With just a fifth of the number of nuns in Maine today as there were 50 years ago, the Roman Catholic church is augmenting prayer with social media in the face of declining numbers. Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook and more have become a way that some convents are trying to attract new members.
According to Dave Guthro, spokesman for the Diocese of Portland, there were 1,131 sisters in 1967 in the state and that number shrunk to 226 by 2015, the most recent year for which he had statistics.
“Various factors have contributed to the decreasing number of sisters,” Sister Rita-Mae Bissonnette, of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary and chancellor for the diocese, said. “Women have greater opportunities for education and careers than they did decades ago. It’s also become acceptable to be a single woman without being a sister.”
Much like what’s being seen in Maine, the number of women around the country entering the convent has declined steadily over the last 50 years, according to statistics compiled by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, or CARA. In 1965 there were 179,954 religious sisters in the U.S. By 2016 that number dropped to just 47,170.
It’s a brave new world for the faithful
There was a time, said Sister Cynthia Serjak, spokeswoman for the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, when a Catholic girl had daily interactions with nuns, either at school or through the church.
“Things are different now and that world no longer exists,” she said. “Many women grow up very Catholic but never meet a sister because there are not so many of us left, so as those girls come into adulthood they may not know sisterhood is an option.”
Serjak is based in the order’s institutional office in Silver Springs, Maryland, and works with new members. There are 61 Sisters of Mercy of the Americas living and serving in Maine. At its height, there were 365 in 1960.
“As of August we will have 26 young women becoming sisters,” Serjak said. “About half of those are in the US and the others scattered around the world.”
She said the order would love to see stronger numbers, but they feel blessed there are women still answering a call to serve. Her order has turned to online technology to reach as many of the faithful as possible.
“We are very active on social media,” Serjak said “We have a person in our office dedicated to it. We are active on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest.”
Serjak said use of social media has had a major impact on recruitment by allowing the sisters to target a younger demographic.
“Sometimes we have a special program like a Facebook Live event with a couple of our sisters,” she said. “Or if there is a show on television that includes sisters we will do live tweets as it airs.”
It seems to be working.
“We are getting one or more online inquiries a day [and] so far for July we’ve gotten 40,” Serjak said. “When I arrived here in 2010 we were getting six to eight inquiries a month, so that is how much social media has helped.”
In Maine, Bissonnette said she isn’t a huge fan of social media but, for some orders, use of online communications has indeed proven to be a viable option to attract members.
“It really depends on the individual religious community because they all have their own strategies for communication,” Bissonnette said. “Some may communicate with things like Twitter, but I still use and like one-on-one contact.”
And then there were two
The declining interest in nunhood has reached the tipping point at the Monastery of the Precious Blood in Portland where just two members are left to live a life of prayer and intercession away from the outside world.
“We do not use social media,” Sister Mary Catherine of the monastery said. “That could be one of the reasons we are seeing declining vocations. Even those orders using social media or technology are experiencing declining numbers.”
Catherine said her order’s cloistered lifestyle in which they spend their days and nights in prayer and silent contemplation is very foreign to modern society.
“It seems in today’s culture it is one of everyone being connected to everywhere and everyone else with screen time,” she said. “Ours is a protected prayer life. You could say we are at the very end stage of our order here in Maine.”
Catherine said she does venture outside the monastery to shop for groceries or for medical attention and she does use the internet to order supplies online.
Laughingly calling her basic “flip phone” her “dumb phone,” Catherine said she does not feel the need to be connected to technology.
“We live outside the world, although we are in the world. We need to keep our hearts in a cloistered situations as we do go out into the world,” Catherine said.
Even at its height the monastery had just 14 members in the 1960s and 1970s, Catherine said. A series of deaths of its members took a toll in the 1980s.
And while she does get inquiries from time to time from women interested in learning about the life of a cloistered nun, it has been years since anyone has followed through and joined.
She agreed that increased options for women has had a tremendous impact on declining numbers in religious organizations and sees a time when her order in Maine ceases to exist.
“For us we are probably getting ready to move into a different phase,” Catherine said. “But what exactly the Lord has in mind we do not know.”
A life of religion is very much an option in the modern world
For some women who contact the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, according to Serjak, there is a desire to serve God, but a bit of confusion on how to do so.
“They have the interest to serve but some are not Catholic and don’t know they have to be Catholic to become nuns,” she said. “When I am responding to them I do a lot of pastoral work rather than vocational and help them get connected to resources that fit their needs.”
For those Catholic women showing a serious intent to join the order, Serjak refers them on to begin the process of becoming a nun.
“I am the person who sorts out all the inquiries,” she said. “There are a lot of young women who want to make a difference in the world and are not sure how to do it. Maybe it’s God calling them or maybe we can find another way for them.”
That is an important point to keep in mind, Bissonnette said.
“There are simply more choices and options today to be involved,” she said. “Yes, there is a decline in our numbers, but it’s not because people are less generous or willing to help.”
The bottom line, Bissonnette said, is if there is a will, God will find a way be it on social media, spiritual counseling or contemplative private prayer.
“If the Lord is calling to them, they will find a way to respond,” she said.