Sisters of the religious order Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, in the Austin area in September. (Courtesy of Sister Elizabeth Ann.)
BURNET — Instead of the name of her school, the sparkly letters on Caroline Smith’s homecoming mum, or large corsage, spelled “Jesus is my homecoming king.”
The mum was a gift that the religious order Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, presented to Smith at a late October retreat for women considering religious life. Sympathetic to the fact that the retreat conflicted with Smith’s homecoming dance, the sisters had made her a Dominican-themed mum with a white flower, black and white ribbons and the order’s emblem, which depicts Mary and the infant Jesus.
The retreat drew 29 high school- and college-age Roman Catholic women and was led by the Texas contingent of the Dominican Sisters of Mary. The religious order, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., was founded by four sisters in 1997 and now numbers more than 120. In 2009, eight sisters came to Austin at the invitation of Bishop Gregory Aymond to teach and establish the order’s first permanent residence outside Michigan. “The growth of the church is in the South and Southwest, and it made sense to go where the growth is,” said Sister Elizabeth Ann, 41, director of the Texas mission advancement office. About a quarter of Texans identify as Catholic. The Austin Diocese, where the sisters live and teach, has 530,000 Catholics and anticipates growing to 800,000 by 2030 or 2040.
Today 11 sisters live in convents in Austin; in Buda, south of Austin; and on a 60-acre site east of Georgetown, where they plan to break ground in 2015 on a priory that can house 100.
The growth and youth of the Dominican Sisters of Mary run counter to national trends among Roman Catholic religious orders. According to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, the number of religious women in the United States has declined to fewer than 50,000 from its peak of about 180,000 in 1965. A 2009 joint report by the center and the National Religious Vocation Conference found that less than 3 percent were younger than 50. The average age of the Dominican Sisters of Mary is 30.
The sisters take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They wear a white habit they sew themselves and a black veil.
For Alexandra Elizondo, 19, a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin and a participant in the October retreat, the habit is a “very attractive feature of this order” and mitigates the loss of material possessions required by the vow of poverty. When she first considered religious life, she said, she worried about giving up her scarf collection. “But then I was like, ‘Hey, I get to wear a really cool habit and a veil.’ That’s so much better than having a scarf collection.”
Catholic religious orders generally affiliate with either the Leadership Conference of Women Religious or the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. The Dominican Sisters of Mary are part of the latter organization, members of which are more traditional and more likely to wear full habits. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate report and research led by scholar Mary Gautier found that in recent years, the two conferences have attracted roughly equal numbers of women, though those drawn to orders within the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious skew younger. Millennial women, born in 1982 or later, in both conferences were more likely than older sisters to value the wearing of a habit.
Smith, 17, said she had become interested in religious life very young, declaring in first grade that her career goal was to become either a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader or a religious sister. The latter interest resurfaced in her teenage years, when she increasingly felt an “inner longing to give myself totally to something bigger than myself” and met the sisters at her school, St. Dominic Savio Catholic High School in Austin.
Some women have learned about the Dominican Sisters of Mary from “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” which ran two segments about the order in 2010. After Sister Ava Lynk, 19, heard about the segments from a priest in her hometown, Round Rock, she watched the order’s YouTube videos. She emailed the sisters, thinking they were only in Michigan, “but then I realized that they had a house 10 minutes from where I lived, and I was so surprised,” she said. “I could walk.” She began attending Sunday vespers and later transferred to Savio High School.
Lynk and a another Savio graduate, Sister Robyn Aanstoos, 19, are among 14 women who entered the convent in Ann Arbor in August. Called postulants, the women spend a year adjusting to life in the religious community before becoming novices.
Lynk now wakes at 5 a.m. for prayers, studies much of the day and relaxes in the afternoon by playing sports or Scrabble with the other sisters. The postulants wear a white button-down shirt and a blue polyester skirt and vest, which they will trade for the novice’s habit and white veil next year, when they also will receive a religious name.
“I’ve just desired to be a sister for so long,” Lynk said, “and to be called Sister Ava is so exciting. When I was still in the world, when I would get dressed, I would wish that I had a habit to put on, because I just knew God was calling me.”