As sacristan assistant, Sister Sarah Elizabeth lights candles before eucharistic adoration at the Immaculata Monastery in Norfolk. COURTESY PHOTO


Benedictine sister part of a potentially promising trend

After earning degrees in electrical engineering and engineering physics, Sarah Elizabeth McMahon envisioned her days would be spent designing, developing and testing electrical equipment. Instead, the South Dakota native is about to make her final vows at Immaculata Monastery in Norfolk to become a Missionary Benedictine Sister.

A far cry from working in the engineering field, which she did for a year after graduating in 2013, Sister Sarah Elizabeth found her calling by praying that she would discern God’s will for her life. There were also “little promptings along the way” that led her to believe that she should be open to religious life.

Sister Sarah Elizabeth’s decision to become a religious sister may be viewed as an anomaly as the number of U.S. women religious has dramatically decreased in recent decades.

The number of women religious in the U.S. peaked in the mid-1960s at 176,000, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). While the more recent low number of U.S. women religious in the U.S. — just over 44,100 according to 2020 CARA statistics — may seem unprecedented, 100 years ago, there were about the same number.

It may surprise many people that religious orders in the U.S. are currently experiencing a slight but steady increase in the number of women discerning a vocation. CARA reports that over the past decade, about 100 American women take religious vows annually. At the same time, the age of women entering religious life is decreasing. A decade ago, the average age of women entering was 40. Today it is 24.

A 2019 Pew survey reported that 40% of American millennials don’t attend church or identify with a religion. In light of these statistics, the fact that any young woman would choose to join a religious community seems miraculous.

But Sister Sarah Elizabeth, 32, isn’t surprised and thinks millennials get a bad rap. Often portrayed in the media as too selfish or faithless to consider a religious vocation, Sister Sarah Elizabeth disagrees.

“I’ve seen that extreme, but then there’s the other extreme of millennials reaching out and wanting to do service,” she said. “I’ve surrounded myself with people of my age group who are very into their faith and very open to how the Lord is calling them. I think it depends on the area of the country that you’re in and the groups that you’re looking at, but I think there’s definitely those who are considering something beyond themselves.”


Some might wonder why Sister Sarah Elizabeth, obviously bright with a promising career ahead of her, would choose to become a religious sister. The first answer, obviously, was that she truly felt that Jesus was calling her.

“What am I going to do?” Sister Sarah Elizabeth said she asked herself. “Am I going to say yes or run away? And I decided to say yes.”

Sister Sarah Elizabeth had aunts who were religious sisters, so the concept of joining a religious order wasn’t completely foreign to her. Her parents were supportive of her decision but never pushed her. She has a younger sister and two younger brothers who are either married or plan to marry. They support their sister’s decision, as well.

Giving up a career in engineering was an easier decision.

“I worked as an engineer for a year,” she said. “I enjoyed being able to use my brain in that way, but it’s really people that tie me more to a job than what type of work I’m doing.”

Sister Sarah Elizabeth is now forging strong relationships at the St. Augustine Indian Mission school in Winnebago, Nebraska, where she works. She loves learning about the history of Native Americans in the United States.

Sister Sarah Elizabeth interacts with a student at the St. Augustine Indian Mission school in Winnebago. COURTESY PHOTO

“I have really enjoyed getting to know the people at a deeper level and being able to share in their traditions,” she said. “I love music and dance and all of these different rituals. It’s just a beautiful thing. I really fell in love with the people and their rich traditions.”


Sister Rosann Ocken, the prioress of the Immaculata Monastery, said she is delighted with millennials’ growing interest in religious life. She said over the past few years, more young women are attending the monastery’s functions, visiting and contacting them online for more information.

“I think part of it is because they’re looking for a solid community life and solid peer life mixed with mission,” Sister Rosann said. “And that’s how we see ourselves.”

Shortly after Sister Sarah Elizabeth professes her final vows in early September, Sister Rosann will celebrate her 50-year jubilee. She said contacting religious communities when she was discerning her vocation was different than it is today, but the reasons are the same.

“I think we’re all looking for a sense of commitment to Christ in community with strong prayer and mission,” she said. “Young people are looking for the same thing. A lot may be different in how they do that or envision that, and that’s OK because our world is different, right? I mean, the internet, for example, but the heart is the same, and that’s what I think is important.”


Sister Rosann also said that young women offer a promise of hope and make a tremendous impact on a religious community.

“I find our younger women have a sense of life and desire for prayer that really enriches all of us,” she said. “Where we can, in our senior years, look toward the declining years, they are helping us to look toward the future. They’re just really a blessing to us in that way.”

This new life and hope don’t stop at the doors of the Immaculata Monastery. The Norfolk Priory is part of a 135-year-old international community of 1,300 sisters living in 16 countries worldwide.

“They (the younger sisters) tend to have a broad global perspective, different than many of us who grew up on the farm in the middle of nowhere …,” Sister Rosann said. “They have a real global perspective that we can learn from.”

Sister Sarah Elizabeth was to make her final monastic profession in June. Unfortunately, when she and three other community members tested positive for COVID, it was delayed until September.

Her advice to other women who believe they might have a call to the religious life is simple. Pray as you continue to discern God’s will, and then just take the next step.

Sister Sarah Elizabeth believes that even if she had not joined a religious community, she would be blessed for her time in discernment. The process allowed her to discover gifts, talents and desires she never knew she had.

“I just continued to move along,” she said. “I didn’t necessarily know if I would make it all the way to this final profession, but I just kept taking that next step.”

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