Less than 5 percent of American sisters are under age 50.
CLEVELAND (AP) -- Think Debbie Reynolds riding a motor scooter and singing "Dominique" in "The Singing Nun." Or Sally Field soaring in and out of trouble as "The Flying Nun." Or Julie Andrews being late for prayer because the hills were alive with "The Sound of Music."
Religious life seemed a lot simpler in the mid-1960s. The popular cultural image of happy young nuns gently testing boundaries set by older sisters in bustling convents reflected a high point when the number of American sisters stretched toward 180,000.
It is not so easy being young in religious life today.
Over the past four decades, the numbers in religious orders have declined rapidly even as the median ages of their sisters jumped into the 70s. Nuns under age 50 now make up about 5 percent of sisters nationwide, and can find themselves isolated in a sea of older women in their own communities.
What they have a special need for -- and what a new group holding a four-day national conference through Sunday at John Carroll University is seeking to provide -- is a place to come together to find their place in religious life in the 21st century.
For this weekend, some 125 young nuns across the country can be in a community where they are the majority, and exchange ideas and experiences in four days of lectures, worship, meetings and fellowship at JCU.
Giving Voice, the 6-year-old national group for nuns under 50, is a source of affirmation in the face of some tough realities, some younger sisters said.
"There's just that sense, yes, this is our time," said Maria Cimperman, an Ursuline sister here. "There's nothing in me that says religious life is over. Even when I struggle, God is calling me, and God is calling us."
Filling other roles
From the turn of the century until the mid-1960s, the number of nuns rose steadily and rapidly, growing fourfold to about 180,000 by 1965. The number of sisters had dropped to 70,000 by last year, and the majority of the remaining nuns are over 70.
Women still are entering religious orders and in many ways this generation raised after the groundbreaking Second Vatican Council is establishing its own identity. Today, women are serving as theologians, pastoral administrators, housing planners and in other nontraditional roles in an evolving mission to serve the needy.
But where once incoming classes of 10 or 12 gave young sisters an immediate peer group for mutual support, today young nuns can find themselves with few people to talk to in their order who understand their generation's music, life experiences or even their theological influences.
"It's not that it's not heard," Sister Mary Stanco, 38, of the Sisters of Humility of Mary in Cleveland, said about raising issues from her perspective. "It's misunderstood."
What Giving Voice offers younger nuns who may be the only person under 50 in their congregations is a sense that what they see in isolation as individual experiences are really the experiences of a generation, said Sister Kristin Matthes, 40, national director. This new group of nuns has an intense concern for social justice.
Sister Maria, who entered the Ursuline Order at age 22 in 1986, said the martyrdom of Cleveland Ursuline nun Dorothy Kazel in El Salvador in 1980 answered the question burning inside her: "How do you love so deeply and so fully that come what may, you say yes?"
Sister Mary entered the Sisters of Humility of Mary as a 29-year-old in 1996. The seed of religious life for the lay social worker was planted in Magnificat High School, where sisters taught their passion for a faith that inspires work for social justice.
Post-Vatican II nuns also have a lot more freedom to choose how they live out their vocation than nuns of earlier generations, who were funneled into parochial schools, hospitals or other institutions run by their orders.
For example, Sister Maria teaches social ethics and moral theology to graduate students at the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio. Sister Beth Rancourt, 48, a Sister of Notre Dame, is a pastoral associate at St. Rita in Solon. Sister Mary is director of research and planning for Humility of Mary Housing Inc.
That freedom extends to social relationships. The nuns no longer face curfews in convents and are more free to have friendships with married couples and people of both sexes.
The younger nuns say they benefit by having so many "wisdom figures."
Last Sunday, at the Ursuline motherhouse in Pepper Pike, Sister Mary Andrew, 95, clasped the hands of Sister Maria. She has been a "pray-er" for the younger nun since she entered the order, saying the rosary every day for nearly two decades.
For her part, Sister Maria appreciates the intergenerational friendships.
"They walk with me. I walk with them," she said.
The walk is not always easy. There are financial burdens imposed by an imbalance of working nuns paying the health care costs of older sisters and there is the emotional toll of seeing the suffering of many friends at the end of their lives.