March 6, 2015

Twenty Something / Christina Capecchi

The hidden lives of Catholic sisters

Belinda Monahan has analyzed more than 100,000 animal bones in Armenia, dating back from the Early Bronze Age (1,200 BC) to the Medieval period.

For the 44-year-old archaeologist from New Jersey, the thrill never wears off. “When you look at a stork’s lower-leg bone,” she says, “it’s about as long as my lower-leg bone. It’s kind of startling! And it’s always fun to look at bears. I look at their claws and think, ‘Oh, those are cool!’ ”

This winter, Belinda’s impressive resumé—including a doctorate from Northwestern University and her current job as a research assistant at the University of Chicago—picked up another distinction: fully professed Catholic sister. She made her final vows as a Benedictine Sister of Chicago, becoming perhaps the only person on the planet who is both an expert on paleozoology of the Bronze Age and the Rule of St. Benedict.

Her work in archaeology deepens her faith, Sister Belinda told me. “Seeing the different patterns and the different ways people live makes me aware of God’s movement in human life.”

About 1,000 women are in formation to become Catholic sisters. I’m fascinated by the colorful experiences they bring to religious life. Sister Dian Hall was the only woman in a rock band—and the drummer, no less, at a time when drummers were always men. On stage, the self-proclaimed introvert came alive.

“We thought we were stars,” she said.

She cherished the camaraderie, whether they were practicing Beatles songs in a garage or driving around the outskirts of Atlanta for low-paying gigs.

Now the 61-year-old Georgia native has joined another band, one that is helping her become her “best self,” she says. Last August, she made temporary vows with the Sisters of St. Joseph. “I believe in our community. I believe we’re making a difference in the world.”

Sister Dian considers religious life the greatest adventure of all. “I see lots of exciting years ahead. I look back and I think everything I’ve done has taught me and brought me to where I am now. I just thank God!”

Megan Graves, a 22-year-old postulant with the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters, echoes that enthusiasm when asked about her future. A native of Chicago’s south side, Megan wears stylish glasses, closely cropped hair and a nose ring. The piercing is a frequent conversation starter at the Catholic school near Milwaukee where she teaches religion.

“So many of the girls come up to me and say, ‘You want to be a nun, but you have a nose ring?’ ” Megan told me. She welcomes the question, eager to broaden their notion of who can be Catholic sisters. (Megan knows several other 20-something postulants who have nose rings. It’s not a major symbol or statement, she says. “It’s a hipster thing.”)

She’s seizing National Catholic Sisters Week on March 8-14—an official addition to Women’s History Month—as an opportunity for myth busting, and for celebrating the remarkable influence of women religious. She’ll take to Facebook and host in-person gatherings to discuss the “sisterhood” she sought in a college sorority and found in a convent.

Sister Belinda, who helps the Benedictines with vocation ministry, will be having similar conversations with prospective postulants. “The first thing that holds them back isn’t fear, but lack of exposure,” she said. She’s quick to rave about the women in her community, like 100-year-old Sister Mercedes, who has been involved in hurricane relief, RCIA instruction and hospital chaplaincy. “These stories are not heard. The sisters have done amazing things, but they don’t publicize them. They do them so quietly that nobody outside the monastery knows.”

Here’s a chance to change that.

(Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn., and the editor of

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