For three years, beginning in 2014, Trinity Washington University (Trinity) in Washington D.C and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University collaborated in a Study of International Sisters in the United States. Sr. Mary Johnson, SNDdeN, Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at Trinity, with her colleagues in this study, Dr. Mary L. Gautier, Sr. Patricia Wittberg, SC, Sr. Thu T. Do, LHC acknowledge with gratitude the support of GHR Foundation for this project.
By Sister Mary Johnson, SNDdeN
In this study, we define an international Sister as “a woman religious who was born outside the United States and is now living in the United States, in ministry, or study or residence.”
At a time of great trial for immigrants to this country, we conducted the first-ever national survey of Sisters who were born outside the United States. We used multiple methods to find as many Sisters as possible by contacting the leaders of every apostolic, monastic, and contemplative institute of women in the United States, along with the vicar of religious of every diocese. (Only 18 dioceses reported no international Sisters.) Through these methods and using various other contacts with Sisters and groups, we identified and surveyed in this country over 4,000 international Sisters from 83 countries and 6 continents. Several Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur are included. The survey was translated into English, French, Spanish and Vietnamese. We had help with the other languages. In addition, we conducted 26 focus and individual interviews across the county.
Here are just a few demographic findings from the survey:
Continent of Origin of the Sisters (with largest sending continent first)
• Europe (older international sisters are from western Europe, younger are from eastern Europe)
• North America (Canada and Mexico)
• Central and South America
Reasons for Entering the US
39% were sent by their Congregations for ministry
28% arrived as children, teens, adults, before entering religious Congregations
13% were sent by their Congregations for study
10% were sent by Congregations as part of their formation programs
6% transferred from provinces outside US to US provinces in their Congregations
2% transferred to a Congregation in the US from another Congregation outside the US
2% came to enter religious life in US
Demographics related to age and arrival
The average age of international Sisters is 58, which is 20 years younger than the average age of US born Sisters
On average, they entered religious life at age 23, and came to the US at age 30
Forty-one percent have been in the US for 15 years or less
Ethnic/Racial Background (self-identification)
35 % Asian/Pacific Islander
33 % European/Canadian/Australian
21 % Latin American/Mexican
11 % African/Afro-Caribbean
The largest percentage of international Sisters serve in parish/diocesan/ethnic group ministry, healthcare, and education.
14 % are students in college or a school of theology.
13 % serve in congregational/vocation/formation ministry. Some of these Sisters are in Congregations that have just opened a new mission in the U.S. The mission of some of these is to evangelize.
9 % serve in social services.
5 % are contemplative nuns in monasteries all over the U.S.
1 % serve in campus ministry.
Needs identified by these Sisters:
♦ Language training to attain fluency in English.
♦ Mentoring so that Sisters are accompanied as they navigate complex situations of ministry, community, Church and society.
♦ Acculturation processes for the sending and receiving groups.
♦ New initiatives on the part of US based Congregations to reach out to international Sisters in order to increase their sense of belonging and to build solidarity.
Listed above are just a few findings. Many more findings, plus analysis and recommendations, will be provided in a forthcoming book to be published next year. In the meantime, there has been keen interest in this study, especially at a gathering of leaders of national Catholic organizations in Washington, D.C. in March, 2017 and a session sponsored by the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) in Rome in May, 2017.
Also, my colleagues and I were grateful when Sr. Mary Pellegrino, CSJ, mentioned the significance of the study to the leaders assembled in Orlando, Florida in August 2017, in her Presidential Address to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).
It is the hope of our research team that the findings of this study will shed further light on the experiences and gifts of those who migrate to this country. We hope that it will be a useful tool for those who are interested in issues of immigration and particularily the gifts and challenges of those women religious who were born outside this country and who minister in the United States.
Please show your support for all efforts to welcome “the strangers” among us.