of sisterhood is as alive as ever even if the number of sisters is declining. She’s quick to point out the countless women who, whether they’re part of a religious order or not, are furthering Project HOME’s work (including the organization’s instrumental co-founder, Joan Dawson McConnon, who isn’t a nun).

Carolina Soares is the kind of young woman who, 50 years ago, would have been attracted to religious life. In fact, Soares is attracted to it now, even though she’s decided becoming a sister isn’t for her. The simplicity of a spiritual life is appealing in such overstimulating times. “Our society — we’re in so much noise,” says Soares, who works for another Philadelphia congregation, the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity. “There’s so much stress. This order is more about being present, being still, being in peace, being in silence. That’s what is drawing people, because it’s the total opposite of what they’re living now.”

Soares, 29, spent some time living with the Trappistine sisters in Wrentham, Massachusetts, where “they mostly pray, make chocolates and have a farm,” before she decided the cloistered life wasn’t for her. Now, she organizes the Trinitarian sisters’ programs for young adults, plans community-service projects, and helps run the congregation’s confirmation and school retreats.

“It’s a beautiful vocation,” she says, speaking of the nuns. “And it’s a beautiful vocation that I’m living on this side of the pew as well. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, and a lot of people I need to journey with. The work that I’m doing — it’s so fulfilling. I know that right here, right now, this is where I’m meant to be.”

With the help of the Trinitarian sisters, Soares and a number of other young people plan to convert one of the congregation’s properties into a sort of faith-based, mission-driven community. She says she and others feel no pressure to “discern,” or begin the process of becoming a nun — which often takes three to seven years. “We may feel it in our hearts, but there’s no one telling us we have to figure it out now.”

Plans are still in an early stage for the building, a tall, elegant stone structure in the center of the congregation’s Northeast Philadelphia property. I can see it through the window of Sister Deborah Wilson’s office as she and I sit, drinking coffee while we talk about the boyfriend she left when she became a nun and the uncertain future of women religious.

“I just hope this isn’t a story, you know, about nuns dying,” Sister Deborah says, laughing. “Because I, personally, am not dying.”

Published as “Nuns?” in the April 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.