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