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The other sisters chuckle when Saglimbeni recounts her saucy retort. But many of their loved ones feel less jovial about the women's decision to take the veil. "For those who are called, there is a real falling in love. You are filled with a joy and desire to be with God," says Sister Mary Gabriel Devlin, 32, vocation director at Sisters of Life. "Their families are not experiencing this, so it can be hard for them to understand." The sense of alienation can be even greater when women choose an order that isolates them from their families and others so that they can devote themselves to strict schedules of regimented prayer. Convents like Sisters of Life that combine contemplation with active ministry to the public are the most popular among young women.
While the JP2 generation seeks order and community, Gen Xers are coming to religious life in a quest for meaning after secular society has failed to meet their needs. "It's been my experience that women who are older--in their 30s and early 40s--feel that they've accomplished a lot with their life, but there's still something missing," says Sister Laurie Brink, 45, a professor of biblical studies at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago who has lectured on the subject and who took her vows at 37. Her generation, she adds, growing up in the wake of Vatican II, was not as schooled in catechism as were baby boomers and millennials. Many also broke from the church when their parents divorced. "My generation," says Brink, "is not good with commitment because we haven't seen a lot of it."
Now they're finding a sense of wholeness by binding themselves to their faith. Sister Melissa Schreifels, 37, first considered becoming a nun when a teacher at her high school in St. Cloud, Minn., suggested it. Because it seemed that "nobody was doing that anymore," Schreifels attended college and launched a career as a pharmacist, volunteering at her church, a hospital library and a pregnancy crisis center in her spare time. "But there was just an emptiness inside that doing the volunteer work and the pharmacy work didn't fill in me," she says. When a pastor again suggested sisterhood, Schreifels reconsidered. In 2003 she joined the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Mankato, Minn., who do not mandate a habit or discourage her from continuing to work as a pharmacist for Target. Schreifels gave up her Subaru Forester and apartment and moved into a house with the sisters, but her work is considered part of the order's mission to serve the community; her salary goes to support the sisterhood. "I am open to whatever God is asking," says Schreifels.