Sr. Michael Francine Duncan
Sr. Michael Francine Duncan
The number of women religious in the Archdiocese of Portland is about a third of what it was 60 years ago. While some sisters see the trend as symptomatic of an ailing society, others say the tale is not necessarily a tragedy.

Nun counts in western Oregon reflect a nationwide decline since a peak in the 1960s. There were more than 181,000 religious sisters in the United States in 1965, according to the Official Catholic Directory of the time. There are now about 47,000 women religious in the United States, the same number as a century ago.

But unlike the 1920s, about 77% of sisters today are older than 70. The National Religious Retirement Office at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops estimates that 300 women’s religious institutes are likely to phase out in the next decade.

Mid-century anomaly

In the 20th century, two world wars sparked a rise in religion and religious life as Catholics who survived tribulation pondered what was ultimately important and opened themselves to the possibility of God’s call. That resulted in a spike of religious life and priesthood. The high numbers from the early 1960s should be seen as a nice anomaly, not the standard, wrote Kathleen Sprows Cummings, a church historian at the University of Notre Dame.

Adding to the rise in the 1940s and 1950s, religious life was an avenue for newly empowered Catholic women who wanted not to be housewives but rather to serve God’s people and become leaders in education and health care, said Sister Michael Francine Duncan, superior general of the Beaverton-based Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon. But by the late 1960s and ‘70s, laywomen could do the same work. Many sisters left.

Sister Michael Francine said women religious who remain today feel a more solid call. “We are getting back to a centered life, listening to Jesus,” she said.

A handful of women in their 20s and 30s are interested in joining the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon, Sister Michael Francine reported, adding that if Jesus could start a church with 12, a small group of sisters can still be consequential.

“We are not here to make the community big, we are here to live the charism,” she said, explaining the SSMO call to be women of prayer, simplicity and sisterly love.

Ministry still getting done

“The reality of religious vocations since Vatican II is that the church said it is the church of the laity,” said Holy Names Sister Jane Hibbard, who administers the Benedictine Sisters of Mount Angel, a monastery that has stopped taking new vocations.

Catholic women called to service 60 years ago had fewer options, said Sister Carol Higgins, a member of the leadership team of the Sisters of the Holy Names, which came to Oregon in the 1850s. “So many other ways to be of service came around as culture shifted,” said Sister Carol.

Her primary reflection, however, is that the ministry women religious were doing in the 1950s and 1960s — Catholic schools, Catholic hospitals and church social work — are still happening today with lay people leading the way.

“That call from God is still being answered,” Sister Carol said.

But she is convinced that God will continue to call women to religious life, which she said is of great value to the church and the world.

Sister Carol, 59, said that in western Oregon the various women’s communities will benefit from forming friendships and cooperating across congregational lines.

The Carmel of Maria Regina in Eugene had 12 nuns at its peak and now has seven. Smallness comes by design among contemplative Carmelites, but the sisters do pray for more members. At the same time, the ministry has continued undaunted.

Sister Juana María, spokeswoman for the monastery, said there are not many Catholics in Oregon and the cloistered life is not well known, even among churchgoers.

“Sometimes they don’t understand the contemplative vocation and don’t encourage women to consider it,” Sister Juana María said. “Our hopes for the future are that God will bless us with more vocations, that we would be better known in the archdiocese and that all the faithful would know that we are here praying for them, that this is a community dedicated especially to pray for priests and for all the people of God.”

Sign of sick culture?

Some women religious regret the cultural changes that seem to have made it harder for young Catholic women to perceive God’s call.

“It’s a society that needs God less and less and does not see the value of practicing faith,” said Mother Mary of the Angels Bunty, the last of the Sisters of Reparation. “It’s a me society that says, ‘Whatever I want is acceptable; I set the truth,’ instead of accepting the real truth.”

Mother Mary added that the dearth of sisters in Catholic schools led to a reduction in vocations. She also cites broken families and Catholic families who are not faithful to Mass attendance.

“The call comes from God but is formed in the family,” she said. “People living holy lives give rise to a culture of vocations.”

She urged all Catholics to encourage young women to consider religious life.

In many religious communities, lay associates extend the ministry and charism. The Sisters of Reparation, for example, have 180 Donnés of Reparation who help organize adult faith formation and other ministries at the Southeast Portland convent.


“People still very much recognize the value of religious vocations and how important they are for the church,” said Mother Mary, a longtime nurse supervisor who now does work, including catechism for children, in several parishes. “We may have lower numbers, but that does not mean that what we do is not very important.”

A 2014 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University that found that 8% of never-married Catholic women born after 1981 have “at least a little seriously” considered a vocation to religious life. Of those, 2% have “very seriously” considered becoming a religious sister.

In years past, young women saw religious life modeled via the sisters who taught them in school. Now, religious communities rely on websites and social media to attract vocations.

“I am optimistic because I really believe the Holy Spirit works in the way it needs to work,” said Sister Michael Francine of the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon. Her own vocation story illustrates the point. She was a successful business executive when the call came “out of the blue” as she puts it.

Franciscan Sister Veronica Schueler, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Portland, said it’s clear that the reconsideration and resetting that took place in the church after the Second Vatican Council caused many priests and religious to enter lay life. She notes that the departures slowed by the early 1990s.

In the past decade, the archdiocese has welcomed thriving houses of women’s religious from communities based in Vietnam, Africa and Mexico. Another Mexican order is considering an Oregon presence, and two sisters from South Korea already have moved here. At the same time, new institutes like the Society of Mary, serving at Oregon State and Portland State universities, have attracted younger vocations.

Sister Veronica, from the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist, thinks the Holy Spirit is slowly but steadily rebuilding religious life in western Oregon. The communities that tend to be receiving more women, she said, are the ones that have strong prayer traditions, communal living and active apostolic missions. It also seems that most communities in which women wear habits are receiving more interest that those that don’t, Sister Veronica said.

She is confident that the decline will continue to slow until the line levels out and begins to climb.