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Vows of hope for a dwindling Catholic community

One black veil represents a future for Maryland's Oblate Sisters of Providence, the nation's oldest religious order of African American women.

March 27, 2009|Scott Calvert

CATONSVILLE, MD. — As incense smoke danced in the sunlight streaming through the stained-glass windows, Anthonia Nwoga knelt in the hushed chapel for the long-awaited moment. It took but a few seconds. Off came the white veil she had worn for the last year. On went a black one that she may keep for life.

Taking the black veil this week signified Nwoga's first profession of vows -- a key step toward a permanent commitment to the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the nation's oldest religious order of African American women, founded in Baltimore 180 years ago.

For this Roman Catholic congregation, Our Lady of Mount Providence, based since 1961 in the Baltimore suburb of Catonsville, Nwoga's decision brings a dose of hope at a time of declining numbers at religious orders. In the last year and a half, 10 elderly sisters have died. But Nwoga is one of only a few to don the black veil in recent years.

"Our newly professed sister," declared the order's superior general, Sister Annette Beecham, presenting Nwoga to about 80 applauding guests, including a few women wearing vibrantly colored Nigerian head scarves.

For the Nigerian-born Nwoga, taking the black veil moves her farther down a path she began five years ago. Then in her late 30s and living in New Jersey, she was seeking a congregation to call home. She found the answer while browsing "A Guide to Religious Ministries for Catholic Men and Women."

Nwoga still faces a monumental decision: whether to make her final vows and sign on for life. If so, she will get a ring like a wedding band. That can't happen for up to five years. Until then, she will pray and search her soul, a process known as discernment. On Wednesday she celebrated jubilantly and gave thanks for having gotten this far.

"Now I have roots," she said after the late-morning ceremony. "Because it has been pronounced publicly."

One of the first hugs came from 91-year-old Sister Mary Alice Chineworth, who joined in 1936, when most orders were closed to black women. She frets about the future of an organization long dedicated to teaching inner-city children, as exemplified by its St. Frances Academy.

"It's more life coming into the order," she said of Nwoga. "It's something for which we're very grateful, something for which we pray daily. It gives us a lot of hope."

Sisters attribute the declining interest in religious orders to forces such as rising materialism and wider opportunities for women to take part in church life without becoming nuns.

As recently as the 1960s, as many as 18 young women entered annual classes at the Oblate Sisters of Providence. At its peak, the order had about 300 members. Today, it's down to 80 or so. The order remains mostly African American, but it has long had members from Latin America as well. There have also been white members -- such as Sister John Francis Schilling, president of St. Frances.

Nwoga is the order's third Nigerian-born member, and she thinks there might be a need to seek new sisters in Africa.

Beecham said it remained to be seen whether looking overseas is the key. Her order has had better recruiting luck than some others. Not so long ago, two sisters became permanent members, and two others are well into the phase that Nwoga just entered.

"I'm very hopeful," Beecham said, adding: "It's not always about numbers, although you need numbers. If you have those who feel commitment and dedication to the mission, you could have 25 sisters."

That Nwoga was the lone star Wednesday didn't diminish the excitement. If anything, the rarity of such events might have raised it a bit as the 11 a.m. Mass began in the convent chapel. Because this was Nwoga's show, she was able to put her personal stamp on it. That was evident before the first hymn, when professional dancer Janice Greene glided up the aisle wearing a pink and gold Nigerian dress and head tie, dancing with outstretched arms to a percussive African tune.

The African flavor extended to the priest who led the service, the Rev. Abel Agbulu. He too is Nigerian, and he said a few words in Igbo, Nwoga's first language.

About 45 minutes into the service, it was time for Nwoga to proclaim her desire to take the black veil. Beecham joined her at a lectern next to the altar. "I give myself with my whole heart to this religious community," Nwoga said. Then she knelt before Beecham.

"Receive this veil," the superior general intoned, "by which you are to show that you are totally given to Christ the Lord and dedicated to the service of the church." Before she stood up, Nwoga adjusted the veil. It seemed like a good fit.

--

scalvert@baltsun.com

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