Angela Russell was a teenager visiting relatives in France when she prayed in a chapel where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared in 1830. That was where she first felt a call to be a Catholic sister.
"It was an overwhelming sense that I was going to dedicate my life totally to Christ," said Sister Angela, 21, a Beaver native who recently entered the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, Tenn.
Far fewer women than in the past take that path, and those who do are often attracted to traditions that many communities no longer practice. Since 1965, the number of sisters in the U.S. has fallen from 180,000 to 61,000. A Vatican-ordered study is under way of conditions that may have contributed to the decline.
Yet women still answer the call. Sister Angela is among three local women seeking vows in the Nashville Dominicans. Two just made temporary vows in the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities, formerly the Millvale Franciscans. The Little Sisters of the Poor, a community in Brighton Heights known for traditional habits and ministry to the elderly, count a medical doctor among two novices. This weekend a half-dozen women were expected at a discernment retreat for the Sisters of the Holy Spirit in Ross.
A recent study from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found that two-thirds of communities have at least one person working toward final vows, which typically takes at least seven years. Their average age is 32. But in less traditional communities, 56 percent of newer members are 40 or older. In more conservative ones, 85 percent of sisters make final vows by age 39.
Sisters born since 1982 prefer the habits and ancient communal prayers that were standard before the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s called sisters to re-evaluate how their lives related to their founders' intentions and to the world around them.
Communities with the most success in gaining new members "wear a religious habit, work together in common [ministries] and are explicit about their fidelity to the church," the study said.
That describes the 252 Nashville Dominicans, who gained 23 members this summer. The community doesn't accept postulants -- candidates -- past age 30.
"There is great hope for young people entering religious life in the future," said Sister Mary Emily Knapp, 39, the vocations director.
Their sisters teach in 34 Catholic schools nationwide, but none in Pittsburgh. The community has attracted local women through connections with the Newman Center, a university outreach in Oakland, and Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.
Sister Maria Francesca Wiley, a Franciscan University graduate who grew up in Washington, Pa., and Peters, just received a black veil in her third year with the Nashville Dominicans.
As a postulant she wore a black skirt and vest over a white blouse, while learning community life and studying philosophy and education at Aquinas College. Her novice year, she received a habit and white veil. The black veil marked first vows. Final vows likely will be in 2014.
She thought religious life would be more of a sacrifice.
"The biggest surprise was how happy I was," she said, of her life of prayer and academics.
Her preparation began in the youth group at St. Benedict the Abbot in Peters, where she developed a deep love of the Eucharist.
Becoming a sister "wasn't really on my radar. I had never known anyone who did it, and I wasn't in touch with any communities. But I knew I wanted to do God's will," she said.
When her family moved to South Carolina, she met a Nashville Dominican sister.
"She was very down to earth, a normal, personable young woman -- the kind of woman I thought would have been a great wife and mother," she said. "I had thought of sisters as people who wanted to flee the world. She wasn't like that at all."
She visited the Nashville convent her senior year of high school, and felt attracted to religious life. In college she considered other orders, including the Franciscans at Steubenville and the Sisters of Life, who assist women in crisis pregnancies. While she admired both, "when I was with the sisters in Nashville, I felt they were my family,"she said.
Sister Mary Elizabeth Liederbach, who entered the Nashville Dominicans after her April graduation from the University of Pittsburgh, said her plans left some students speechless.
"They just didn't know how to react because it's such an unknown thing," she said.
She can relate. She felt called years before she understood it.
"It was a very mysterious call for a long time because of my minimal exposure to religious life," she said. "I was captivated by the idea of belonging to Jesus, without having any concept of what that would mean for me."
She majored in civil and environmental engineering, hoping to bring water to drought-stricken lands. She knew of religious orders that would sponsor such work. She also seriously considered the Sisters of Life. But she felt drawn to the Nashville Dominicans, whom she encountered when two sisters visited her campus Bible study.
"As I grew in faith, I stopped asking 'What am I going to do?' and started asking 'Who am I going to be?' Instead of asking myself, I started asking God," she said.
"It wasn't a call away from the poor, but to look to a deeper, hidden spiritual poverty that is all around us."
As she looked at orders' Web sites, she rejected those in which the sisters wore street clothes.
"I think most women feel that our clothes matter. When you are consecrating your whole life to God, that is part of the consecration," she said.
Most of the 1,200 sisters in the Diocese of Pittsburgh are in orders where habits are optional. When Sister Teresa Baldi became a novice with the Sisters of the Holy Spirit in Ross in 2006, she had to decide whether to wear a veil and habit, as about half the 40 sisters in her community do.
"I was really torn, and I prayed about it for a long time," she said.
She was moved by a sister in her 90s, who encouraged her to wear it as a witness for Christ. But she chose street clothes, with the medal that is the sole visible mark for many sisters today.
"In contemporary society there need to be contemporary ways of witnessing to the gospel," said Sister Teresa, who teaches at Immaculate Conception in Bloomfield.
She would never have chosen a community with a full habit.
"I sweat too much in the summer," she said, laughing.
Now 47, Sister Teresa resisted her call for decades. But she served the church full time as a youth minister at St. Bernard in Mt. Lebanon. An encounter with a Holy Spirit sister at a retreat center changed her life.
"She had a great devotion to the blessed sacrament, and would go and sit in front of the tabernacle for an hour," she said. The sister had such a peaceful radiance "that when I sat with her I thought, 'This is what I want.' "
Her life is governed by monastic traditions that some communities have abandoned. Although her wishes are taken into account, community leaders decide where and how she will serve. In her novice year, she could have only two family visits.
Now she has more freedom than would a Nashville Dominican but must clear outside visits with her immediate superior.
"It's like a family. You don't leave your family every night," she said.
Many orders have diverse ministries, and want new members to try several. The Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities have 530 sisters in education, health care, pastoral care, social services and serving as missionaries worldwide.
Moon native Sister Laura Hackenberg, 33, was an administrative assistant at FedEx before entering the Millvale Franciscans in 2006. Since then she has worked with the homeless and at two retreat centers. Speaking just before her temporary vows, she expected to move next to a health care setting.
A growing thirst for life with God led her to respond to a brochure for a retreat to consider religious life.
"I came to see that religious women ... have a great love for one another and, like St. Francis, are advocates for the poor and marginalized and are promoters of peace and justice. The sisters bring the depth of God's love to all that they minister to," she wrote in an essay on her decision.
Avalon native Sister Amy Williams, 37, recently took first vows alongside her. The former legal secretary has done hospice ministry and worked in day care for the elderly. She loved it all, and expects to attend nursing school, specializing in pain relief for the seriously ill.
"I found a sense of belonging with this community that I had never experienced before, and my life suddenly felt full and complete," she said.
Ann Rodgers can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1416.