Keepers of the faith
Women who work to become nuns
Giving up the pleasures of this world for a life of prayer, silence and communal living is rare.
Yet women do choose the narrow path and walk away from their careers, independence and material possessions to become Benedictine sisters.
After six years in the Benedictine sisterhood at Benet Hill Monastery in Colorado Springs, Colo., Sister Mary Colleen Schwarz, 61, was named a full-fledged member of the order this past summer. Sister Joan Luke Silverstein, 42, became a Benedictine novice in June and hopes to complete her program in several years.
The women’s commitments come at a time when Catholic orders are decreasing at an astonishing rate. Though no official statistics exist, some experts say orders have declined in membership by as much as 75 percent in the past 20 years.
Benet Hill Monastery, which opened in 1963, once boasted 77 sisters with an average age of 34. Today there are 27 sisters with an average age in the 70s.
Schwarz is the first in more than 20 years at Benet Hill to complete the sisterhood program — called final profession.
Factors for the decline include the increase in religious options for Catholic women and the order’s rigorous commitment to poverty, chastity and obedience.
Also, many lay people are doing the works sisters did for hundreds of years, such as caring for the sick and poor.
Sister Therese O’ Grady, who is guiding Silverstein through the order’s formation period, said she’s not concerned about the decline of sisters or that young women are generally staying away from orders.
After deciding to become a sister, Schwarz in 2002 gave away her personal possessions. Watching strangers enter her Iowa City, Iowa, home and help themselves to her belongings was an odd experience, Schwarz said.
“I thought, ‘What the heck did I just do?’” she said. “Everything that identified me was gone. But I knew that my real identity was that I am a child of God.”
Schwarz was raised within the Lutheran church in Ricketts, Iowa. After graduating from nursing school in 1969, Schwarz worked as a nurse at the University of Iowa in Iowa City for 20 years. She also converted to Catholicism after being drawn to its teachings and stance on abortion.
In the late 1990s, while assistant manager of the critical care unit at Mercy Hospital in Iowa City, Schwarz befriended Benedictine Sister Kathleen Cogan, then chaplain of the critical care unit.
Schwarz asked Cogan many questions about the Benedictine order. Eventually Cogan wrote a letter to Schwarz asking when she was going to consider being a sister.
Schwarz threw away the letter, Cogan said, but then she came around. “The first thing I knew, she was knocking on the door,” she said.
Since coming to Benet Hill in March 2002, Schwarz’s life has changed dramatically. Schwarz, who never married, gave up a high-paying job and independent life for a $75 a month allowance, eating meals communally and boarding in a house with two other sisters.
“Everything about it rewarded my ego — money, medical insurance, praise,” Schwarz said of her past life. “Now, I am more God-oriented and no more ego-oriented.
“In the world there is an interior pulse of anxiety,” Schwarz said. “That’s gone for me.”
A native of Colorado Springs, Silverstein graduated from the Springs’ Police Academy in 1988 and became an El Paso County sheriff ’s deputy in 1990, working in the county jail.
Though raised Catholic, Silverstein didn’t become deeply interested in the faith until the early 1990s. In 2002 she started a four-year Scripture course at Benet Hill, and by 2005 was playing guitar and singing at Benet Hill Chapel.
“The more you hang around the nuns, the more you become one,” said Silverstein, who never married.
While Schwarz is thoughtful and reflective, Silverstein is extroverted and unguarded in her comments. She seems more like a jovial neighbor you could have a beer with than an ascetic Benedictine sister.
Silverstein quit the sheriff ’s office in May 2006 and moved to the monastery two months later. She lives with six other women, all in their 70s, in a large house on the campus.
Becoming a full-fledged sister requires passing through the stages of affiliate, candidate, novitiate and temporary professed. As a novice, the name for women in the novitiate category, for the next two years Silverstein is engaged in formal Benedictine studies and spends substantial time in solitude and reflection. Some parts of her day are spent meditating and gardening.
Sitting in an oversize chair in her bedroom, Silverstein said, “Every day is an evaluation. But there remains that draw to look for something deeper.”