With Today's Options, Fewer Women Entering Convents Calling to a Career Led Many Nuns to Take Vows

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Byline: Deborah Pankey Daily Herald Staff Writer

The sisters at Sacred Heart Monastery in Lisle know they're probably the last of a breed.

Once, they say, the sisterhood attracted many young women seeking to make their mark in the world.

But now, the sisters admit, fewer and fewer women are buying into monastic life because, frankly, they don't have to.

"There were no options available to women (many years ago) and religious life was a very attractive lifestyle," said Sister Judith Ann Heble, prioress of the Sacred Heart community. "It was a way to pursue a career. Today women have all types of opportunity."

Sister Judith Ann need look no farther than her own chapel to see the decline.

In the 1950s, there were nearly 150 sisters in the Sacred Heart monastery. Today there are 57.

Perhaps even more telling is that the youngest nun at Sacred Heart is 49 years old.

Those figures mirror nationwide declines in the number of nuns. There were 167,167 nuns in 1969, said Sister Mary Meegan of the Diocese of Joliet. That number dropped to 129,391 in 1978 and 92,107 in 1994.

In the Joliet diocese itself, which includes DuPage County, the numbers have dropped from 1,063 in 1978 to 709 last fall, she said.

No one knows more about those dwindling numbers than those who still serve.

Sister Judith Ann says it used to be that if a woman wanted an education and a career, one way to do it was to join a convent and become a teacher. Sacred Heart, for example, once was a teaching order and operated a girls school.

That's how Sister Regina Ann Weissman found her way to the monastery.

"I was the oldest of three, but my mom and dad were saving money for my brothers to go to college," Sister Regina Ann said.

There was no money for her to attend school, so she chose the church instead.

But the sisters also say they had a calling, a force pulling them closer to the church.

"My decision to enter developed at home," said Sister Mary Louise Hartwig. "My mother spoke of desiring a religious life when she was young, but her father couldn't understand that. And girls did not go against their parents' wishes. I told her, 'Your daddy got someone to take your place.' "

"I lived with nuns all my life. I came to Sacred Heart because my parents couldn't care for me," said Sister Gertrude Naudzius, who enrolled in Sacred Heart Academy in 1932. She entered the convent in 1941.

"I couldn't have lived a better life than what I've lived here," she said.

Sister Barbara Ann Svec also attended school here in the 1950s, but to her, the religious life was no mystery. …