As a high school student in Baltimore, Tara Showalter admired the Dominican sisters who taught her. They were smart. They were good at sports. They were fun to hang out with.
But spend the rest of her life with them?
Nope, not what Showalter planned. She was going to college, intending to become a scientist, a wife and a mother.
But in late July, as Sister Maria Faustina, Showalter took permanent vows in the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, an order based in Ann Arbor Township.
"God puts this call in your heart. He places it there, and it's a gentle call. You can choose to ignore it, and I tried to for three years," said Showalter, 27.
The Sisters of Mary, founded in 1997, are growing when many other Catholic religious orders are shrinking or simply disappearing. Four young sisters, including Sister Maria, made perpetual vows in July, and six more made their initial vows in August. A new group of 17 postulants -- beginning sisters -- is expected this month, which will bring the community total to 64.
To meet the growth, the Sisters of Mary are adding a residential wing and a large, domed chapel to their property, essentially doubling the 26,500 square feet built by Catholic philanthropist and Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan.
When finished this year, the convent will have space for 100 sisters.
The order is different from many others today in that members wear the traditional, floor-length habit; place strong emphasis on community life; and spend at least three hours each day in traditional, communal prayer, some in Latin.
Some church observers say the sisters are attracting young women because they're doing something different -- even countercultural -- and their clear, strict standards appeal to such women. In a number of cases, the women have rejected religious orders that revised or moved away from traditional ways, including the habit, after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The council relaxed some of the more strict, traditional rituals in the Catholic Church.
This newer crop of sisters deeply desires the traditional habit, the hours specifically set aside for communal prayer and communal life, said John J. Fialka, a Wall Street Journal reporter and author of "Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America."
Some church observers, however, question what they see as an attempt by small but wealthy and politically powerful groups to turn the faith clock back to a supposed golden age.
"There's always been a rear-guard action among Catholics who don't like Vatican II," said the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, former chairman of the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame and a longtime observer of Catholic life in the United States.
Sister Mary Joseph Campbell, who also took her final vows in July, scouted several convents across the country before deciding on the Sisters of Mary.
"I had my heart set on three things: one, the choral office; two, the habit; and community life. We spend a lot of time together. We work together, eat together, pray together," Campbell said. (The choral office is the changing set of prayers sung by priests, monks and sisters for centuries.)
"Young women are attracted to the total gift of self," said Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, vocations director for the Sisters of Mary. "They trust Christ and are willing to pour out their lives first to Him, then through Him, to all His people. This total commitment is most attractive to a generation starving for authenticity."
As a community, the sisters operate two Spiritus Sanctus Catholic elementary schools. Add to that the hours committed to prayer and the duties of running the convent, and the sisters put in long days.
Fialka compared such traditional religious life to another difficult one: "It's like joining the Marines: full regalia, tough mission."
Teaching and nursing are burn-out jobs, Fialka said, but nuns can do it for 50 years. "The secret is prayer life, living together in the convent, bucking each other up."
The sisters acknowledge that life in a convent isn't easy. Community time sometimes conflicts with desires to be alone. Personalities sometimes bump and scrape against each other. Schedules must be followed, and sometimes work assignments are just plain hard.
They rise at 5 or 6 a.m. each day, depending on time of year. They meet in the chapel for prayer and Mass, then usually go off to school, or in the case of novices, remain at the convent for theology classes. Noon brings more prayer as well as lunch; teaching sisters remain at school until the late afternoon, when the community gathers for spiritual reading and more prayer.
At dinner in the convent refectory, the sisters listen to spiritual instruction either recorded or read aloud. Afterward, there's another hour of recreation followed by a last hour of prayer.
At 8 p.m., community silence begins, and lights are turned out at 10.
The sisters organize their days with careful thought. They say there's never enough time for all that needs to be done.
"But when you're giving a total gift and can't give more," Sister Maria said, "God takes care of the rest."