A Dominican order of traditional religious sisters is thriving in Nashville, Tennessee and expanding into other cities across the nation.
The Washington Post recently highlighted the order's work on a new Catholic high school opening in Dumfries, a city in northern Virginia. The $60 million Pope John Paul the Great High School will be one of only four new Catholic secondary schools opened last year in the U.S.
The new school will require an extensive bioethics curriculum for all four years, the first Catholic high school to do so. The Dominican sisters themselves are writing the curriculum and will run the school.
At a time when many religious communities are aging due to a lack of new vocations, the Nashville Dominicans are growing.
Though the average age for a religious sister in the United States is about 70, the Nashville Dominicans' median age is 35. The Nashville-based Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia number 226 members, and receive about ten to fifteen new vocations each year.
The sisters maintain a traditional dress, wearing floor-length white habits with a black veil and a rosary.
"They are icons of Catholicity in a diocese that wants Catholicity," said Sister Patricia Wittberg, a sociologist at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
Their traditionalism may be part of their appeal.
"This generation is more conventional in their outlook and more traditional in values," said Brother Paul Bednarczyk, executive director of the National Religious Vocations Conference. "Given the relativity of our culture, they really want to know what it means to be Catholic, and symbols -- like habits -- speak to them deeply. They want people to know they have made this radical choice."
Some experts say traditional groups like the Nashville Dominicans have grown because they have maintained a clear mission, like teaching or nursing. Progressive orders have let members pursue a variety of different careers, where they often live and work alone apart from their fellow sisters. The orthodoxy and charisma of Pope John Paul II is also credited for attracting interest in the religious life, while some think the meditative lifestyle of a vowed religious is a more attractive to the frenzy of modern life.
The Nashville Dominicans have maintained their educational mission. They move to new cities in groups so they can follow the same schedule: waking together, praying and chanting three times a day together, meditating together and eating together in silence. Their reputation for being young and upbeat is reflected in their promotional material, which shows them playing soccer and walking on the beach.
"They have always been clear as to what their identity is as a community and how it's expressed. If you diversify your ministry so much, it's hard to say what your community does," said Michael Wick, executive director of the Institute on Religious Life. "And young attracts young. I think other [traditional orders] are learning from them."
The Nashville Dominicans' web site is at http://www.nashvilledominican.org/