Sister  What They Do

Just the Facts

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dotWomen religious is today's preferred phrase. It encompasses both those who have chosen to live as nuns as a member of a cloistered community, and those who live as a sister -- a part of a congregation that engages in active ministry.

They've chosen a life dedicated to serving God's people. And they are women who usually engage in a particular ministry that matches their own interests and gifts.

"The choice of ministries today is limitless! While some sisters continue to be involved in institutions of education and health care, many are active in parish and diocesan administration," says Sister Linda Roby.

"Still others choose to concentrate their efforts in specific areas that promote peace and justice and the dignity of each human person," she says.

dotSisters are found in many walks of life, as spiritual directors, genetic counselors, attorneys, communications specialists, chaplains, social workers, doctors, psychiatrists, nurses and more.

Sister Maureen Skelly works with Mt. Manresa Jesuit Retreat House. "You even find them doing ordinary stuff like working at the telephone company where you wouldn't expect to find them," she says. "You can bring the word of God wherever God leads you."

Sister Mary Christelle Macaluso of the College of St. Mary is a professional speaker who calls herself Fun Nun. She agrees. "However, whatever ministry we take is not with the intention of getting more of the material things in this world, but with the intention of serving others and bringing them closer to God," she says.

dotSisters devote much of their time to prayer, to the spiritual healing of the sick and the poor and to spreading the message of love, peace and joy. In between, they may work 40 hours a week at a regular job and spend their evenings and weekends with their vocation.

"Though ministry is a very important aspect of our lives, it is not our only focus. Prayer and spiritual growth build and sustain a personal relationship with a loving God. Our vows of simple living [poverty], celibate loving [chastity] and prayerful listening [obedience] are the foundation of our lifestyle and of our life together," explains Roby.

Skelly enjoys her work as a police chaplain, offering a compassionate ear to police officers with problems or concerns. However, she's also comfortable as a fund-raiser, working in the office of a retreat house or planning retreats for the poor and less fortunate.

"I give retreats for men and women, ordinary people, and I offer some 12-step program retreats in which I incorporate tai chi and Reiki. I am also a Reiki master. All of this keeps me very alive," she says.

dotLeadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) communications director Jenean Merkel says things have changed significantly for women religious in the past 40 years.

"One way in which it has is the way sisters find their ministries. While some are still 'placed' and many others are 'sent' or 'affirmed' in their ministries, the sisters themselves take an active role in discerning what it is they want to do and where," she explains.

"On the whole, she will be working in the nonprofit sector and may be able to do the kind of work she could not afford to do without the support of a religious community -- working in a rural area helping to develop people and communities, staffing a homeless shelter or soup kitchen, serving as a missionary in this country or abroad," she says.

dotWhat's also changed for women religious is the rule of wearing a habit or uniform. While some communities still wear veils or some type of habit, many have worn regular clothing since the late 1960s.

"The habits we were wearing in the 1960s, although quite unusual as far as dress goes, were normal clothes for ordinary women in the Middle Ages. Somehow, through the years, we forgot that we needed to keep up with the changing fashions, so we had a lot of catching up to do," says Sister Linda Herndon.

She says some communities wear habits so their sisters will be more visible. "Habits also make life simpler, in that a person does not need a great variety of clothes. This can be a sign that all the sisters are the same -- that some aren't richer than others," she adds.

dotSisters are known for working with those who have special needs. Herndon believes they'd be open to accepting a woman with a special need.

"I am not aware of any sisters who entered our community with special needs. We do have our elderly sisters who are in wheelchairs, or are nearly deaf, some are blind or nearly blind and they are all included in all kinds of activities with those of us who are not disabled."

At a Glance

Help people get closer to God

  • Sisters can work as spiritual directors, genetic counselors, attorneys, communications specialists, chaplains, social workers, doctors, psychiatrists, nurses and more
  • The traditional uniform has been replaced with regular clothing in many cases
  • It's not required, but many sisters are highly educated