Beth Burwell wrestled with the question of whether she could forego having a husband or children.
The answer came to her while visiting a Bronx, N.Y., convent where nuns help single mothers with unwanted pregnancies.
"I held a little girl who had been born at the convent, and I welled up with tears recognizing this little girl might not have been," the 22-year-old from Satellite Beach said in an e-mail. "But God called a group of wonderful women to sacrifice their own marriages and children so that they could help this little girl's mother to say 'yes' to life, 'yes' to motherhood, 'yes' to this precious gift."
Burwell, a University of Central Florida graduate, left a week ago to join the convent of the Sisters of Life and dedicate her life to the Roman Catholic religious order. She was one of five parishioners of Holy Name of Jesus Church in Indialantic, ranging in age from 18 to 34, to enter religious life in recent months, defying a national trend that has seen the ranks of the Catholic Church in the United States grow thinner and grayer.
According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in 1965 there were 58,132 priests serving 46.6 million U.S. Catholics -- or about one for every 802 parishioners -- compared to 43,302 priests serving 64.3 million Catholics -- one per 1,485 -- in 2004.
Convents have fared just as badly, raising questions about who will staff the Catholic schools and hospitals that had traditionally been their domain.
"The crisis is still ongoing," said the Rev. David Page, the 75-year-old pastor of Holy Name. "It's a crisis in many places and there are many more priests over 70 than under 40. It's a big concern. If that trend continues, how will people receive the sacrament? There is a tremendous need."
Holy Name, on State Road A1A just south of the Eau Gallie Causeway in unincorporated Indialantic, has become an anomaly of sorts. In addition to the five parishioners who plan to take vows, another three entered religious life in recent years.
"It's very unusual, especially for one parish to see this happen," said Page, a native of Ireland.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington D.C., called the news "astounding." But she also said vocations seem to be cyclical.
"After World War II, there was a spike in vocations," she said, adding that, by the Vietnam War, people were questioning everything, including religion and the church. That's when she said the priest shortage worsened.
Two other Brevard County Catholic churches also boast a new seminarian each, but none has reached Holy Name's numbers. Holy Name credits a successful teen program and youth ministry that sometimes sees a standing-room-only crowd at the Sunday night teen mass.
Bishop Thomas Wenski, of the Orlando diocese, earlier this year called on all area parishes to set up vocation committees to work with young people who may be considering religious life.
The Rev. Miguel Gonzalez, vocation director for the Orlando Diocese, said the church invites high school students to visit seminaries, encourages youth groups and works to make the option known to youth.
The required vows
In addition to a vow of celibacy, those who choose religious life will be taking vows of poverty and obedience to their superiors. They may be able to request certain assignments within their respective orders but, in many cases, they must be willing to accept anything.
After spending nine years as a student at Holy Name of Jesus School during the 1980s, Julie Winkeljohn said she gave some thought to becoming a nun. But it wasn't until years later, while attending Mississippi State University, that she seriously considered turning her life over to God.
"That's when I really started growing into my faith," said Winkeljohn, who entered the novitiate for the Daughters of St. Paul after spending two years studying in the convent. "I got involved with the Catholic Student Association. I went on retreats and then went on a mission trip to Mexico and just started really owning my own faith."
The 32-year-old Satellite High graduate thought long and hard about giving up the prospects of a husband and children to enter service.
"It is a sacrifice, but the way I look at it is not so much what I am giving up but rather what I have," she said.
'It was his calling'
Richardson, the only Brevard County high school graduate from this past May to enter the seminary, said he started thinking seriously about the priesthood while in the 10th grade at Satellite High.
Reading a biography of St. Ignatius of Loyola cemented his decision.
"It really touched me how this man could change with such heroic charity for the people and for God," Richardson said from the St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami.
Richardson's mother, Alina, said she wasn't surprised by her son's choice.
"He was a very serious child. I told him he was born old," she said. "He used to say he wanted to be president. So for one of his birthdays we took him to the White House. Now, it's like, 'Wow! We're going to have a priest in the family.' It was his calling."
Richardson hopes to one day be ordained a parish priest in the diocese where he was raised.
Page credits God with calling five of his parishioners to service, but also gives kudos to a fervent youth ministry, as well as a prayerful community.
"We have a chapel for adoration that's open 24 hours a day, and there's always at least two people praying in the chapel," he said. "A lot of people believe that adoration of the Lord leads to vocations."
Winklejohn agreed, saying God deserves the credit.
"It's definitely a movement of the spirit," she said.