Sister Sheila Carney laughs when she recalls the day a few years ago when her Sisters of Mercy were asked to call the White House to weigh in on an issue that was to benefit the poor of western Pennsylvania.
“One of our older sisters sat down and dialed the number,” Carney said. “(Each time) after hanging up, she would dial again and again. Eventually, the frustrated receptionist recording the calls asked, “How many sisters do you have over there in Pittsburgh?” ”
This is just one example, Carney said, of sisters who are not sitting around mourning their rapidly declining numbers, but are instead actively engaged in pursuing their missions of service to their communities.
For some, this work can take them hundreds of miles from home.
Sister Barbara Ann Smelko, vocations director for the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, said one of her sisters is a lawyer whose work on complex immigration issues takes her to New York and New Jersey.
And the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, Beaver County, founded Casa San Jose – the House of St. Joseph – in Pittsburgh in 2013 and continue to work with staff there to support Latino immigrants in the area.
All over the country and around the world, sisters have mobilized to help immigrants, including the new wave created by the war in Ukraine.
Like the Sisters of Charity, the Sisters of St. Joseph plant sustainable community gardens. They also maintain beehives, make honey and soap, and grow produce that is shared with neighbors as well as the local food bank.
“In our area, where food insecurity is on the rise among children, this is important work,” said Sister Sharon Costello.
Although the sisters occasionally clashed with conservative church leaders, many became political activists, making their voices heard in the halls of state and national power.
Earlier this month, dozens of sisters from multiple orders joined forces with local environmentalists at Allegheny Landing in Pittsburgh to offer a special Thanksgiving liturgy for clean water before cleaning up trash and pledging to oppose further efforts that would harm the rivers.
Sister Mary Parks, a former television journalist who left secular life to join the Sisters of St. Joseph three decades ago, sees it as her duty to tackle environmental issues on behalf of the world’s children .
“We don’t have children or grandchildren, but all the children are ours,” she said. “We can’t disappoint them.”
Although they are fewer in number than in previous years, their messages are heard.
“Their impact is enormous. It’s so immeasurable in the institutions they’ve created,” said Maureen O’Brien, associate professor of theology and director of pastoral ministry at Duquesne University. “What I find remarkable and inspiring in these changing times is how they are evolving and continuing to share of themselves and their resources.”
The older sisters use traditional methods to spread their message, but many younger ones have taken to social media. They use the hashtag #medianuns to chat about everything from life inside their orders and their journey to becoming sisters, to their opinions on the Oscars, their picks for the Super Bowl and their thoughts on what the women really want for Valentine’s Day.
Some use Twitter to answer questions from those who are thinking about life in a religious order.
For those unsure which order to join, online help is available through a dating app-like service. Users are asked to complete a questionnaire and then given a list of religious orders that are considered good matches.
The service available at VocationMatch.com asks, among other things, if visitors are single, married or divorced, their level of education, if they are willing to relocate and if they are interested in an order in which they would be required to wear a habit or an order in which they could wear street clothes.
For all the sisters, whether they have served for decades or are just beginning their religious journey, they agree that times dictate using whatever means possible to carry their message and accomplish their missionary work.
“These times offer so many options for nuns,” said Elizabeth McGill, 37, who is halfway through her journey to becoming a Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. “We can be nimble enough to respond to the needs of refugees and immigrants. And many nuns are leading efforts in the area of climate change.
“What a wonderful time to step in with this wonderful pool of wisdom from these strong women who entered at 18, who are inspired and filled with wisdom.”