Sister Zenaide celebrated her 101st birthday last February. On a recent winter day in the convent she calls home, she sang repeatedly in a low voice:

“In the voice quivers a cry / whispering with its singing / a regret of thousand illusions.”

Sister Zenaide loves to sing. She recently celebrated her 101st birthday.

Sister Zenaide loves to sing. She recently celebrated her 101st birthday.

There are almost no new Italian nuns joining the Sant’Anna convent in Turin, Italy. The nuns who have joined recently are primarily Indian nurses such as Kerala-born Sister Evangelina, who came to help the fading Italian sisters.

Every year the Agency FIDES (Agency of the Congregation for the Evangelization of People) provides data about nuns all over the world. In 1997, sisters in Europe numbered nearly 400,000; in 2015 they were less than 300,000. Every year, the number declines by 8,000. The data collected in North America and Australia shows a similar decline. (In Asia and Africa it is less bleak; many girls enter the convents for their studies.)

Sister Evangelina, who came from India, sets up a Christmas nativity scene.

Sister Evangelina, who came from India, sets up a Christmas nativity scene.

Being a nun is a vocation, and Sister Gesualda, 95, emphasizes the importance of being a good example for younger women who chose this lifestyle. She remembers the difficulty, but also her tenacity, in taking the vows years ago, against her father’s will. Meanwhile, sister Ernesta, 92, crochets decorations for a simple Nativity scene. She radiates serenity. After becoming a nun during World War II, she was evacuated to Turin with other sisters. Now, she is celebrating her 70th year of taking her vows; it’s a jubilee.

Sister Giuliana hugs Sister Maurina.

Sister Giuliana hugs Sister Maurina.

Sister Clotilde, 92, believes the decline in nuns is related to the falling birth rate and, in particular, the “millions of abortions happening in the world.” She adds, however, that through Pope Francis and the Jubilee of Mercy — a yearlong period of prayer that began last month — it is possible to obtain forgiveness and avoid purgatory.

Sister Ermelinda waits to watch the daily rosary on TV.

Sister Ermelinda waits to watch the daily rosary on TV.

Sister Ermelinda, 91, knows that, like the others, she will not be able to go to Rome to celebrate the Holy Year. She is too old and tired, but she was relieved to see the pontiff offer a promise of forgiveness worldwide. Considering that part of their vows and mission is to educate future generations, the biggest worry of all of these aging nuns is, who will take care of the young ones when we are gone?

But as reiterated by Sister Ernesta: “Every vocation is happiness.”

Sister Ernesta embroiders a piece to decorate the nativity scene.

Sister Ernesta embroiders a piece to decorate the nativity scene.
Sister Gesualda helps Sister Giustina. Sister Giustina believes it is impossible to become a nun quickly – only in silence and meditation is it possible to find the right way.

Sister Gesualda helps Sister Giustina. Sister Giustina believes it is impossible to become a nun quickly – only in silence and meditation is it possible to find the right way.
Sister Giuliana visits Sister Assunta in the infirmary. They reminisce about their youth in Tuscany.

Sister Giuliana visits Sister Assunta in the infirmary. They reminisce about their youth in Tuscany.
Sister Vittoria helps during lunch time.

Sister Vittoria helps during lunch time.
Sister Geualda’s list of all the people she will send Christmas wishes to.

Sister Geualda’s list of all the people she will send Christmas wishes to.
Sister Ernesta going to the afternoon mass.

Sister Ernesta going to the afternoon mass.

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Francesca Manolino is an Italian photojournalist and anthropologist based in Turin, Italy but currently between Iran and India.