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Three years ago this August, a former high-school religion teacher named Jenny DeVivo moved into a convent in Ravenswood, intent at 25 on becoming a nun. She shared the facility-a nondescript three-flat-with three nuns older than 50 and another aspirant, a 46-year-old Vietnamese woman. During the day, DeVivo went to her regular job, working for the Archdiocese of Chicago. At night, she and her older companions prayed, ate, and shared their faith. Within two months, DeVivo was so bored that she seriously considered roller skating in the cement basement of the building. “I’m not even good at roller skating,” she says. “I’d do anything to try and entertain myself.” Occasionally, she met friends outside for a drink and chat, but she grew tired of the disapproving glances from the nuns in the convent.
From the start, the convent hardly seemed an obvious place for DeVivo to land. Her family wasn’t particularly religious, and she’d had a lively, social adolescence-dating, singing in the school choir, and studying tap, jazz, and ballet. “My family thought I had too much going for me, too many talents, to become a nun,” she says. “I didn’t realize how far off my ideas about religious life were until I was living it.” Seven months after joining the congregation, DeVivo left. “I really thought I just needed a break; I wasn’t ready to give up on it,” she recalls. “But once I got settled back into my apartment I was like, ‘Woo, I’m free.’ There’s no way I’m going back.”
Nuns are an endangered species these days. The median age for nuns in this country is 69, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, and fewer than 3 percent of nuns in the United States are under 40. The number of new recruits is minuscule: one order, the Adrian Dominicans, watched the number of yearly recruits plummet from 40 to 60 in the 1960s to between one and four now. Forty years ago, counting all orders, around 180,000 nuns practiced the vocation in this country; last year, the population had dropped to around 70,000. The stark decline has posed a gaping labor shortage for the Catholic Church-particularly in staffing Catholic schools and hospitals. As the church looks desperately for solutions to this crisis, DeVivo’s story provides one telling example of the curious push and pull of the vocational life.
Jenny DeVivo grew up with four sisters in Oak Lawn. She says she was raised as a “Chreaster,” a Catholic who attended Mass twice a year, on Christmas and Easter. Chance and a family tragedy steered her more deeply toward her religion. “I went from being agnostic to a devout Catholic in less than nine months,” she says.
When she was a sophomore at Oak Lawn Community High School-a public institution-her school choir was invited to perform in Toronto. The choir director asked students to go home that night and “pray, meditate, do whatever you do,” DeVivo recalls, so that the board would approve the trip. “‘Pray’? I thought that was wild,” she says today. “I hadn’t prayed in years. So, I went home and instead of rattling off a prayer, some memorized rote thing, I just talked to God. And it felt incredible.” The trip happened. Next thing she knew, she was attending Mass regularly, and she enrolled in an adult religious education course so she could be confirmed. “My dad and sisters weren’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of having to go to church regularly,” she says.
Her father, James DeVivo, an industrial engineer, puts a parental spin on the situation. “I couldn’t complain too much,” he says. “Here’s my teenage daughter wanting to go to church. If only all dads were that fortunate.”
DeVivo’s best friend, Jenny Bryan, also developed an enthusiasm for Catholicism. The two Jennys would stay up late on the phone each night gabbing about scripture. “We’d call each other and be like, ‘I found out where the Ten Commandments are,’” DeVivo recalls.
That same year, Bryan put DeVivo on a mailing list for “Vocation Central,” a sort of recruiting agency for religious orders. “I did it as a joke,” Bryan says. “We were growing in our faith, but neither of us even considered becoming a nun.” Soon DeVivo was getting invited to dine and pray with nuns and receiving handwritten letters from vocation directors looking to gauge her interest. Sister Carolyn Jost, a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, a teaching order that originated in Germany, sent a package with her congregation’s literature and a small silver cross that says “God Loves You.” DeVivo carries the cross in her purse to this day. “I’m not sure why I hung on to it,” she says. Sister Carolyn wrote every couple of months, and after a year and a half, DeVivo finally wrote back. “This woman was on my tail, but she was never pushy,” DeVivo says. “So I felt I needed to thank her for her letters and to let her know that the whole thing was a joke.”
The two corresponded occasionally until 1995, when DeVivo started college at St. Xavier University on the city’s Southwest Side, where she studied religion. She enjoyed the usual college entertainments, but she clearly gave off a spiritual aura. (Once, after an evening out, her high-school boyfriend of one year had asked her if she’d ever thought about becoming a nun. “Great way to end a date,” she says. “What woman wants her boyfriend to look at her and think nun?” The young man is now a Lutheran minister.) Questions about her future persisted. “It used to irritate me,” she says. “Just because you have an interest in scripture doesn’t mean you want to be a nun.”
In the fall of her senior year, her youngest sister, nine-year-old Samantha, died suddenly from complications of pneumonia, after having suffered from epilepsy all her life. Reeling, DeVivo looked to God. “I don’t know how anyone could get through something like that without faith,” she says. “I know this is going to sound creepy, but all I had to do was call out to God, and I literally felt as if he came running, threw his arms around me, and said, ‘I’m here.’” It was her “real God moment,” as she calls it.
Not long after, she was cast as a feisty nun in a school production of an opera. She was changing out of her habit backstage when a cast member joked that she looked “very natural” in the severe, all-black gear. DeVivo, then 21, says she thought for the first time that she might want to give it a try. “I kept thinking, No, this can’t be real,” she recalls. “I don’t want this.”
She got back in touch with Sister Carolyn and the two met for lunch. “She was the first person I told when I had this inkling that maybe I should give the convent a try,” DeVivo says. “My family was the last to know.”
She became an affiliate of the School Sisters, Sister Carolyn’s order, a relationship that allows candidates to familiarize themselves with the congregation. After college, DeVivo taught religion for three years in high school, but in 2002, with some “real world” experience under her belt, she left her apartment in Blue Island and moved into the convent in Ravenswood.
At that point she was what is known as a postulant, the first level in becoming a nun. This training typically entails six months to two years of living with sisters in a convent, in preparation for entering the novitiate, where candidates spend a year in rigorous religious training before becoming nuns. As a postulant, DeVivo quickly encountered doubts. The main attraction for her had been the communal life-what she imagined as being able to help others, come home, throw on some comfortable clothes, and converse. “I thought we would be able to talk openly about how we experienced God in our lives that day.” The nuns, however, focused much more on ritualized activities and on reading scripture and other texts. DeVivo came to another realization: “I could teach, have a husband and kids, and have just as much faith as [the nuns] do, so why would I choose to take vows?”
The School Sisters apparently sensed DeVivo’s uncertainty-they had initially recommended that she spend the full two years as a postulant, but once her unhappiness in the convent became clear, they encouraged her to reconsider her plans. Sister Shirley Stockus, the postulant director-a sort of spiritual supervisor-recalls watching DeVivo crumble before her eyes. “Community life isn’t for everyone,” she says. “But Jenny really did try to stick it out. Probably longer than she should have.”
DeVivo points out that the lives of nuns have changed dramatically since Vatican II brought sweeping changes to the church. Dress codes and social segregation have largely been abandoned. The sisters are much more involved in the world. Still, the life wasn’t for her. “For me, it was this idea of a religious community that drew me in,” she says. “But I was way off the mark. It was just too difficult to connect. The differences were too great. I was literally flying solo.”
After DeVivo left the convent, she managed to get her old apartment back, started teaching again, and, after a year, began graduate school at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, in Hyde Park. She is working toward a master’s degree in theology with a concentration in scripture, and studies Greek and Hebrew. And while she still stays in touch with several of the School Sisters, she has absolutely no desire to go back. “I want to become a professor,” she says. “And get married.”
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