Sisters in shades herald a new generation getting into the habit

Joining a community of sisters, monks or friars is becoming increasingly popular, Mark Greaves finds

This article was first published in The Times on 31 August 2013.

A sister makes her final profession (Photo: Mazur/

A sister makes her final profession (Photo: Mazur/

Janet Hopper, a 33-year-old novice at the Society of the Sacred Heart, says she used to have hang-ups about the word “nun”. She didn’t think it quite fitted her. “I played football too much. I was too independent and too mischievous.” She doesn’t exactly fit my idea of a nun, either — she plays the guitar, likes the Rolling Stones and wears her sunglasses on top of her head.

Janet is one of three novices who have joined the Society in the past year. Before that, the group went 15 years without anyone joining at all. This spike in interest is part of a national trend. The number of people becoming religious sisters, brothers, monks and friars in England and Wales is at its highest level for 16 years. The figure has more than doubled over eight years, from 19 in 2004 to 53 last year. A sharp decline over several decades seems to have been reversed.

Part of the reason for this is simple. For the first time, religious congregations are making an effort to attract people. At the Society of the Sacred Heart, the reason lies with Sister Barbara McSweeney, a retired teacher.

I meet her at her community house in Fenham, a suburb of Newcastle. Janet is there, too. Sunlight pours in through French windows. On the side is a half-finished shopping list: “Potato, Onion, Washing-up liquid.”

Sister Barbara is a genteel, well-dressed lady; her red earrings match her red skirt. At her request five years ago it was agreed that she would focus on vocations work. It was a subject she was “always banging on about”, she says. The Society (in England and Wales) was shrinking, and ageing; out of its 70 or so members, only two were under 50. The largest group were in their seventies. Yet they weren’t doing anything to encourage vocations.

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