Sister Mary DePaul joined the Dominican Sisters at age 19, a year out of Archbishop Wood High School in Warminster. Her classmate as a “novitiate” – or student nun — was Sister Mary Augustine, who joined when she was 25, after having worked for a few years. The two women signed up for religious life in 1978, when there were still hundreds of thousands of Catholic sisters in America.
Today, there are fewer than 50,000.
Currently, the two old friends and longtime nuns work together at Sacred Heart Home on 1315 Hunting Park Ave., off Broad Street, in Hunting Park, offering free medical care to incurable cancer patients. And they’re excited because in October their order will welcome two women in their 20s as nuns.
“It’s a big week!” said Sister Mary DePaul, 58. “We also have students from Temple here last Sunday to visit the patients,” as part of an effort to draw more young people into the circle of service and, potentially, religious life.
“We’re definitely aging. Our median age is somewhere in the 60s,” she adds of the 10 nuns at Sacred Heart Home. And they’re looking for volunteers too.
The order’s spiritual gift, or charism, is tending to terminally ill who decide they no longer want conventional chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Instead, the home’s “guests,” as they’re called, choose hospice, palliative care, and emotional support that maintains quality of life. All those accepted into Sacred Heart Home are treated, no matter their financial circumstances. The order accepts no money from government, insurers, or even patients’ families.
The home’s hallways gleam, the chapel features flowers from its garden, and the facility doesn’t reek of sickness. Instead a quiet, lemony fragrance permeates.
Sacred Heart Home is one of six establishments in five states run by Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne that offer free care to those with incurable cancer. The Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, N.Y., are a community of Catholic nuns founded by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s younger daughter, Rose, in 1900. Hawthorne grew up a Unitarian and converted to Catholicism after losing a daughter to diphtheria and a husband to alcoholism. Rose Hawthorne founded the order and chose to treat incurable cancer patients after a friend, the writer and activist Emma Lazarus, died of the disease.
That the number of American nuns is dwindling is not new. According to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, the number of religious sisters in the United States has dropped from 179,954 in 1965 to 47,170 in 2016. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has also created a National Religious Retirement Office to help religious orders pay for rising health care and living costs as many sisters retire and fewer younger sisters enter.
So in an online age, when young people can Google electronic proof of everything, how do nuns attract young women to the spiritual life?
Why, the internet, of course. Dominican Sister Stella Mary tells her story online about how she came to a religious life.
“I was a career woman, I had finished college, and had a nice job,” she explains in a promotional video on YouTube, where the Dominican Sisters have their own channel. “But there was something missing, something empty inside of me.”
The Dominican sisters also tell their stories on NetTV, a television show on the Time Warner Cable Channel, Verizon Fios, and Cablevision, to talk about why they joined the order. (For more, visit the website www.netny.tv.)
In Philadelphia, Sacred Heart Home sisters want to attract more people — young and older — as volunteers to expose them to caring for the incurable and to the religious life. The nuns ask local parishes to advertise about vocation days at Sacred Heart Home.
While volunteering doesn’t directly feed young women into a vocation, it can spark a connection. A 2013 Georgetown University study, “Volunteer Introspective,” found that 37 percent of volunteers “considered a vocation to ordained ministry or religious life.”
At Sacred Heart Home, 10 sisters and a staff of two dozen nurses and caretakers do everything from cooking meals to feeding and bathing patients to administering palliative medicine.
Sister Mary Augustine, 63, first considered religious life after an aunt volunteered at a Dominican Sisters home in her native New York.
“I joined because I was able to help the sick,” she explained. So why not become a nurse? “Because I also wanted a prayer life. It gives me strength.”
Patients come from various walks of life, some with families and others who are alone and struggling with HIV or drug addiction.
“They have their wings already,” said patient Veronica Mardt, a cancer patient who has been treated at Sacred Heart Home for just over a year. “The sisters are wonderful people.”