Marie Racine was well established, a software engineer for 17 years, when something happened. “We had a meeting, and all of the sudden when they introduced the new projects, I just wasn’t interested anymore,” Racine said. “It just no longer mattered to me.” That awareness propelled Racine onto a new path — and into an emerging trend about women committing to religious life: Racine entered a Benedictine monastery the day before her 40th birthday and made her final vows seven years later, in 2007. Little attention was given to the age of women professing final vows until a 2009 study for the National Religious Vocation Conference reported that 91 percent of women religious were age 60 or older. Researchers at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), who conducted the study, knew they needed to look more closely at what was happening. “It’s just something that wasn’t studied until we saw it changing,” said Dominican Sr. Mary Bendyna, one of the researchers. CARA began issuing a report each year, starting in 2010, on the profession class of that year — the men and women making final vows. It was already clear that fewer women were joining religious life, making the average age of women in religious life higher and higher as they got older in a time when fewer and fewer young women were joining. But CARA data also showed that women professing final vows were themselves older — much older — than before. (CARA tracks those taking final vows, as the length of time between candidacy and final vows can vary greatly, though the average is about six years.) In 2010, 47 percent of women professing final vows were aged 40 to 59. Another 26 percent were between 30 and 39. The median age for the class was 44. Those numbers have steadily changed in the years since, reflecting an increase among younger women: By the class of 2014, only 27 percent of women taking final vows were aged 40 to 59 and those younger than 30 had increased from 18 percent to 25 percent. The median age of the class had dropped to 35. But 75 percent of the class was still 30 or older. Who are these women deciding later in life to become sisters?
Read on for some answers. While the report doesn’t say so explicitly, it appears the statistics cited track religious sisters in the United States. Figures from other countries, I suspect, might be different.