Kentucky religious order gains new recruit from Nigeria, bucking trend of decline in number of nuns

Posted at 7:00 AM, May 05, 2017

COVINGTON, Ky. -- The February newsletter of the Sisters of Divine Providence in Melbourne, a tiny town in Campbell County, Kentucky, reported that the order gained a new member in January: Sister Mary Florence Anyabuonwu.

The Nigerian native took her initial vows of poverty, chastity and obedience Jan. 14 -- exactly 255 years after Marguerite LeComte became the very first Sister of Divine Providence.

The same newsletter also reported that three members of the order in the United States had died in the past three months: Sister Mary Hope Schenk in October, Sister Teresa Anne Kelemen in November and Sister Elizabeth Anne Durbin in December.

Those two news items pretty much summed up the state of affairs in the order: Old members are dying faster than new ones are lining up to replace them. There are 99 Sisters of Divine Providence in the United States, with an average age of 76 among them, said Sister Alice Gerdeman, the provincial superior.

What's true with this congregation is true of congregations all across the nation. A 2009 study found that there were more Roman Catholic sisters over 90 than there were under 60.

From a 1966 peak of 181,421, the number of nuns in this country has declined every year. In 2014, the most recent year a count was available from the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, there were 49,883.

In the Archdiocese of Cincinnati at the end of 2016, there were 720 women religious, or about 30 percent fewer than the 1,056 there were 10 years ago, said Sister Marilyn Kerber, director of the archdiocese's Office for Consecrated Life. Their average age is somewhere in the 80s, she said, which she admitted is a "very dire statistic."

Nowadays, the novices aren't coming from the traditional sources.

According to CARA, nine out of 10 of the nuns in the United States are white, but four out of 10 women who have entered the religious life in the past 10 years are of a different race or ethnicity. More than half of nun communities say that at least one entrant in the past 10 years was born outside the United States -- like Anyabuonwu, who was born Dec. 7, 1970, a day before the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, in Nigeria.

Raised by staunch Catholic parents, she became very involved as a youth in her parish church, teaching catechism, cleaning the altar and singing in the choir that her father had founded. As a young adult, she visited a nearby convent for Dominican nuns and felt goose pimples all over her.

"This place is like heaven," she remembered thinking.

In 1991, Anyabuonwu entered the Dominican order and began working with the poor in that rural area, riding up to 2 miles on a motorcycle or taking a canoe to visit remote villages. Feeling burnt out, she left the order in 2004 before making her final vows.

She really wanted to go to college, but didn't have the money. However, through an American nun she worked with, she learned that Berea College in central Kentucky offered scholarships and decided to apply.

Over the next three months, she peppered the admissions office with phone calls -- so many that they asked her to stop calling. They told her they had received 3,500 applications for only 25 slots.

"It was like passing through the eye of a needle," Anyabuonwu said.

But nevertheless, she was accepted, and cried for joy.

When she learned that Berea would give her free tuition, a job and a free laptop, she couldn't believe it. She had her friend call the American embassy in Nigeria to see if Berea really was a college. The offer was so generous, Anyabuonwu said, that God "blew her mind."

She entered Berea in August 2007 and graduated in December 2011 with a degree in psychology and sociology. During her years there, she became friends with a Sister of Divine Providence who worked at the Holy Spirit Parish Newman Center and became interested in joining the congregation.

Anyabuonwu really connected with the name.

"All my life has been a journey of providence," she said.

She would have joined sooner, but she had some details to work out involving her immigration status. Anyabuonwu expects to have her green card within a few months and then she can apply for residency.

She now lives in Covington and works as a case manager for refugee resettlement for Catholic Charities Southwestern Ohio in Cincinnati. It's a job for which Anyabuonwu's past has prepared her quite well: helping those new to this country learn at least some English, apply for Social Security cards and help them acculturate.

"I say, 'I made it, you can make it. I came with nothing,'" she said.

Anyabuonwu is not the most recent novice in the congregation; another woman joined last year. But before that, no one had joined in about 10 years, Gerdeman said.

Why the shortage of women interested in becoming nuns?

There are no simple answers, Kerber said. It's ironic, because when she became a nun, only two other vocations were open to her: teaching or nursing.

Now, she said, nuns are doctors, lawyers, parish administrators and school principals.

And Gerdeman does sees hopeful signs for the future.

In April, her office co-sponsored "RU Called," an event where women interested in becoming nuns could meet women religious from across the archdiocese. Twenty potential recruits attended, she said, which is much more than have attended similar events in previous years.

"I think it's slow, but there is growing interest," Gerdeman said.