New ethnic members reshaping American women’s religious orders

Women’s religious orders are seeing an increasing number of members from new immigrant groups and in the process are changing their structure and activities, writes Thu Do, a nun and researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. Writing in the Jesuit magazine America (October), Do notes that “new members of religious orders are increasingly the children or grandchildren of immigrants from Catholic countries outside of Europe, including Mexico, Nigeria, the Philippines, and Vietnam. They come from families in which devotional practices and religious engagement are often more visible than in families who have long been in the United States, and these practices are influential in their vocational discernment.” Do adds that over the last decade, about 7 in 10 members in formation have been white, compared with 9 in 10 among members who have professed perpetual vows. While women religious of color now make up 13 percent of full members, they make up 3 in 10 among members in formation, “which means that women of color will make up an increasing share of sisters at religious institutes.”

Many of these new nuns are not native English speakers, with Spanish and Vietnamese being the most common languages. Some of these nuns and postulants study at international institutes, which were started in the 1960s, with some, such as orders in Vietnam, arriving in the U.S. to escape persecution. Other institutes “arrive with a desire to evangelize American culture, which they see as worldly, materialistic, and lacking in spirituality,” Do writes. Because of these changes, religious institutes are generating a range of unique innovations—“from restructuring governance by merging with other provinces or institutes to collaborating with other religious institutes to reassess where their motherhouses should be located and how they can include younger, foreign-born, and culturally and ethnically diverse sisters in their leadership.” The Dominican Sisters of Mary Immaculate Province in Houston was founded in 1975 by sisters who had fled wartime Vietnam and has grown to about 100 professed members.