Meet Sister Rachel: A young nun in a disappearing world

A young nun in a disappearing world

At Bethesda’s Little Flower Parish, Sister Rachel and her elderly counterparts keep the faith as their ranks dwindle

Published on September 16, 2015

Sister Rachel Terry has a confession to make.

“I really, really like ’90s pop music,” says the 35-year-old nun, who teaches music at Little Flower Parish elementary school in Bethesda. “I like to sing it loud in the car. I like to dance to it. TLC and Destiny’s Child? That’s my favorite music as a musician and a church member.”

THE FRANCIS FACTOR:
Illustration by Maria Corte

Schedule: What Pope Francis will do during his trip to Washington, New York and Philadelphia.

Sign up here to follow Washington Post stories about Pope Francis’s visit, and we’ll e-mail you as they’re published.

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Sister Rachel’s housemates appreciate her taste in pop music. They just don’t share it. Sister Ritamary, Sister Madonna Marie, Sister Saint Henry and Sister Rosemaron — the four nuns who live with Sister Rachel in the convent next to the elementary school where they work in this wealthy Washington suburb — are all four decades her senior. They’re a generation (or three) removed from such hits as “Say My Name” and “Baby-Baby-Baby.”

But if they don’t boast the same knowledge of ’90s hits, the five sisters — all members of the Immaculate Heart of Mary order — believe that what they do have in common is timeless: a desire to devote their lives to service, sacrifice, teaching and prayer, and to be a reflection, they hope, of the life of Jesus. It is a lifestyle that gives them spiritual sustenance and a guiding purpose. But finding others to share that journey is proving ever more difficult.

Fifty years ago, deciding to become a nun was not at all uncommon. The U.S. population was 195 million in 1965, and there were about 181,000 nuns, the peak number for religious sisters in the country, according to a 2009 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

Today there are 321 million Americans and approximately 48,000 nuns. And the vast majority of them are retired. Sixty-nine percent of all nuns are 70 or older. Just 3 percent of nuns in the United States are under age 49.

Nuns across the country are grappling with this dropoff and what it means for their futures. Though part of the Catholic Church, their orders are mostly financially independent. Now they worry about how they will pay for increasing health-care and insurance costs in their rapidly aging ranks, with many nuns no longer able to work and earn an income. They worry about whether they can even continue to exist, a concern that is all the more remarkable given what a significant role nuns played in the 20th-century American church.

The caricature of the nun is one with a rosary in one hand and a knuckle-rapping ruler in the other. But, in fact, American nuns were both leaders and foot soldiers in education, hospitals, orphanages, old-age homes and a wide range of social services. They also took lead roles in the civil rights movement and on social justice issues. For many American Catholics, their most frequent and sustained interactions with religious figures were with nuns, not priests.

As a young woman who chose to become a nun in the United States in the 21st century, Sister Rachel knows that she is a rarity. The numbers in her order reflect the national trends. There are close to 400 sisters, but only three are in their 30s. There are none in their 20s. And yet she seems thoroughly unvexed by the predicament of American nuns.

“I didn’t look at our sisters and say, ‘This is a group of dying women.’ I don’t think anyone would enter a congregation like that,” she says. “Our order is very full of life. It’s a vibrant group of women.”

When Pope Francis visits the United States next week, nuns here will be paying close attention to his words to see whether he will acknowledge their contributions and suggest what might be done to ensure their continued and vital presence. And when he celebrates Mass at Catholic University on Sept. 23, Sister Rachel will be a member of the Archdiocesan Papal Mass Choir that greets him. She will not be singing “Baby-Baby-Baby.” She’ll be singing Latin chants, Aaron Copland compositions and traditional hymns in Spanish and English. And her sisters from the convent at Little Flower will be in the audience, rooting her on.

Sister Rachel helps Sister Rosemaron, the school’s principal, carry a life-sized cutout of Pope Francis. “He’s the man to lead people through the turbulence of these days.” Sister Rosemaron says. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

The decision

“Why?”

That’s the question that Sister Rachel says she heard most about deciding to become a nun. It wasn’t asked with disapproval, but with real curiosity. Some wanted to know whether she had a Eureka moment or whether she knew all along. In Rachel’s case, the answer is neither.

As a teenager growing up in a middle-class family in Millville, N.J., in the mid-1990s, Rachel Terry wasn’t thinking about eventually living in a convent. She went to a public high school. She was a member of the band and performed in musicals and plays. She went on dates and went to prom.

“I wasn’t strongly focused on the church or religion,” she says. “It was definitely a part of my life, but it wasn’t the main thrust of my high school experience.”

That began to change when she began her freshman year at Marywood University, a small Catholic college in Scranton, Pa. Many of her teachers were nuns. They were an intrinsic part of university life, in class and outside of it.

“The spirit of the sisters was very present,” she says. “I felt this really intense connection to that spirit. And I really enjoyed the sisters because they were all the things I thought I could be: very competent, professional, happy. They loved life.”

She felt called and yet at the same time she was skeptical of that calling.

“It felt like a mind game that I was playing with myself,” she says. “So I would consistently ask for clarity, which . . . is not God’s major forte.

“I would do really juvenile things. Like I’d be in the practice room and say, ‘Okay, God, if I get through this whole Chopin nocturne without making one single mistake, then I’ll know that you want me to be a nun.’ And then I’d mess up all over the place. Or if I got to the end without messing up I’d say, ‘Well, that was a fluke, let me try it again.’ ”

Eventually she became more comfortable with the decision. She talked about it with her close friends. Telling her family was next.

It was the summer of 2001 when she broke the news to her parents and three siblings after dinner in their kitchen. Her mother dropped the laundry basket she was carrying. Everyone looked stunned.

“Like anything else that a teenager does, you wonder: How long is this going to last,” says Kathleen Terry, Sister Rachel’s mother. “At first, I was confounded. But as time went by and we realized she was very serious about this, we just accepted it the way you accept whatever your children do.”

Kathleen and her husband, David, were both involved in the church and choir and music ministry. Faith was a key element of their family. It wasn’t that their daughter’s decision went against their wishes, it’s just that they knew it was a radical choice for a young woman at the time.

“Of course, I’m thinking, selfishly, I want grandchildren,” says Kathleen, with a laugh. She says her friends tried to get her to change her daughter’s mind and notes that at the time the church was especially unpopular because of the emerging sexual abuse scandal that was rocking the priesthood.

“We were grateful she had that strength in her, because, whoo, that was a gutsy move,” says Kathleen. “Now I think it’s the best decision she could have ever made.”

Sister Rachel knows that her decision has ruled out other possibilities. She will probably move often, making it harder to put down roots in a community. She will not be wealthy. The salary she makes goes directly to her order; she receives a small monthly stipend. And though she grew up in a close and happy family, she knows that motherhood and family life will not happen for her.

“No matter what path you choose, you’re saying yes to something and no to something else,” she says. “I’m not grieving for those things I didn’t choose.”

On this September day, the path she has chosen has led her to the front of her music class of 28 wriggly fifth-grade boys and girls. A sign, “Make a Joyful Noise!,” hangs on the wall of this bright music room where she teaches up to six classes a day.

Sister Rachel is wearing a blue Oxford blouse and long khaki skirt, and she starts the session with a question.

“What songs do you hear at games that get you excited? “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” a girl pipes up. “We Will Rock You” a boy blurts enthusiastically. “Yes,” says Sister Rachel, smiling. “Always good to have a little Queen.”

Soon she is teaching them a new song, “Tina Singu,” which she tells them is popular at soccer games in South Africa. Within minutes she has them singing in harmony. Then she works on the rhythm, handing out drums and cowbells and sticks. The kids are smiling, dancing, singing, eating it up. She explains that the song’s lyrics translate to “We’re on fire with life” and then she asks the kids what other ways they can show they are on fire with life. It’s a subtle spiritual question woven into a 45-minute music lesson. For Sister Rachel, it is all part of a day’s work. Of a life’s work.

Top:: Sister Rachel Terry, second from right, at dinner with, from left, Sister Rosemaron, Sister Madonna Marie and Sister Ritamary on the porch of the convent at Little Flower Parish in Bethesda. Bottom: Sister Rachel, a fan of ’90s pop music, leads her kindergarten students in a religious version of the 2007 pop hit “Cupid Shuffle” during music class at Little Flower Catholic School. (Photos by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

Top left: Sister Rachel Terry, second from right, at dinner with, from left, Sister Rosemaron, Sister Madonna Marie and Sister Ritamary on the porch of the convent at Little Flower Parish in Bethesda. Top right: Sister Rachel, a fan of ’90s pop music, leads her kindergarten students in a religious version of the 2007 pop hit “Cupid Shuffle” during music class at Little Flower Catholic School. (Photos by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

The challenge

The long dining room table in the Little Flower convent can seat 16, but on most nights just five places are set. At its peak, the convent was a bustling home to 15 nuns, but now it’s only Sister Rachel and her four compatriots. Before dinner each evening, they gather for a short prayer in the convent’s chapel, an oasis of calm with exposed wood beams, beautiful stained glass windows and six pews.

Their lives of poverty, chastity and obedience, the sisters say, are not as mysterious as some imagine. They shop at Safeway, get their hair cut at the Hair Cuttery (where Sister Ritamary, who has been teaching first-graders for 57 years, and Sister Rachel are often mistaken for mother and daughter) and take turns doing the laundry. With their busy schedules working at the school, the nightly meal is the one time each day that all of the sisters make sure to get together. There they catch up on news and gossip and discuss school and family and politics and, yes, God. Like Sister Rachel, all of the nuns have opted to give up traditional habits for a simple, unadorned style of dressing.

The long, chatty dinners are often followed by a visit to the living room, a comfortable nun cave complete with Barcaloungers, sofas and a big-screen TV on which they’ll watch “CSI” or “Blue Bloods.” On Sundays, football is the big draw as the sisters root for their respective teams: the Steelers, the Eagles, the Redskins. Except for Sister Saint Henry, who roots for whoever is currently running with the ball.

It is a picture of contentment, and yet the 21st century has not been an easy one for American nuns. And not just because of the declining numbers and the increased financial stresses on religious orders.

American nuns also faced a strong challenge from Rome in 2012, when the Vatican’s powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope Benedict XVI upbraided the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group that represents the leaders of 80 percent of American Catholic sisters.

The report criticized the nuns for hosting speakers at their conferences who broke with church teaching and for embracing “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith . . . including theological interpretations that risk distorting faith in Jesus and his loving Father who sent his Son for the salvation of the world.” It called for the nuns to fully support church doctrine and teachings, particularly on homosexuality and whether women could become priests.

It was a harsh assessment, and the sisters at Little Flower — and nuns throughout the country — felt the sting of the report and its adversarial tone. But they also took comfort from the deluge of support they received from their parish priests and church members.

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“The response of Catholic lay people was heartwarming,” says Sister Madonna Marie. “They were so supportive that it made you feel really special and made you feel that things were going to be all right.”

Last December, the Vatican’s investigation into the American nuns concluded without taking any action or requiring any changes. Instead, it professed “profound gratitude” for the work of women in religious orders in the United States. It was seen by many as an olive branch from Pope Francis in an effort to mend fences with the nuns and with the many Catholics who were unhappy about the Vatican’s approach.

The sisters don’t play favorites with popes, but it’s clear that Francis has made a strong impression in his first 2½ years as pope. They have a lifesize cardboard cutout of him in the school and speak about him in glowing language normally reserved for saints.

“I think Francis is the man for today,” says Sister Rosemaron, the school’s principal. “I love the fact that he’s warm and down-to-earth and approachable. And I think that’s the resonance that we’re getting from the people. He’s the man to lead people through the turbulence of these days.”

After Pope Francis returns to the Vatican, the fundamental issues facing American nuns will remain unchanged. The numbers will continue to decline rapidly. The financial crunch will worsen. There is no magic potion to fix that math.

What there is is what nuns have relied on for centuries: faith. For Sister Rachel, whose journey in religious life is still relatively young, faith is more than enough.

“We are not in a state of fear,” she says. “We’re in a state of, okay, how are we going to do this together? We live in a really graced state of hope. And not just optimism, but real hope that if it is to be, it will be. ”

Sister Rachel Terry, right, and Sister Ritamary pray in the chapel of their convent at Little Flower Parish in Bethesda. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

THE FRANCIS FACTOR:
Illustration by Maria Corte

Schedule: What Pope Francis will do during his trip to Washington, New York and Philadelphia.

Sign up here to follow Washington Post stories about Pope Francis’s visit, and we’ll e-mail you as they’re published.

A pope for all seasons: Francis may be empathetic. He may tweet. But he’s got everyone guessing about what he really wants.

A church in the streets: Six 20-somethings in D.C. will give up many comforts of modern life for a year to serve the sick and the poor, a nod to the pope’s teachings.

A papal visit can’t heal these wounds: Faith abides, but the sex abuse scandal and their son’s death have alienated the McIlmails from the Catholic Church

Longing for communion: Therese married the man she loved. She goes to Mass every week, but can’t receive Communion. Will Francis change the rules?

For conservatives, sowing confusion: Francis is a global sensation, but to certain traditional Catholics, his message rings hollow

The latest on the pope’s U.S. visit

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