In February 2010, The Oprah Show got a rare glimpse inside a thriving convent in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Nuns from the Dominican Sisters of Mary spoke openly about their vows of chastity, poverty and obedience to God and their church.
The average age of the 113 sisters who live and serve at the convent is just 28—an age where many other women are marrying and having children. Now, the sisters are back to shed light on the eight-year journey of faith to fully devote themselves to Jesus, culminating in a service where sisters take their final vows and marry Jesus.
When women first enter the convent, they are called aspirants. The women come from all walks of life and range in age, with some entering as teenagers. "We try to discern God's will for a young woman, and that's what you're looking for. God does the calling. We don't do the calling," convent founder Mother Assumpta says. "We discern to see: Does this young woman have a religious vocation? Is she mature enough to live it?"
Aspirants arrive with just bedsheets and a few personal items. No makeup, jewelry, cell phones or computers are allowed. They will never have sex, own possessions or have their own money. The clothes they wear to the convent will be sent home with their families after they receive postulant outfits—a vest, a skirt, a black belt and black shoes. "It's like when you fall in love and you meet the person that you're supposed to marry," aspirant Kirsten says. "I know it in my heart that this is what I'm supposed to be doing."
The first year is focused on studying, praying and training to become nuns, but it's not always easy for new arrivals. Family communication is limited to letters, three visits a year and no phone calls. "In the first year, they really have to make those breaks with so many of their friends and their family," Sister Joseph Andrew says. "There has to be that setting apart for Christ to become all to us. And then we can really love them again in a more complete manner."
At the end of that first day, families watch aspirants perform their first procession and prayers with their new sisters. For many parents, it's a bittersweet goodbye. "For me as a father, when you give your daughter to a husband you expect to see him again or see her, see them," a father named Steve says. "But we're not going to see her. It's a severance, like cutting the umbilical cord. And that's hard."
After the aspirant level, the sisters become postulants and go through a process called formation. "[For] three years, you take classes in interpersonal skills, basically. ... You take courses in sacred scripture, on doctrine, Catholic doctrine. So then you have just practical things of how to live the life," Sister Maria says. "You don't want to enter into this blind. None of the sisters walk into this with their heads buried in the sand. They know what they're getting into. So we want them to be happy in the religious life or out of the religious life."
For the first year, sisters wear the postulant uniform—a white blouse, blue vest, blue skirt, black belt and black shoes. In years two and three, the sisters are called novices and wear a white veil. After year three, the sisters take their first vows in ceremony where they make their first vows to Jesus Christ. They also receive a black veil. After another five years wearing a black veil, the sisters will take their final vows and become a professed bride of Christ.
Sisters must take marriage vows twice in the eight years it can take to become a nun. They are conducted in a ceremony the sisters consider their wedding day. Families are invited, and priests preside over the ceremony. The brides walk down the aisle in a single procession, their habits acting as wedding dresses. The groom, Jesus, is present only in spirit.
After three years, sisters who wear white veils commit to Jesus for the first time. They emerge from the ceremony wearing black veils.
After a nun has worn a black veil for five years, she takes her vows for the last time. These sisters lie facedown at the altar, symbolizing the death of their old lives and commitment to serving Jesus Christ as their husband. "When you're down on the ground, that's the most vulnerable position you can possibly be at," Sister Maria says. "You're acknowledging the fact that what you're doing is you're taking a great risk, but you're taking a great risk because you love. And that is the biggest risk—to love."
Sister Maria Catherine, who has just received her black veil, says Jesus is the perfect husband. "His love is not a utilitarian love. We're used to seeing love as something that you get from someone. And his love is a self-sacrificing love. His love for you is like no love that's on this earth. And that's what makes it perfect."
In recent years, the number of women wanting to become brides of Christ have been strong. Since their last Oprah Show appearance, Dominican Sisters of Mary has had nearly double the amount of young women wanting to become nuns, and Sister Mary Samuel says mother houses across the United States are running out of room. "The Holy Spirit is really moving the community," she says.
Sister Maria Catherine says she doesn't wonder about the life she left behind. "I remember with my last job I had a laptop and I had the cell phone and the PDA and the whatever," she says. "It's so freeing to be without those things and knowing that I can focus on what's more important, which is the infinite, the eternal."
Above all, Sister Maria Catherine appreciates the mix of the human and divine the convent provides. "We have bad days and good days, just like the rest," she says. "But what's so wonderful about our life is we're all striving for the highest possible good for the other. To love someone is to seek their greatest possible good."