By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 23, 2007
Dominican Sister Catherine Marie Hopkins flashed a quick smile and told the group of Serrans something they hadn’t heard a lot of during a weekend focused on the drop in vocations.
“I bring a message of hope,” said Sister Catherine Marie. “God has not stopped calling.”
In a twist, she said a way to encourage men and women to embrace a celibate life is for wives and husbands to live lovingly.
The commitment of parents in marriage strengthens vocations, she said. “When the family is healthy, the church is healthy. It is the first school of love.”
She is a member of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia. The congregation was founded in 1860 in Nashville, Tenn., “the buckle of the Bible Belt,” as she put it.
Sister Catherine Marie was one of the featured speakers at the Serra International Convention in Atlanta, Aug. 9-12. The group’s mission is to support those in religious vocations and to pray for future vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
The Nashville congregation is seeing an upswing of vocations that reverses a trend in many other congregations of sisters. Sister Catherine Marie, who was the vocations director from 1990 to 2005 and serves on the congregation’s General Council, said the increase is fueled by young people influenced by Pope John Paul II and people “rediscovering Catholic culture.”
The Nashville Dominicans are seeing new candidates by the dozens, in contrast to the dramatic decrease in the sisterhood nationwide.
In 2000, there were 79,876 sisters in the United States, a drop of some 54 percent since 1945.
Sisters in the Archdiocese of Atlanta are becoming fewer also. In 10 years, the number of sisters has decreased to 110 from 125, according to church figures.
However, the Nashville Dominicans added 100 sisters in the past 15 years and accept an average of a dozen candidates a year. The Nashville Dominicans’ ministry is education, and members of the congregation wear distinctive habits. In the Archdiocese of Atlanta, the sisters administer St. Catherine of Siena School in Kennesaw.
The median age of a sister in the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia is 36. The median age for sisters nationwide is 69, according to researchers.
And two years ago, the congregation constructed a $46 million, 100,000-square-foot motherhouse to house the growing number of sisters.
Sister Catherine Marie, who is 47, said the surge in interest in the congregation started in the late 1980s. She said the influence of Pope John Paul II during his many trips to see young people and proclamations convinced the young people to look at religious life.
Young people today are looking for a “deeper meaning of life” and some are finding that with religious life, she said. People are rediscovering the richness of a Catholic culture with both an intellectual and spiritual component, she said.
Sister Catherine Marie told her own vocation story of being the only daughter in a family of five high-spirited children. Raised in central New York State, Sister Catherine Marie became a sister in her mid-20s after studying to be a teacher. Three of her four brothers were already in seminary when she told her parents about her interest in becoming a sister. Her brothers became ordained priests with the Legion of Christ, shortly before she took her final vows in 1991. The fourth brother works with people in prison.
“We could not explain it,” she said about her family’s situation.
Every Catholic is challenged to find a way to serve God, she said.
“Each is called to holiness. It’s a witness that each of us gives. Witness to the power of God’s love,” Sister Catherine Marie said.