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Urging middle schoolers to consider the convent: ‘Do I want to marry Joe Blow? Or do I want to marry Jesus Christ?’

Sister Virginie Fish talks with students from St. Francis International School in Silver Spring, Md., after Mass at the Oblate Sisters of Providence convent in Baltimore. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

The first order that Virginie Fish tried to join turned her away: They wouldn’t train black girls as nuns, they said. They told her to try the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the nation’s oldest African American order.

Today, black girls have more opportunities than Fish could have ever dreamed of as a teenager. Women can enter any profession, most of which were unavailable to Fish. And while it still sometimes happens, racial discrimination in hiring is illegal now in the United States.

The black girls sitting before Fish this week can do anything they’d like. With an endless array of options, a choice like the one Fish made — joining a historically black order of Catholic sisters — might seem hopelessly antiquated to these girls.

Yet on Wednesday, Fish and her fellow sisters made their pitch: In a world of choices, give the convent a chance.

“Do I want to marry Joe Blow?” Sister Trinita Baeza asked the middle school girls from St. Francis International School in Silver Spring, who visited the Oblate Sisters of Providence’s convent in Baltimore on Wednesday. “Or do I want to marry Jesus Christ?”

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It’s a tough sell nowadays. As American women have far more career opportunities that don’t require giving up the chance to marry and have children, interest in religious orders has declined precipitously. The number of nuns in the United States dropped from almost 180,000 to just under 50,000 between 1965 and 2014. The number of priests declined far less in the same half-century: from more than 58,000 to more than 38,000.

In 2017, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, only slightly more women than men entered Catholic religious life in the United States. Interest is particularly low among African American women. In 2017, 69 percent of new nuns were white, CARA reported, though Pew research says 59 percent of U.S. Catholics are white. Only 3 percent of new nuns were black, including both African American women and women from Africa who entered U.S. orders.

A primary purpose of the St. Francis International School field trip to the convent was to show the girls that black women can be nuns, said Kirk Gaddy, the teacher at the school who organized the trip.

The students at St. Francis occasionally interact with nuns but don’t have nuns as classroom teachers, as some Catholic school students do, Gaddy says. So for many of them, their image of a nun is an older white woman, he said (despite the enduring legacy of Whoopi Goldberg in “Sister Act”).

“It’s less common for women of color, particularly African American girls,” he said. “We need to begin to intentionally cultivate this — let these young ladies see that they too can become religious. There’s nothing taboo about this. One of the best jobs you can get now is saving souls for Christ. I want to make sure we offer them that opportunity.”

During the trip, Gaddy also told the students they can pursue a variety of professions, from doctor to lawyer to engineer, while simultaneously serving as nuns. Many sisters enter the convent after college or even after graduate school and work outside the convent after they take their vows.

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The Oblate Sisters — founded as a groundbreaking African American order in Baltimore in 1829, when Maryland was still a slave state — dispelled the notion that nuns are all white for the girls from St. Francis, where the student body is predominantly black and Latino, with a large concentration of immigrants. The girls rushed to take photos of the convent gift shop, with its window full of dolls of black nuns. Cellphones were encouraged on this school trip — Gaddy even paired girls off with nuns to walk into Mass together and urged each group to take a selfie first.

From selfies to favorite TV shows to summer vacation plans, the nuns tried to show the students that they weren’t so different, even if they have lived for decades in chastity and poverty.

“I like to get the personal pan pizza,” Sister Lorraine George said, referring to a recent outing from the convent. Seventh-grader Snaha Costa enthused, “Saaaame.”

“I like to get the sausage on it,” George continued. Costa slapped the table: “You are so much like me!”

Costa told George that she liked the convent. “There’s lots of stuff to do here, other than just looking at your phone and video games. You can actually communicate with people,” she said.

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The Rev. Kenneth Gaddy, the teacher’s brother, celebrated Mass for the nuns and students. He, like his brother and like the nuns, encouraged the girls to consider whether God is calling them to join the convent someday.

“What about you, young sisters? Can you hear God’s voice calling you? Do you hear his voice? These sisters that you’re sitting next to, they were in your place, you know,” Gaddy said in his homily. “Today we are asking you simply to keep your heart open that maybe God is calling you to religious life. … We’re asking you to be generous with your life. Because the fact of the matter is God has been very generous with you, with us.”

Fish told them that she heard such a call, and she is glad she forsook marriage for religious life. “From the time I was 5 years old until I was 18, I wanted to be a nurse and marry a doctor and have four children. Almighty God blessed me with the vocation, and I am very happy that I said yes to God,” she said.

When the girls talked privately as they prepared to board the bus back to their school, though, most of them weren’t convinced. “If I didn’t have my personality, I’d really love to, but I’m too loud. And I enjoy messing with boys too much. Like messing with their heads,” one seventh-grader said.

“They seem nice and peaceful and funny,” Mohnein Lewis said, defending the nuns. “At the same time as being a religious thing, they have a good time.”

Mohnein’s friend Naira Wiley chimed in. “I get angry. I just get annoyed too much. I’m way too sassy and loud. I don’t think I would have enough patience to be a nun.”

But Mohnein held her ground. “The way they all get along and laugh, it’s like one big sisterhood.” She started musing about whether nuns miss their siblings, and what her parents would say if she told them she wanted to be a nun instead of a chemist.

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Madison Melgar, a sixth-grader, did go home and ask her mother what she would think if Madison grew up to be a nun. Her mom was surprised to hear the question from her social-media-scrolling daughter. “I would have never thought Madison would even consider something like that. There’s so many other options. She can entertain so many other things with just a finger click,” she said. “I would be honored if she did think to do something like that. That’s not common these days.”

Not all parents were as certain. Lawrence Billy-Eko laughed when he heard his daughter Camille had expressed interest during the field trip in considering a religious vocation. “I’ll tell you this much, that’s totally going to be up to her,” he said. “If that’s a calling, then it’s going to make itself known. We’ll have to address that when we get there, if we do get there. She’s our only child, number one — so right there, every parent always wants to look forward to grandkids. [But] if that’s the direction that we’re going to go into, so be it. We’re not going to fight about any of those things.”

That was just what Camille predicted as she sat next to Sister Dolorosa Bundy in Mass, hearing about the 68 years Bundy has spent in this convent. When she entered, Bundy said, her family predicted she would last only two weeks.

Camille told the nun, “I think my parents would be fine with it. They’d say, ‘Whatever you believe in to do, just put your mind to it.’ ”

Then Mass began, and she rose alongside the aging sister to sing, her face shining in the light of stained glass windows depicting the remarkable founding of this first African American order. The nun at the piano urged them all to clap, snap and sing out — turning the sedate schoolgirls into a fervent gospel choir.

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