Bucking the trend, some millennials are seeking a nun’s life and an Order in Duarte is attracting eager, college-educated women.
They wear the traditional habit they’ve worn since Mother Lucita first arrived in LA from Mexico in 1927. The gowns are brown — symbolizing the humility of the Earth; white — a symbol of purity; and black — a symbol of death to the world with life in Christ.
The Carmelite Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Los Angeles have been actively serving their flock for 90 years. In Duarte, the campus includes their convent, a day care with pre-K curricula, an assisted living home, Saint Teresita Hospital and a church. And walking the hallways and gardens are 135 women living out their lives as brides of their God.
“I come from a Catholic family that getting married and having children would be the norm and beautiful and that was also very appealing to me as well,” says Sister Marie Estelle, a nun for 15 years.
She didn’t always think that’s what her life would be. She had studied international relations and nursing in South Dakota before she got “the call” from God.
“The Lord comes and says will you be mine?” she says with a smile. “There was this infinite love that was calling to me and nothing else could fill it.”
Sister Marie says that call reached deep within her soul.
“There’s a mysterious call within each one of our hearts that at some point we have to ask deep questions about life,” she says. “Who I am? What am I going to do with my life? What is life about?”
On the campus in Duarte, the Sisters work with the very old and the very young.
Sister Celine leads children in song with a pledge to both the Cross and the American Flag.
“Giving of my whole life to serve the Lord, to serve someone that I was getting to know and love,” she says, adding that even the habit she saw other Sisters wear attracted her.
“I said, ‘Yes, this is, I want this, this is authentic, this is true joy,’ so I wanted to have that,” she says.
At 34 years old, Sister Celine is considered a “millennial nun” although she doesn’t have a credit card or a cellphone. But she admits, temptation exists.
“Temptation is a part of life. It will not go away once you enter a convent,” she says.
The Sisters are active on Facebook and have used social media in a way to promote their love for God. But as young women taking on roles often seen as “old-world,” they see it as something far different.
“When people look at us, immediately what do they think?” asks Sister Maria Goretti. “They think of God. Their thoughts go straight to God and that’s what it’s intended to be.”
“Our mission is to promote the spiritual life among God’s people,” says Sister Marie Estelle. She says she always had a yearning to help people and with the assisted living residents, she fulfills that feeling every day.
“There’s an innate beauty that we constantly try to reflect to them,” she says. “And also learn from them the beauty in the gift that they are with wisdom and experience, they’re really invaluable, something that we treasure very much.”
For Sister Celine, working with the children on the Duarte campus gives her a new sense of what she thought she wanted for her life before the sisterhood.
“I wanted to have 12 children,” she says. “So then when I entered and realized that is still fulfilled and even more to the extent I never imagined.”
The Carmelites have Orders in 14 locations across the country. Their foundress, Mother Lucita first arrived in Los Angeles during the 1920s persecution of Mexican Catholics, which would ultimately lead to what was known as the Cristeros War.
But life as a millennial sister, they’ll admit, it’s easy.
“There’s fear involved,” Sister Celine says, pointing to temptations she says she conquers through faith. “Temptation is a part of life, it will not go away once you enter a convent.”
For Sister Maria Goretti, her struggle lied in fighting the self-doubt of what her purpose in life would be. Before the convent, she was studying public relations in college in Louisiana.
“Doubts are gonna come up,” she says. “But that’s just a part of being human and that’s normal and natural. It’s a matter of how you respond to that when it comes.”
Sister Celine chimes in with another struggle: that of trust.
“Trust is hard,” she says. “Everything has to be concrete nowadays and if you don’t know what will happen, then there’s no moving and there’s no commitment.”
That’s where she says faith comes in.
“The strength will be there when you’re able to say, I can’t do it on my own and I need the Lord’s help,” Sister Celine says.
But 90 years in LA and the Carmelite Sisters say their mission now is just as important as their mission back then.
Sister Marie Estelle puts it this way: “As long as there is a need for prayer and service to God’s people, with all our heart and soul, we’ll be there.”