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HOUSTON (AP) — When God called teenager Anna Nguyen to the Catholic sisterhood, she was startled that he did so in an audible voice — and that he spoke Vietnamese. When the deity tapped Ivana Menchaca, she was well on the way to earning a college degree she hoped would land her a job with the FBI.
Both now are ensconced in Houston religious communities, and, as have thousands of women who embarked on consecrated lives since Texas' earliest years, they say they have found peace and purpose in their work.
Unlike their predecessors of just 50 years ago, though, Nguyen and Menchaca have taken a road less chosen, one that may veer in unexpected directions as the 21st century progresses.
The challenges facing nuns — and priests — likely will come into sharper focus in 2015 as Roman Catholics observe "Wake Up The World!", Pope Francis' yearlong celebration of consecrated life.
Topping the list is the struggle to maintain ministries as their memberships age and decline.
Nationally, Catholic sisters now number less than a third of their 1960s peak of about 180,000. Almost 60 percent, a 2009 study found, are 70 or older. In Greater Houston, home to 38 women's communities, membership has plummeted from 1,308 in the mid-1960s to a mere 440. About one-fourth are retired.
To cope with declining membership, orders increasingly are seeking help from lay volunteers in the larger Catholic community in carrying out their traditional missions. Also, lay teachers now staff many Catholic schools, and hospitals once operated by nursing orders such as Houston's Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word are run by outside professionals.
Other challenges have come as some orders, reassessing their missions in view of the liberating Second Vatican Council, boldly advocate for the downtrodden. Their actions occasionally stir controversy inside and outside the church.
In December, long-awaited results of a Vatican investigation of American nuns — prompted by concerns over a "certain secular mentality" and "feminist spirit" — brought sighs of relief with its call to create "still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence" in the church. A second Vatican investigation targeting a major association of American sisters continues.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1EtYn0y) that he routinely tells Catholic sisters in his Galveston-Houston Archdiocese that he has only one problem with them: "There aren't enough of you."
For a number of nuns in the greater Houston area, the stark realities of declining membership are reminders of their earliest days in Texas — a time in which minuscule groups of women labored mightily for the Lord.
Texas' first Catholic sisters, seven Ursulines, arrived in Galveston in 1847. They promptly established the state's first Catholic academy.
Today, only one Ursuline sister remains in the Houston area.
The vanguard of the second order, three members of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, arrived 19 years later. One died in little more than a year; a second soon returned to Europe. In ensuing decades, the sisters created an extensive health care network in Gulf Coast states. Today, their focus is on small neighborhood clinics serving the uninsured.
The Dominicans, a teaching order with an extensive regional presence, arrived in Galveston in 1882. They started with 20 sisters and today, with about three times that number, administer two Houston college prep schools, St. Agnes Academy and St. Pius X High School.
The decline in the numbers is a bit of a paradox. It well could be the defining problem facing the institution in coming decades, yet the sisterhood publicly faces it without blanching.
"The numbers affect the general public and the media more than they do us personally," said Sister Heloise Cruzat, the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese's liaison with area religious orders.
And, observed Sister Mary Patricia Driscoll, a congregational leader of Houston's Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, "Over the years, the ministries we began have grown, changed and evolved, but they are not dependent on our numbers alone."
By almost any standard, pursuit of a religious life characterized by poverty, chastity and obedience is a daunting commitment.
In Driscoll's order, the process of becoming a sister begins with a period of becoming familiar with the order and its mission. A one-year pre-novice stage, in which a candidate for the sisterhood lives with the community, comes next, followed by a two-year novitiate, annual profession of vows for five years and a "perpetual" profession in which a woman vows to live as a sister for the rest of her life.
Aside from religious devotion and a yearning to serve, said Sister Carol Mayes, prioress for the Houston Dominicans, mid-20th century women may have been drawn to consecrated life because of the educational and career options it provided.
"There weren't a lot of options for women," she said. "You could be a teacher or a nurse until you got married. If you felt some call to do more, you would have joined a convent."
By the mid-'60s, said Mary Gautier, a senior research associate with Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, membership in women's religious orders had reached a "bubble."
"There was a tremendous amount of growth that occurred in the early 20th century," she said, "and by the '60s there was sort of a peak. All things Catholic were taking off in the U.S." John Kennedy was president, she said, and Catholicism was in vogue.
"But even in 1960 it was common for women to get married after high school," she added. " All of that was changing in the late '60s and 1970s. That's not to say that women were not still attracted to religious life, it was just in much, much smaller numbers."
At roughly the same point came the Second Vatican Council, which called for a revised, more contemporary vision for religious communities. Catholic sisters in many cases abandoned their habits and found new venues of services in aiding the poor. It was a time, too, when many women left consecrated life, though many continued to work side-by-side with sisters as lay colleagues.
"Things totally changed. We were told to look at three things — the spirit of our founders, the Scriptures and the needs of our times," recalled Mayes. "Before Vatican 2, there wasn't much variety. We dressed group by group. We were either hospital or school people. Then we saw the door open to address the needs of the poor. We began to diversify in every sense. Those were great, exciting times."
Soon, Mayes' order was offering sanctuary to refugees from war-torn Latin America.
"We have over these years since Vatican 2 learned to be way more collaborative with other people in the parishes," said Cruzat. "We have learned about ministry together, whereas, historically, my community did what it did and other communities did what they did."
Enlisting new members in religious orders is an ongoing concern of the church, which claims about 76 million members in the U.S. and more than a 1 billion worldwide.
In Houston, Sister Anita Brenek, the archdiocese's associate director of vocational promotion, said strategies range from presentations at schools and church groups to periodic retreats at which potential candidates can talk with sisters and priests.
"We have several different retreats, depending on the age levels," she said. "With those who are more mature, we have discussion, prayers, one-on-one talks with sisters and priests. For the younger ones, those in junior high school, there's a little more sports.
"It is my very deep belief that all of us were called by God," she said. "The deepest call, the church call, is the universal call to holiness, whatever faith we are. . God keeps drawing us to himself at the deepest level, for our deepest happiness, our deepest well-being."
For Nguyen, 29, who recently made her full profession as a sister in the Vietnamese Dominican Sisters of Mary Immaculate Province, the call from God was an audible summons.
"It was in my junior year in high school that I woke up one day and heard God," she said, adding that the deity issued his invitation to consecrated life in Vietnamese. "I had never heard that phrase before. . I wasn't shocked, but I wondered why he would be calling me, of all people."
On reflection, Nguyen, the daughter of a Catholic mother and Buddhist father, both of whom came to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon, realized that "I didn't have a relationship with God."
"It was very profound," she said, confessing that, initially, she put the issue "on the back burner."
"After a few months, it was still tugging at my heart," she said. "I needed to find that relationship, then a vocation. My relationship is with God, not a physical man. It is being the bride of God in the church."
Menchaca, 40, was studying for a degree in criminal justice — she hoped to become an FBI agent — and dating a local man when she received her divine summons.
But despite the promise of a fulfilling career and a romantic life, Menchaca, then in her mid-20s, felt something was missing.
"Both of us were very religious," she said. "Me and my boyfriend prayed and asked God what he wanted us to do."
The answer: Both should devote their lives to God.
'He'll take care of the rest'
Reflecting on her decision to join the Carmelite Missionary Sisters of St. Therese, Menchaca advised others who feel called to the sisterhood to "take some time and be alone and silent. Pray and ask God what he desires."
"Kids and even we adults are so involved in so many things. We're always busy and have no time for silence," she said. "When I visit my family, they've got the radio and TV going, the kids are all playing with their games. There's no God time. Society's so used to go, go, go. It's forgotten there's a God out there. . Give yourself some time to be alone in the presence of God.
"If you put your heart and soul out there, he'll take care of the rest."
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com
Editor's note: This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Houston Chronicle.
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