What Convent Life Is Really Like In 2017

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
As is often the case with mainstream religions, misconceptions about sisters and their congregations abound. If your best reference for how a nun or Catholic sister behaves is The Sound of Music, it's high time you broadened your perspective. Nothing against Mother Superior, but the sisters of 2017 look rather different from the stern, pious women of public imagination.
We spoke with Sister Karen Burke of the Sisters of St. Joseph, a congregation of Roman Catholic women, who was more than happy to set the record straight about modern-day nun life. "I think people who remain part of the Church see the changes that have taken place among the sisters," she tells us. More often than not, it's those who have an outdated view of women in the Church who make the biggest (and least accurate) assumptions.
Today's Catholic nuns cannot be painted with a broad brush. Their appearances may have changed and they may serve their communities differently nowadays, but they remain fonts of wisdom when it comes to Christian worship and relating to God on a deeply personal level.
Read on to discover Sister Karen's most eye-opening lessons about faith, service, and living as nun. Even if you're well aware of the work that contemporary sisters do, there's still more for you to learn.
1 of 4

Not all nuns look alike.

Sister Karen is accustomed to confusing people upon introduction. The first question she's asked is usually akin to, "Oh, sisters don’t wear habits anymore?" or some other remark on her everyday outfit of jeans and a sweatshirt. While women in other orders may choose to wear a full habit, many congregations no long require it, the Sisters of St. Joseph included.

Beyond their appearance, the fact that Sister Karen and her contemporaries are not cloistered within a convent or religious school comes as a surprise to some. Rather, the sisters spend most of their time out in their local communities, promoting pro-immigration initiatives and access to low-cost food, all while wearing regular clothes.
2 of 4

Ministry has a new mission.

Sister Karen tells us that the Sisters of St. Joseph has always worked in the fields of education and healthcare, but in the past few years they've concerned themselves with, of all things, environmentalism, as well. As the coordinator of her order's land initiatives, Sister Karen is acutely aware of the role that sisters can play in protecting the environment.

"We need to be in partnership with the environmental groups that have been doing this work for a long time," she says. Traditional environmentalists tackle these issues from a purely informational standpoint, but sisters can add a reflective element to discussions around land use by considering the moral and spiritual implications of how we treat the Earth. The best case scenario, Sister Karen explains, is "to bring those skill sets and passions together."

This change is hardly exclusive to the Sister Karen's order. Religious women across the country have aligned themselves with environmental causes. "We’re being called to a new relationship with Earth," Sister Karen says. "We must look to our call to be good stewards of Earth and to take responsibility for Earth at this time."
3 of 4

Faith is always evolving.

Even Catholic sisters, who have committed their lives to serving God, will see their relationship with their religion shift and change with time. As life goes on, "faith continues to emerge," Sister Karen tells us, comparing her spiritual journey to a picture that keeps getting bigger.

But it isn't just that your actions will affect your faith. You might end up seeing more of that picture when you let your beliefs guide your actions, too. Sister Karen describes her decision to leave her career as an educator as a "leap of faith," adding that it surely won't be her last. "Through my own faith and through my own prayer and spirituality, my life will continue to change."
4 of 4

Even mainstream religion is personal.

According to a 2015 Pew Research study, about half of American adults who grew up in Catholic households have left the Church at some point (with very few ever returning). Sister Karen is quick to tell us that she understands why young people would rather identify as spiritual but not religious, but they may have more God in them than they realize.

"They don’t see their voices being heard and they don’t think that their voice can have an impact in the Church today," she says. But, millennials who volunteer within their communities, rally against oppressive laws, or simply support others are living a spiritual life: "They are doing the work of the gospel," Sister Karen says. "They just don’t always recognize that, because their early faith teachings probably didn’t provide them with an open interpretation of the gospel."

If you're among those who left the Church at some point but wish to reconnect with your faith, it's easier than you think. For one thing, don't force yourself to go to Mass if you don't want to, Sister Karen says. "Give yourself time to find a relationship with God. Give yourself time to be receptive, and give yourself prayer time. It’s only through that quiet time that you can really see God in your life and your work."

After that, it's up to you to swing by church or not.

More from Spirit


R29 Original Series