For the most part, these are grim days for Catholic nuns. Convents are closing, nuns are aging and there are relatively few new recruits. But something startling is happening in Nashville, Tenn. The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia are seeing a boom in new young sisters: Twenty-seven joined this year and 90 entered over the past five years.
The average of new entrants here is 23. And overall, the average age of the Nashville Dominicans is 36 -- four decades younger than the average nun nationwide.
Unlike many older sisters in previous generations, who wear street clothes and live alone, the Nashville Dominicans wear traditional habits and adhere to a strict life of prayer, teaching and silence.
They enter the chapel without saying a word, the swish of their long white habits the only sound. It is 5:30 in the morning, pitch black outside -- but inside, the chapel is candescent as more than 150 women kneel and pray and fill the soaring sanctuary with their ghostly songs of praise.
A few elderly sisters sit in wheelchairs, but most of these sisters have unlined faces and are bursting with energy. Watching them, you wonder what would coax these young women to a strict life of prayer, teaching, study and silence.
And did they always want to be nuns?
"No," says Sister Beatrice Clark, laughing. "I didn't know they still existed."
Clark, who is 27, says she became aware of the religious life when she was a student at Catholic University in Washington. In her junior year, she began feeling that God was drawing her to enter a convent. Over Thanksgiving vacation in 2004, she broke the news to her family.
"My parents just sat there and looked at me," she says. "And they cried. And I said, 'I think I'm supposed to enter soon.' And my father said, 'This is the time of life to take leaps.' "
She joined the Nashville Dominicans on her 22nd birthday.
Silence -- Sometimes
The sisters eat breakfast in silence, sitting side by side at long tables, served by the novices in white habits and veils. Sister Joan of Arc, who's 27, stoops to pour coffee. At 6 feet, 2 inches, the former basketball player for the University of Notre Dame is hard to miss. Sister Joan of Arc, who was born Kelsey Wicks, like the others here adopted a new name when she entered.
She says she worked on refugee issues after college, then received a scholarship to Notre Dame Law School. But her plans shifted when she went on a medical mission trip: In Africa she saw abject physical poverty, but it was nothing compared with the impoverishment she saw when she came home.
"When I came back to the U.S., I saw our true poverty of the heart and of the mind. And I saw the loneliness," she says. "It really made me give my life to the church, so I was more open to the advances of God when he asked, 'Lay down your life!' "
Her parents did not share her certainty.
"I remember my mother sent me Notre Dame Law School bumper stickers when I was deciding, because she did not want me to pass up that opportunity," she says with a laugh.
Sister Joan of Arc forsook law -- but not basketball, entirely. Now in her second year, she regularly drills her sisters on the court behind the convent. They dribble and shoot in their long habits -- the first-year postulates in black, the second-year novices in white. And when they break into the three teams -- Our Lady of Victory, Cecilia and the Martyrs -- they scream and chant with a fierce competitiveness that is not all that, well, sisterly.
Lady of Victory wins, followed by Cecilia ... trailed by the Martyrs.
"Sadly, the Martyrs always have a rough go of things," observes Sister Joan of Arc, as the Martyrs shout, "Our victory is in heaven!"
Friendships Beyond Facebook
"You can't even imagine how much fun we have," says Sister Victoria Marie Liederbach, who is 23. "We really do become sisters; we're each others' best friends, and we just have a blast."
I'm sitting with a half-dozen novices, who range in age from 23 to 27. They all have college degrees. There's a nurse, a would-be archivist, but like Sister Paula Marie Koffi, they all felt torn by their ambitions.
"Yeah, I was working as an accountant, and I remember telling one of the managers one day, 'I'll either be a partner in this firm, or a nun,' " she recalls, laughing.
It's a mysterious call to what they describe as a love relationship with Jesus. And for them it is literal: They consider the white habit a wedding gown.
"It's beautiful, and it's a reminder that you are a spouse of Christ," says Sister Mara Rose McDonnell. But it's more than that.
"It tells others that there's a reality beyond this world. There's heaven. We're all orienting ourselves towards heaven," she says.
To the world, the habit is the most visible symbol of their commitment -- one they all acknowledge exacts a price.
"Yeah, like motherhood and children, that's the desire of a woman's heart," says Liederbach. "And being desired, and pursued by a man, that's something for sure that's a real sacrifice."
But Sister Anna Joseph Van Acker says she's weary of shallow relationships rooted in texting and Twitter -- and finds the depth she's looking for in God. "He has the love you don't find by someone leaving a message on your Facebook wall," she says. "It's way better than someone saying, 'I'm eating pizza for dinner right now,' or whatever your Facebook status says right now. You don't get fulfilled by that. Ultimately, all you want is more. And here, we're thirsting for more, but we're constantly receiving more as well."
Van Acker, who's 23, says her generation is hungry for absolute truth and tradition -- ideals they found in the messages of Pope John Paul II.
"Our generation is thirsting for orthodoxy," she says. "And I know it because I've seen it in university settings. I've seen how young people ... love JP2 not only because he was a nice-looking old man and he gave great hugs or something -- but because what he spoke and wrote was the truth and it spoke to their hearts."
This is the Pope John Paul generation, coming of age. Of course, that may explain why they chose to enter a convent -- but why this convent? Most visited several orders, and the novices nod as Sister Joan of Arc says the minute she met the Nashville Dominicans, she felt as if she had come home.
"I was blown away -- seeing them in their habits, seeing their joyful witness, listening to them sing. Oh! It was captivating, it was so captivating," she says.
Of course, not everyone is cut out for this life, and a few drop out in the first two years.
"The day-to-day is hard," says Clark, who is in her fifth year. "The day-to-day can be mundane in little stuff. But in the large choices, this is the most freeing thing I could have chosen, because everything else would have been trying to find this -- this defining relationship that would give value to everything."
Including her work teaching sophomores at St. Cecilia Academy, where Clark is, on this fall day, grilling her students on The Scarlet Letter. Clark, who had planned to become a litigator, handles discussion like a cross examination, peppering the girls with questions and the girls firing their answers right back.
Catholic bishops beg the Nashville Dominicans to send their young sisters to their parochial schools, and more than 100 of them now teach in 34 schools in 13 states. The sisters are a big hit with the students as well because they don't fit the stereotype.
"You hear stories from your parents about getting spanked with rulers and stuff, and that's not true at all," says Breanne Lampert, one of Clark's sophomores. "But seeing the sisters here compared to other schools -- they're so much younger. I don't know, they understand you really well."
"The young sisters are really inspiring," says Brady Diaz-Barriga, "because you're like, 'Oh, I could never do that. I just love Facebook and my cell phone and my computer too much to give that up!' But you see how much joy your life can be with less and not having all of that."
Isabelle Aparicio says the young sisters' lives have a surprising appeal. "Seeing these young women make these really hard decisions and then seeing so many of them make it, it's kind of inspiring," she says. "And it's actually made me think about it, possibly."
But what about doubt? I ask Clark, "Do you think you'll have any regrets?" She pauses, then shakes her head slowly.
"I met the person for me," she says. "I've been known by him forever. And I've known him more or less throughout my life. And now I know that this is where I'm called to."
Clark, like the nearly 300 other Nashville Dominicans, is called to the unbending rhythms of prayer and silence and worship. With their long habits and disciplined regime, these conservative sisters are, it seems, the new radical.