At a time when most religious orders are aging, two young women en route to professing vows in local religious communities exemplify the hopes and challenges involved in renewing vocations:
* Sara Marie Schepis, a 28-year-old Wappingers Falls native, became an affiliate of the Resurrection Sisters in Castleton after earning Master's degrees in English and library science. The idea of becoming a nun surfaced in her mind at age 14, but she wasn't always sure.
* Debra Comins, a 26-year-old native of central New York, entered the Little Sisters of the Poor last summer after facing years of family opposition and student loan obstacles. She hopes to be placed in Latham next summer after she completes her postulancy in Washington.
Both women were attracted to their orders' adherence to traditions like wearing habits as a visible sign of identity; praying and living in community; praying the Rosary and prayer before the Blessed Sacrament; and being faithful to the Church.
They're not alone. Nationwide, religious communities following more traditional practices have better success attracting younger members, according to a 2009 vocations study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) and the National Religious Vocation Conference.
The study found that religious born in the "Millennial Generation" (between 1981 and 2000) are more likely than those born in earlier generations to be attracted to their religious order's fidelity to the Church and the example of its members.
Though 91 percent of women who had taken final vows in religious order were age 60 and over in 2009, new members do not see this as a deterrent from entering.
Not too young
Ms. Schepis called religious life "a way to focus my attention, my awareness on God." One sister she knew when she was attending a Catholic high school downstate told her that religious life is a "sanctification of time."
"That always stuck in my mind: to make this day holy and to do work that is fulfilling," Ms. Schepis noted.
The future sister grew up admiring saints -- particularly St. John Bosco and St. Clare Montefalco -- and nuns, but noticed that American culture didn't foster a sense of community.
Many people, she said, falsely believed that entering a religious community meant locking yourself away.
"If people see vibrancy," she countered, "they will catch on" to the reality of religious life.
The sisters who led the vocation group at Ms. Schepis' alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana, helped her search for a community. She recalled visiting an order founded in the late 1990s that has successfully attracted young women, but feeling out of place because they were all younger than her.
The Resurrection Sisters, Ms. Schepis said, fit her preferences for a prayerful and intellectual community.
Barriers hurdled
Ms. Comins hit even more obstacles during her journey.
Though she didn't meet a nun until her freshman year of high school, she began considering religious life in Kindergarten: "In recess, I was always telling Bible stories on the swing sets," she told The Evangelist, adding that she attended a rural parish of about 300 parishioners.
"I soaked up everything from church school. I was the kid who went up to the priest and asked why we didn't have church school over the summer," she said.
Ms. Comins talked to a priest about her vocation in middle school and requested to meet a nun in high school. She was overwhelmed by the variety of orders, but forged ahead by writing to different communities, particularly those with a teaching focus.
But her family didn't think she could be happy in a convent and denounced her vocation as a waste of time. She began to feel like a hypocrite at church because she was "saying no to God."
So she stopped going.
But when Ms. Comins started college at the State University of New York at Geneseo, a new friend convinced her to go to church again. Soon, she was attending Mass and praying before the Blessed Sacrament daily and receiving the sacrament of reconciliation regularly. She dressed modestly and consulted with a spiritual director.
But Ms. Comins' family still opposed religious life for her. "It was very hard at first because it became this break from my family," she said.
She became a youth minister and religious education director. When she brought the youth of her parish to see Pope Benedict XVI in his New York City visit in 2006, a representative from the Little Sisters of the Poor approached her about becoming a nun.
She stopped by their Bronx convent. "It immediately felt like home," Ms. Comins said.
Her career plans at that point involved teaching, not working with the elderly and disabled, a population that terrified her. But on the second day of her visit, "I stopped seeing the disabilities and I saw the people," she said. "By the time I got to the third day, I stopped seeing the people. All I saw was love."
She felt the same when she went for a longer visit to the Little Sisters' Our Lady of Hope Residence for seniors in Latham. Then she received a grant to cover her student loans.
"God provided," she said. "He made the order come in His time, in the way that He wanted it to happen."
Youthful draw
Ms. Comins said that seeing a spiritual director, praying and listening to God also helped her commit herself to religious life and find a community. Meeting other sisters was also helpful.
To recruit new people, she suggests members of religious orders visit youth groups: "They have to see that you're real."
Ms. Comins believes that nuns who wear habits are more attractive to young women because they signify a vow of poverty and "authentic living."
The CARA/NRVC vocations study found that younger new members of religious orders were more likely than older new members to have participated in "come and see" experiences or discernment retreats and to have heard about the order through a friend.
Conversely, younger respondents were more likely to have become acquainted with the order through print or online promotional materials.
The Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm in Germantown recruit girls to stay with them and shadow members of the order. Sisters attend Catholic school retreats and answer questions on the order's website.
A group of graduates from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, plans to develop a mission program with the community. Sister Maria Therese Healy, vocations director, is currently in touch with about 30 young women interested in religious life.
Sister Rosemary Cuneo, CR, of the Albany Diocese's vocations team, is not disheartened by the decline in religious life.
"God is with us. For some reason, this is the way God wants it to happen," she said, describing the Diocese's poster and presence campaigns.
Referring to Jesus' resurrection, she added: "After three days, there's always new life."
Ms. Schepis hopes to find a library-related position in her religious community. For people discerning a vocation now, she suggested: "Really pray. Pray for peace and trust. It can be confusing and difficult sometimes to find a way -- but, either way, God's always there already."
As a member of an order devoted to caring for the elderly, Ms. Comins will miss working with children, but admits there was something missing from her former lifestyle.
"I don't have that void here," she concluded.