BY ANGELA CAVEIt wasn't that she didn't like being a doctor.
She treated patients throughout many parts of Ireland and the United Kingdom, advised clinicians on infectious diseases, sat on a public health committee and earned a good living. But loneliness and curiosity about religious life kept nagging her.
Today, 22 years later, Sister Mary Josephine Crowe, O. Carm., recently took her first vows as a Carmelite Sister for the Aged and Infirm. She began her studies at age 45 at St. Teresa's Motherhouse in Germantown.
"I really thought it was what God wants," Sister Mary Josephine recalled. "I really wanted to do something with my life. I loved my job, but I just felt unsteady. I felt really pulled."
This is not uncommon in the Albany Diocese or nationwide. Almost nine in 10 newcomers to religious orders are employed before entering, according to a 2009 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate and the National Religious Vocation Conference.
Even the local Sisters of Mercy Northeast community advises interested women to "go forth and prosper" before discerning a vocation. Older entrants to religious life bring maturity, advanced skills and professional experience.
Demographically, it's no surprise that the average age of religious sisters seems to be increasing. The author of the Index of Leading Catholic Indicators, Kenneth C. Jones, predicts that by 2020, there will only be 21,000 nuns below age 70.
In 2002, he found, the average age of the country's 75,000 nuns was 69.
Mr. Jones' prediction already seems accurate. Last year, 91 percent of perpetually professed women surveyed by CARA were older than 60. A little less than half of women in initial formation were younger than 30, but only two percent were younger than 20.
Entering a community later in life, several Albany sisters say, can benefit both women religious and their communities.
Sister Mary Josephine, for instance, is using her skills in infection control at a Carmelite nursing home in Ireland. She's prepared to come back to the U.S. if invited by her superiors.
Not only has Sister Mary Josephine been inspired by working with an older population, but she said she finds the whole atmosphere more satisfying at a Catholic medical facility. She said the sisters' dedication to the field shows.
"It's just woven into their lives. We're all part of the team, and the team is giving 100 percent," she said, adding that sharing a home with her residents makes it special: "We're all part of the same thing. They pick you up, and you pick them up."
Glitter or God?
Sister Teresa Grace Baillargeon, CR, shared a similar story. She made almost $44,000 in the early 1990s as a leading computer specialist for a veterans' medical center.
"It was probably the best job I've ever had," she said, fondly recalling outings with her coworkers to sports bars.
But as she glided through her 20s, she kept coming back to the question that had irked her in adolescence: "Should I become a sister?"
At 29, she answered the call, later becoming the chief financial officer at a Catholic high school in Hartsdale, as well as a vocations counselor for her community in Castleton.
She told The Evangelist that it was more difficult to adapt to community life because of her age. On the other hand, the workforce had taught her to relate to single people, married couples, parents and non-Catholics; maturity also helped her more fully appreciate her sacrifices.
"Because I had experienced what I felt was a lot, I knew what I was 'giving up,'" she said.
A fellow Resurrection Sister, Ann Elizabeth Norton, entered in 2008 at an even later age: 41. She had taught elementary school in her native Ontario for 19 years.
Sister Ann Elizabeth much prefers putting herself in last place: "There's so much joy here because when you act for yourself, you do get self-centered."
A novice, she awaits final vows and an assignment at one of the religious community's three schools.
In spite of the national data, some women religious in the Albany Diocese say the age problem may reverse. More and more women under the age of 20 are discerning a vocation to religious life.
"I think the young people are searching," said Sister Valerie Paccone, CR. "The kids seem to be looking for inner values. Some of them are really looking to sacrifice."
At the same time, she noted that it worked for her to wait until she turned 25, which was older than average to enter religious life in 1965. Armed with two master's degrees, Sister Valerie taught at a Catholic high school and planned to teach at a university.
"For me, having another career first was what I needed," Sister Valerie explained. "I couldn't come in and stay at a younger age. I had to realize I didn't have the whole hold on the world. I really believe God calls the individual when they're ready."