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Record number of women become nuns

The number of women in Britain becoming nuns has reached a 25-year high.

Figures from the Catholic Church show the number of women taking their holy vows has trebled in the past five years from 15 in 2009 to 45 last year.

From a low of just seven women joining the sisterhood in 2004, that figure has been steadily rising for the past decade.

Experts say women are being drawn to become nuns because there is a "gap in the market for meaning in our culture" which the religious life offers.

Theodora Hawksley, 29, was until recently a postdoctoral researcher in theology at the University of Edinburgh.

But at the beginning of the year she decided to bid farewell to her friends in Scotland and career as an academic, and begin her training to become a nun.

She joined the Congregation of Jesus in January and is now living in their house in Willesden, north London, while taking the first steps towards making vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Explaining why she chose to become a nun, Ms Hawksley, originally from Hertfordshire, said: "In one sense it is a bit like trying to explain to somebody why you are marrying the person you are. You can list their qualities, but in the end it is a relationship of love.

"But on the other hand, I was drawn to it by wanting a greater freedom in being able to give myself to God and the world.

"I don't have to worry now about practical things like making a career for myself. I'm free to go where I'm needed and meet people at the margins."

And she is not the only young woman choosing religious life.

According to church figures, 14 out of the 45 women who entered convents this year were aged 30 or under.

Ms Hawksley said: "There is another person in an order in London and she is 27 and we meet to chat. You are not on your own. It is an unusual life choice, but you are not the only one making it. There are plenty of people asking themselves the same questions."

She admitted some of her friends were a "bit bewildered" when she revealed her plans, but most have been very supportive.

While to most people the word nun conjures up images of older women dressed in the traditional habit, dubbed "penguin suits" because of their distinctive black and white look, Ms Hawksley said her order tends to dress down in t-shirts and jeans.

"Unless you really knew what you were looking for, you wouldn't know it was a nun," she said.

Father Christopher Jamison, director of the Vocations Office of the Catholic Church, said: "There is a gap in the market for meaning in our culture and one of the ways in which women may find that meaning is through religious life."

Sister Cathy Jones, religious life vocations promoter at the National Office for Vocation, said: "We are never going to be at the place we were at 50 years ago, Catholic culture was at a very different place.

"But the fact that more women are becoming nuns than there has been in the past 25 years shows that as a generation we have turned a corner.

"We are not going to be as we were in the past when work was very visible with hospitals and schools and so on. But nuns may be doing more hidden work with trafficked women, for example, or as counsellors.

"That may not be as visible, but nonetheless is vital work the Church is doing."

And she agreed that some women, having seen the poverty which has afflicted parts of Britain during the economic downturn, may have been driven to work with those who are struggling.

She said: "It doesn't tend to be those who are coming from quite vulnerable places who become nuns.

"But there are people who want to be reaching out to those on the margins, who join."

Last year, BBC Northern Ireland political reporter Martina Purdy quit her 25-year career in journalism to become a nun.

She entered the Adoration Sisters last October.

In a statement posted on her Twitter page explaining her decision, she said: "I know many people will not understand this decision. It is a decision I have not come to lightly, but it is one I make with love and great joy."


From Belfast Telegraph