Sister Patricia McNiff helps with the youth choir in St. Francis of Assisi Church, Brant Beach. Sister Pat is one of 10 Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia currently to serve in the Diocese of Trenton. Photo courtesy of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia / Andrea Cipraini-Mecchi
Sister Patricia McNiff helps with the youth choir in St. Francis of Assisi Church, Brant Beach. Sister Pat is one of 10 Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia currently to serve in the Diocese of Trenton. Photo courtesy of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia / Andrea Cipraini-Mecchi

While today’s communities of religious men and women face the same decrease in numbers as many other aspects in Church life, their mission remains just as strong and vibrant as it was generations ago.

“It is about witnessing a way of life in community and how to interact in the society and world,” asserted Franciscan Sister Florence Hee, charism coordinator for the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia. “It is to live in caring for one another. We value and focus upon social and economic justice, and how to be in relationship with God.”

Sister Florence continued, “We are to care for our brothers and sisters and creation. We want to raise awareness, help others to see how to care for one another and be mindful of needs and that our choices can affect the broader society.”

Still, encouraging new vocations to live this mission is not an easy task.

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According to a 2014 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, Washington, the total number of religious sisters in the United States has fallen from roughly 180,000 in 1965 to about 50,000 in 2014 – a 72 percent drop.

As many religious orders know well, the traditional ways of gaining new vocations are no longer as effective.

For one, the maxim “out of sight, out of mind” is true.

“When [greater numbers] were in schools and the hospital, people got to know us,” said Sister Florence. “Now we are not as present, and we need to look in new directions. We are looking at different ways to be engaged with younger adults. We try to engage the women, help them learn about our charism.”

Sister Florence’s order began in Philadelphia in 1855; its motherhouse is now in nearby Aston, Pa. Currently, the order has 391 Franciscan sisters across 17 states as well as Ireland and Africa. The Diocese of Trenton benefits from the labors of 10 of its sisters across the four counties.

Another stumbling block on the road to vocations is the reluctance to commit one’s life to religious service.

Sister Alice Ivanyo, a member of the Religious Teachers Filippini, serves as superior of the order’s Villa Walsh Motherhouse in Morristown. She noted, “We have women who come on retreat and show an inclination to a life of prayer, but when we ask them to commit, they say ‘not yet.’”

The Religious Teachers Filippini order has about 150 active religious in the country, approximately 30 of them serving in the Diocese of Trenton. “Our diocese is the cradle of our ministry in the United States since 1910,” Sister Alice said.

Regardless of the statistics, when it comes to religious women vocations, Sister Alice has confidence in the future, especially her order’s full-time vocations director, Sister Barbara O’Kane.

“She makes visits to parishes, conferences, Holy Hours, youth groups and the home-schooled,” Sister Alice related. “She is tireless, has energy to spare.”

“Religious life is, as St. John Paul II said, ‘a spirituality of Communion,’” she said. “We can overcome our human weakness, and live in community, with the grace of God.”

Sister Florence, who oversees her order’s initial and ongoing formation, is grateful for a small uptick in vocations. Last August, two women professed their first vows, and one made her final vows. She welcomes additional members, noting, “We are always open and give hospitality to anyone who visits.”

To learn more about a call to being a woman religious:

Contact Sister of St. Francis of Philadelphia Florence Hee at FHee@OSFPHILA.org or 610-558-6146.

Contact Religious Teachers Filippini Sister Alice Ivanyo at sralicei@gmail.com or 973-538-2886.