Sister James Marie Donahue knew at a young age she wanted to enter religious life. A relative she admired was a Sister of Mercy, and Donahue started thinking about becoming one herself as early as grade school.
“But it was in high school that I felt that sense of calling,” Donahue said. “However, I also wanted to be a moved to pursue religious life.”
In 1953, two years after receiving her nursing degree from Mercy Hospital’s School of Nursing, she entered the Sisters of Mercy.
Now, 60 years later, Donahue is one of five Cedar Rapids area nuns who will celebrate milestones in service to their faith this weekend.
All represent a generation of women who dedicated their lives to the church and service to community in numbers that no generation since has matched.
Fifty years ago “to have a child entering the religious life was really something that reflected on the family,” Sister Anne Murphy, director of new membership for the Sisters of Mercy’s West/Midwest community, said from her Burlingame, Calif., office. “It was a status symbol, families were very religious then.”
Now, fewer women are turning to religious life, and those who do are waiting longer. Many want to earn degrees and establish themselves before joining the church.
It’s a reflection, Murphy said, of a broad combination of factors: a diminished engagement in religion across denominational lines, less exposure to those in religious life by children and more opportunities for women.
“It used to be if women wanted to work, they became teachers or nurses, or they led a religious life,” Murphy said. “Now there are so many other things women want to do first.”
In the past 60 years, Donahue, 84, has observed these changes. She credits the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, for “loosening up” and modernizing Catholic doctrine in 1965.
“After Vatican II, opportunities for ministries and giving service were more open for sisters, community living was also more open, and many changes came about,” she said. “Over the years some women felt they could give as much service as lay women and may not have pursued religious life.”
At the same time, these changes emptied the pews as congregants who disagreed left the church, Murphy said.
Today, 8 percent of millennial women born after 1981 have considered, at least a little seriously, leading a religious life, and as many as 250,000 never-married Catholic women worldwide have considered religious life, according to a study by Francois Gauthier, a religion professor at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.
Those entering religious life in 2014, though, are older — an average of 32 — and usually have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Although she’s celebrating her 50-year mark with the Sisters of Mercy, Sister Mary Alice Maiers has an idea of the path today’s women are taking.
She grew up in Holy Cross and lived across the street from the Catholic church. After high school, though, she became a medical technician and worked at Mercy Hospital and for 10 years in Denver.
It wasn’t until her 30s that a sister “asked if I’d ever been interested, and suddenly I was,” said the now 83-year-old. “I got to thinking, I was having a wonderful time but I think God had other plans for me.”
Donahue and Maiers worked in health care.
Donahue was a nursing instructor, director of the Mercy Hospital School of Nursing and then chairwoman of the Department of Nursing at Mount Mercy College from 1970 to 1987. Since 2000, she has been chairwoman of the Board of Mercy Medical Center Foundation in Cedar Rapids.
Maiers has worked in hospitals throughout Eastern Iowa and is a volunteer for Hospice of Mercy in Cedar Rapids
Most women once chose either “teaching and working in hospitals because that’s where the need was,” Maiers said. “That’s where we could serve our community most. Now the need is no longer there.”
Instead, she said, sisters serve their communities in other ways.
“There aren’t as many of us, but I think the sisters have been able to make some changes in many areas,” she says. “When you don’t have the numbers, you have to be the numbers. So the sisters are spreading their ministry wide.”