This summer, Silvana Arevalo put aside her life in San Francisco – a successful career as a chemical engineer, a great salary and lots of friends – and headed to a quiet place outside the city in search of an answer to a question that few women ask these days: Should I become a nun?
Since the 1950s, there has been a sharp decline of women willing to take the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience required by the Catholic Church.
As lay people moved in to run Catholic hospitals, schools and charities, the number of nuns fell from 180,000 in 1965 to about 50,000 in 2014, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
Many, nowadays, see becoming a nun as “a tremendous, radical choice,” said Paul Bednarczyk, executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference, a Chicago-based organization that provides resources and training for faith-related careers.
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“People ask, ‘How can you do this when you have so many other choices?’ ” he said. “Well, you do it because there’s a great sense of joy that comes from God.”
Bednarczyk’s group encourages religious orders to promote their work through websites, podcasts and social media. Ten years ago, it launched the Vocation Network, a Match.com-like site that helps people interested in religious work find their ideal community.
“We are working very, very hard to promote ourselves,” Bednarczyk said.
The order that attracted Arevalo’s attention has a website, but it’s mostly word-of-mouth that draws the faithful from around the world to its retreats, prayer groups and spiritual discussions.
And as many orders fight extinction, the Verbum Dei Missionary Fraternity – a small, San Francisco-based order that focuses on prayer, eschews nuns’ habits, and encourages a fair amount of painting, guitar-strumming and yoga-posing – continues to draw recruits.
Established in Spain in 1963, the Verbum Dei Missionary Fraternity is young by the standards of the millennia-old Catholic Church. So are the nuns, who tend to be in their 30s and 40s, instead of mid- to late-70s as are most sisters nationwide.
On a recent morning, Arevalo joined four other women interested in joining Verbum Dei at a 1 1/4-acre retreat center the order recently bought in Tracy, outside San Francisco. Located behind a wall of oleanders and surrounded by farmland, the complex includes houses with wooden siding, a trailer and a barn the nuns transformed into a chapel.
The visitors’ mission was to spend a month in silence considering whether they want to live their lives as Verbum Dei nuns.
Along with Arevalo, there was a medical artist from the East Bay community of Pittsburg, a theology student from San Francisco, a philosopher from Seattle and a former chaplain from Brisbane, Australia.
‘People want proof of everything’
The sister-in-charge, Rosalia Meza, is an easygoing nun from Guadalajara. She knows times have changed. In the 1950s, many women had limited choices: teacher, secretary, housewife or nun.
These days, Meza acknowledged, it’s tough getting newcomers to commit.
“In this technological, postmodern world, people want proof of everything,” she said. “But the spiritual life is a process. It doesn’t work that way.”
Candidates thinking of attending the retreat wrestle with a mix of potential obstacles, including fear of missing family, married life and independence, and a desire for a more regimented life than Verbum Dei can provide.
A few want to be cloistered, meaning no contact with the outside world. But Verbum Dei encourages assimilation with the wider community.
“We are not holy-holy nuns who think this is a superior vocation,” Meza said. “We want people to know that everyone has access to God.”
Recently, one aspirant wanted Verbum Dei to guarantee her the ability to grown her own organic food.
“We love our Earth,” Meza said. “But we’re very limited and can’t make that kind of promise.”
‘Taste that freedom’
A more common challenge faced by Verbum Dei and other order is candidates who come laden with college debt.
Laryn Kovalik, a medical artist attending the retreat, is an example. A few years after finishing graduate school, she was introduced to Verbum Dei and fell in love with their work.
“They were so full of life and seemed so very free,” Kovalik said. “I wanted to taste that freedom and be one of them.”
But nuns take vows of poverty and generally do not have salaries, personal bank accounts or property and the communities in which they live can’t afford to pay off the hefty loans.
So the 30-year-old has spent the last year working to drum up tens of thousands of dollars in donations that would have taken years to pay off.
By her estimates, she will need to hustle for help for one to two more years.
Arevalo, a Virginia native, made good money and liked her job at a big biotech company in San Francisco. But she felt unfulfilled.
Relatives wondered if what she needed was a husband. But she knew it was more than that.
“I kept asking, ‘What is God’s will for my life?’ ”
‘What I’m called to do’
In the months leading up to the retreat, she realized that when she was with the Verbum Dei sisters, things began to make sense, she said.
She enjoyed their focus on prayer and appreciated the space, physical and psychological, they gave her to reconsider her life.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve broken down and written in my journal, ‘What am I doing? What am I doing?’ ” she said. “But I know this is what I’m called to do, and I just have to keep going.”
By the end of the retreat, Arevalo told Meza that she was ready to commit.
Meza returned to Long Beach with three new initiates — the former chaplain from Australia, Arevalo and Kovalik, who will be allowed to stay as she pays off her loans.
The nuns consider their home in Long Beach a miracle in itself.
While convents are shutting down nationwide due to a lack of funding and a lack of nuns, the pastor of St. Anthony’s Parish saw the dedication of Meza and the other nuns and reopened the church’s long-closed convent.
“We couldn’t believe it,” Meza said.
The space features three chapels, an office, meditation room, a tea room and a community dining room. Upstairs, two large rooms with bunk beds can host nearly 20 guests during overnight retreats.
Meza and the sisters want to transform the convent into a Catholic urban oasis, hosting retreats and meditation activities for churchgoers across the region.
Arevalo said she feels at peace in the home. When she returned to the East Coast a few weeks ago and told her parents her final decision, they were supportive.
Things, at last, are falling into place.
“I had so many fears and doubts, but now I’m here,” she said.