Buzzworthy Sisters in Habits Headed to Va. School

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 25, 2007

People wait an hour in line to talk with her, pack standing room only into a bar to hear her, and some even squeal when they see her, this woman in a sister's habit.

She is Sister Mary Jordan Hoover, principal of Northern Virginia's first new Catholic high school in two decades, a $60 million state-of-the-art project that will open in Dumfries next fall. At a time when it's possible to count on one hand the number of Catholic secondary schools that open each year in the nation, her arrival in Virginia represents good news for supporters of Catholic schools.

But the cheery 42-year-old brings another major layer of buzz to the Arlington Diocese because she is a member of the Nashville Dominicans, rock stars in the world of Catholic religious orders. Although the number of religious sisters in the United States has plunged since the 1960s, resulting in an average age of about 70, there has been an increase in recent years among traditional, habit-wearing orders, including the Nashville-based Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, which has 226 members and a median age of 35. It recently raised $46 million to expand its chapel because the sisters were spilling into the hall.

In her floor-length white habit with black veil and a rosary around her waist, Hoover is the picture of affirmation for traditional dioceses, including Arlington's.

And that makes her a hot property. With a stated mission of teaching, the Nashville Dominicans get letters and phone calls almost daily from dioceses across the country, asking that they send their youthful -- and overtly devout -- vibe to one school or another.

"The bishops are circling Nashville," said Timothy McNiff, schools superintendent in the Arlington Diocese, who introduced Hoover at an open house in Woodbridge this month for the new school, which will be called Pope John Paul the Great Catholic High School. Officials have a target enrollment of 475 next fall for the four-year school.

More than 150 people came to what was about the 20th such event in the past couple of months, including one in a packed Irish pub in Alexandria. McNiff himself has been to Nashville six times.

There is little detailed research on women who join Catholic religious orders -- called "women religious," "sisters" or often "nuns," although technically that means a woman who is cloistered. Although traditional orders make up a small slice of the pie, they are where the growth is.

"This generation is more conventional in their outlook and more traditional in values," said Brother Paul Bednarczyk, executive director of the National Religious Vocations Conference. "Given the relativity of our culture, they really want to know what it means to be Catholic, and symbols -- like habits -- speak to them deeply. They want people to know they have made this radical choice."

Some experts say the growth of traditional groups is because their work goals of teaching and nursing, for example, have remained clear; they haven't strayed as much as more progressive orders into a broader array of careers where they often live and work alone, apart from their sisters. Others say they are the natural result of Pope John Paul II's papacy, during which the church refocused on its orthodox roots after the social turbulence of the 1960s and '70s. Some think their meditative lifestyles are simply more attractive in an era of nonstop communication.

Regardless, a sister in a habit makes clear what is unique about Catholic schools at a time when there are hundreds of thousands fewer students there than a decade ago.

"If Catholic schools don't look any different and use the same textbooks and have the same teachers and the same standards, why have them?" asked Sister Patricia Wittberg, a sociologist at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis who studies religious orders. One way to distinguish yourself is "to get a bunch of women in habits in there. They are icons of Catholicity in a diocese that wants Catholicity."

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