The Reality of the Sisterhood

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First Posted: 12/15/2014

A young woman named Christie had a dream that Jesus was flirting with her.

They danced, swaying back and forth as Jesus looked into her eyes in the way a boyfriend would gaze into his girlfriend’s eyes, until Christie finally found herself saying, “Whoa, Jesus. Whoa.”

Christie, featured on the Lifetime reality series “The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns”, about a group of young women exploring the idea of becoming a Catholic sister, claims a romantic connection with Jesus. On the show, the 27-year old singer from Glendale, California, recalls dreams of Jesus introducing her to his parents in the way a boyfriend would introduce a girlfriend — even walking down the aisle to marry the son of God.

Reality television has done a meritorious job at sensationalizing the realities of people who share their lives with television audiences, but claiming to be called to an existence of consecrated life by getting hit on by Jesus?

Is that an exaggerated plot to spike ratings?

Would Jesus even administer such behavior?

According to Sister Mindy Welding, Vocation Director at Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Scranton, Jesus would present himself that way.

When Sr. Mindy watched Christie romanticize Jesus on the show, she was neither surprised nor offended.

“Christie is a young woman who talked about dating on the show and is very flirtatious. Jesus will come to you and speak to you in ways that you understand. For Christie, it was through flirting. He came to her in her natural realm. If he came to her in any other way, she may not have understood that Jesus was calling her for religious life,” she said.

Sr. Mindy explained that women don’t enter religious life as saints, with a halo around their head; they are just like everybody else.

“We, as sisters, are as human as everyone else. We live our life in a different way, called to live this vowed religious life,” Sr. Mindy said.

Sisters grew up with hopes and dreams. Some even had relationships they left behind to fulfill a calling in their lives.

This is their story…

A funny thing happened while watching Lifetime at a convent

It’s a Thursday afternoon at the Immaculate Heart of Mary convent in Scranton. Vocation Director Sr. Mindy Welding and Sr. Fran Fasolka welcome sisters from other convents into their parlor; not for prayer; not to read the Bible; not even to really discuss God. They’ve joined to watch a reality show on Lifetime. Present is Sr. Kathleen Murphy and Sr. Theresa Louisa of Little Sisters of the Poor, also in Scranton and Sr. Mary Beth Makuch of St. Cyril and Methodius in Olyphant.

Snacks are neatly assorted on the coffee table. Popcorn. Chips. Chocolate. They’re even drinking out of red Solo cups (water, but a red Solo cup is apparently the beverage holder of choice even for a get-together with sisters).

The reality show they are about to watch has no sex. No drugs or alcohol. No cat-fights. In fact, arguing of any kind is strictly prohibited. The young women starring in the show are not competing for the love of an eligible bachelor but are united on a journey to discover if they want to give their lives to Jesus.

“I was skeptical when I first heard of the show [The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns] on Lifetime,” Sr. Mindy said, explaining that after producers made a spectacle of the Amish community on TLC’s “Breaking Amish” she was concerned about how her lifestyle would be portrayed.

That apprehension almost prevented Mother Mark Louis Randall O. Carmelite, Superior General of the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm from participating in the show when casting producers approached her convent in Germantown, New York, with the idea.

“We were very hesitant at first because it was not to be filmed for Catholic media and we did not know what the slant on the subject would be. We spent many hours discussing with the media company and network executives before being convinced that they wished to portray religious life respectfully and realistically,” Mother Mark said.

The Sisters of the Carmelite, who have sisters who serve Little Flowers Manor/St. Therese Residence and St. Luke’s Villa in Wilkes-Barre, ultimately decided not to pass up the exposure.

“We saw it as an opportunity to speak about the joys of serving the Lord to a large audience of people with either no faith or at many different stages of their faith journey. Also, a way to show a better, more balanced view of what religious life is all about, not just the usual stereotypes,” Mother Mark said.

When the first episode started playing in the convent parlor, the sisters were focused; curious.

As the first episode progressed, the sisters became engaged with the show; laughing; commenting; relating.

When cast-member Christie shared her decision to go on the show with a friend, she was told, “I mean, ‘obvi’ you’re not going to be making out with dudes when you’re a sister.”

The sisters watching chuckled, mocking what the girl said in amusement, as any other group of friends would probably do. When it came to cast-member Eseni describing how much she anticipated the “no drama” lifestyle of sisters, laughter continued.

“‘No drama’. Everybody in life has drama, no matter who you are. Even sisters,” laughed Sr. Mary Beth.

During a commercial break, the sisters complimented the casting of the show.

“The show is very accurate,” Sr. Kathleen said.

According to Sr. Mindy, the cast is assembled from a diverse group of young women with different personalities that viewers may relate to during their ups-and-downs, confusion or desire to want to be closer to God.

“The show accurately portrays their struggles, the questions they have, different ways or styles of praying and different levels of readiness or maturation in the discernment process,” Sr. Mindy said.

The young women on the show are going through discernment, just one stage of a lengthy process to become a sister that could take anywhere from three to nine years.

“For most religious congregations there would be an initial ‘getting to know you’ phase where a woman would contact the vocation director and the two would build a relationship. The director of vocation would invite the woman to specific events, prayer, convents and liturgies to help the woman come to know who we are as a group, as individuals and a bit about our life altogether. We also become more acquainted with the woman herself and come to know who she is and what she has to offer, what she hopes for and how she desires this life, which may include an extended stay with us as a period of preparation to further discern her call,” Sr. Mindy explained.

The second phase is more serious.

“From discernment, the next phase is a time to engage with the director of vocations regularly in order to speak about the readiness of the person to enter a more serious phase of desiring to follow the call to become a religious sister. The vocation director would then ask her to apply for entrance. If accepted, the woman begins what is called candidacy or postulancy. She may live with the sisters on a mission site or live on her own but have responsibilities for learning about the life of the congregation,” Sr. Mindy said.

From there, the next phase would be the novitiate phase, a time of more intense study of religious life, the history of the specific congregation, the vows and a full year of reflective time to discern if the woman is ready for temporary vows for three years. A that time, the sister lives in a community with other sisters and is involved with a ministry. The temporary vows last until the sister is ready to make the Final Profession of Vows and becomes a sister of a particular congregation for the rest of her life.

“The idea that a young woman could decide if she wants to become a sister in six weeks, like on the show, is just not possible. Nobody can make a major life decision like that in six weeks,” Sr. Mary Beth said.

The decision to not get married nor have a family

Perhaps the reason it takes years before a woman can become a sister is because they have to be sure they are willing to leave behind the life they know for a consecrated one.

“We honor three vows. The vow of poverty. The vow of obedience. The vow of chastity,” Sr. Fran said.

On the show, one young woman cried to her mother at the thought of not being able to get married and start a family.

“It’s a decision we all had to consider before becoming a sister,” Sr. Mary Beth said.

For Sr. Mindy, the decision to not get married and have a family is something she has struggled with over the years.

“I had a boyfriend until the day I joined. My boyfriend was even at my party. He was so supportive and understood my calling. We’re still friends on Facebook. He has a beautiful, wonderful wife now and a family. As I got a little older, it hit me that I will never have a child. It bothered me. But I realized that with my position as a sister, I have done so much mothering, reaching so many more people than I ever could have if I had my own children,” Sr. Mindy shared.

Others sacrificed career-driven dreams. On “The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns”, a young woman named Stacey gave up her dreams of being on Broadway to consider becoming a sister.

“When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a school teacher. I used to gather around all of the kids from the neighborhood and line them up and pretend to teach them,” Sr. Kathleen shared. While some sisters are school teachers, she chose to join a congregation that didn’t teach.

Sr. Theresa admitted there was a time when dancing was her passion.

“I always loved to dance. I traveled around the world with a dancing group. I loved it,” she said.

However, as did the other sisters, Sr. Theresa claimed her calling ultimately lead her to religious life.

The future of the sisterhood

Some of the young women on “The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns” experience a culture-shock when it comes to turning in their cell phones, not wearing makeup or saying goodbye to a boyfriend. In a generation where filtering your Instagram photos to look your best and living with significant others before marriage is common.

The vows necessary for religious life may be difficult for young people to understand, begging the question, do sisters fear the future of the sisterhood?

Mother Mark said she feels the future of women considering religious life ultimately depends on the Lord.

“If the Lord wishes this life to continue, we believe he will show us the way. We do have to do our part, however, and not sit back and wait for young women to come to us. I do think the pendulum is swinging back the other way,” she said.

Mother Mark insists women need to have the value of their decision to join religious life validated by others, including their family. For Sr. Fran of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Scranton, the decision for her to become a sister is something her family struggled to understand.

“My family members are extremely proud to have a religious sister in the family. However, I think it’s difficult for them to understand why I’d want to make vows of poverty, chastity and obedience for my entire life,” Sr. Fran said.

Even if you don’t believe in the Catholic religion — or God — it is important to remember that people who live differently than you may not always be so different, especially the young women on Lifetime’s “The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns” and the sisters who serve the community of northeastern Pennsylvania.