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More than prayer: Even the closed Carmelite sisters of Quidenham, shown here harvesting their own vegetables, live surprisingly dynamic lives

In Obedience, a new novel by Jacqueline Yallop about the closing of a French convent, the remaining nuns lament their imminent separation as they eat dinner together. Little by little, details such as the "baggy peel" of an old orange, the deafness of one sister and the incontinence of another accumulate to depict with aching candour their bleak little trinity and the demise of convent life. 

But how close is fiction to the truth? Catholic nuns in Western Europe certainly seem to be in decline. In England and Wales, the Conference of Religious counts around 6,000 members across 185 women's religious orders, but many communities are made up of just a handful of nuns. A recent study conducted by Compass found that 37 women entered holy orders in 1999. In 2009 this had fallen to just 21. By comparison, 15 men entered in 1999, rising to 26 in 2009. Of the trickle of new postulants choosing the religious life, many are not British-born but from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. Nuns have played a significant but often underappreciated role in British culture and history, from preserving national artifacts to pioneering women's education. But while Catholicism is growing, convents, it appears, are not.

Almost all convents now face real financial strain. To make ends meet, they are selling off assets, awakening their entrepreneurial spirits by creating their own order-branded produce, and opening their doors to paying guests. Indeed, the fashion for religious retreats, where stressed-out secularists can hole themselves up without BlackBerrys for distraction has even spawned an annual handbook listing over 200 programmes across the UK. Most convents now have their own websites, many with sisters' blogs, prayer podcasts and detailed question-and-answer pages on life in their communities. Yet we still know very little about nuns, despite their vigorous attempts at self-promotion.

Sister Teresa Keswick is a member of the closed Carmelite community in Quidenham, Norfolk. A former criminal barrister, she has been a nun for 27 years. She was educated at a French boarding school where a discernible reverence for nuns was instilled in the pupils: "Despite being a cradle Catholic I was very ignorant about nuns. We were once taken on a school trip to visit a Dominican order in Paris. I had absolutely no interest in joining them, but I knew they were there. Children are not educated at school about nuns. Even many Catholics these days just don't know we exist."

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Sam Macomb
October 14th, 2011
5:10 PM
Sam Macomb I converted to Catholicism in 2009. I was raised Episcopalian but attended two Catholic high schools. It took me awhile, but I realized there was something missing at mass and about the parish (which has a robust K-12 program). Nuns. After a awhile I did notice a group of four nuns, black, possibly from the Caribbean. They drove about in small Japanese SUV and wore unmistakable blue habits. In high school nuns -- Sisters of St. Joseph and Dominicans -- were still prominent. The late Prof. Ralph McInerny has written -- even in his Fr. Dowling mystery novels -- of what happened in part. But yes, things are changing. In a recent edition of the Wall Street Journal, Bill McGowan wrote of the Sisters of Life who have their origins in challenge from the late John Cardinal O'Connor of New York. There is, as Silvana writes above, "something... in the air." I cannot imagine the Church without them.

Rich
October 14th, 2011
2:10 PM
As a lay person, I am so grateful to these brides of Christ. And the Carmelites, in particular, are the special forces of the Church militant. May God bless all of these religious sisters! I checked out their website, and it does not look like the sisters in Sister Gemma's congregation have habits (she is not pictured with one). She says in this article, "People enter religious orders because they are looking for a different way of living. And we no longer have a really unusual lifestyle." I would suggest that marks of distinction, like the habit, would certainly attract people. The congregations showing growth (CFR Sisters, Sisters of Life) are those who wear habits.

Barbara Sweeney
October 1st, 2011
4:10 PM
Ihave been working for two years as vocations promoter for my congregation, the Society of the Sacred Heart, and it seems to me that what attracts is not what we do but why we do what we do,the vision/charism which inspires our life. We have to love our life and live it with enthusiasm and learn how to communicate it to others I think.

D. Catherine Wybourne
September 30th, 2011
12:09 PM
Thank you. I'm not sure about the decline in vocations (for instance, we have more people interested in joining us than we have room for: from Canada, USA and Britain), but I do agree that nuns tend to be 'forgotten'. People often make assumptions which are wide of the mark, and the chances of meeting nuns nowadays is rather less than hitherto. It isn't accessibility that is the issue as much as finding new ways of sharing and engaging.

Silvana rscj
September 28th, 2011
3:09 PM
A timely article. Like Gemma I would say there certainly has been a resurgence, not only in interest in religious life, but in women actually coming forward and wanting to commit themselves to God in this radical way. Earlier this month three British-born women - aged 27, 34 and 42 - joined my own congregation, the Society of the Sacred Heart. And they're not alone: there are other young women at various stages of discerning with us, plus we know they will have peers in other congregations. Something good and generous is definitely in the air!

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