Across the United States, young adults are becoming less religious.
A 2018 and 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that the number of Americans who identify as Christians has dropped 12% over the past decade. The group who described themselves as Catholic, in particular, has also shrunk, leaving a crisis in the Catholic sisterhood. Nuns are growing older and there is a concern that there will be fewer young people looking to join the sisterhood.
According to a recent study, less than 1% of nuns in America are under 40 and the average sister is 80 years old.
Sister Joanne Persch just turned 88. She said that many of her friends who joined her in service in the early 1950s have died. Throughout the painful pandemic and societal upheaval, she said there is still a great need for nuns in America.
“Well, I think it's a big mistake to say that religious life is dying,” said Persch. “And I look around me in our community and I see such vibrant, such life. It's changing and growing into something we can’t even imagine.”
In 2022, there were reportedly fewer than 42,000 nuns in America, which is a 76% decline over 50 years. At the rate sisters are disappearing, one estimate said that there will be fewer than 1,000 nuns left in the United States by 2042, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
Sister Kelly Williams is working toward becoming one of the few nuns still left in the life. She is 34 years old and started her journey nine years ago. She said people are often surprised that she is so “normal.”
“I think I've had people be surprised that I like to listen to music and not all of it is religious,” said Williams, who added that she and her roommates enjoy watching Netflix and Hulu together. “I don't go to bars like I would when I was in college.”
Williams is a former college admissions counselor who lives in Chicago with four other sisters who are close to her age. She expects to take her final vows in a few years and officially become a Catholic sister with the Sisters of Mercy - one of the largest religious orders for Catholic women.
“God's got big plans,” said Williams. “And hopefully, we follow them.”
One thing Williams said she won't be giving up is her Facebook, Instagram or TikTok accounts. She is using social media to help spread awareness of the lifestyle of young nuns.
“I started making videos every Saturday… It's called Saturday Sister Surprise and every Saturday I hide something in my hair and I pull it out. It has been religious items and silly items,” said Williams. “It's something that has brought a lot of joy to people.”
She said she was drawn to the stability of the church and felt a “call” to be a part of it.
“It was a place where you could be educated, was a place where all of these things could happen for you and I think there are so many options that are available,” said Williams. “But you have to want this. This is about God's call and responding to that.”
Williams and her roommates said that young people today are resistant to the structure of religious life and many have been put off by the scandals of the Catholic Church, which they struggle to work past themselves. They said that they pray every day for their future as a sisterhood and ask for strength that more young women will answer the call.
“The American memory is attached to the nun of yesteryear. It's very hard for us now to kind of be breaking through those stereotypes that were established,” said Sister Jane Aseltine. “We are still fighting that battle as younger, religious women to say this is what a typical American nun looks like in today's world.”