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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Spiritual athletics

Sister Catherine Holum, nun and former Olympic speed-skater, on the connections between sport and the religious life

This article was first published in The Spectator on 23 June 2012.


Sister Catherine Holum remembers her first Olympic speed-skating race very clearly. The crowd, she says, was very loud. Three men with television cameras knelt in front of her as she tied her skates up. She felt the whole world was watching. And when she had finished the race, she burst into tears.

At the time — it was the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan — she was only 17. She had come from an Olympic family: her mother was a gold medallist and a US star coach. Sister Catherine — or Kirstin, as she was then — was hyped up as a prodigy, destined for greatness. Then she retired.

I meet her at a care home in north London, where she is staying briefly. She is a diminutive figure in a thick Franciscan habit. Her oval spectacles protrude under a smart black veil.

She is, like many young nuns, smiley and joyful and warm. She makes me feel like I am great company even if I am not saying anything. She laughs often, as sociable people do.

As we sit down Sister Catherine sips a glass of water while I help myself to tea and biscuits. I ask her when she started speed-skating and she explains about her mother, Dianne Holum, a champion skater who coached three US Olympic teams. ‘I was always at the rink with her,’ she says. ‘She took me everywhere.’ So she started skating when she was seven, and competed internationally at the age of 13.

The ‘turning point’, she says, came at 16, when she went on a pilgrimage to Fatima, Portugal. She was walking arm in arm with her cousin at the spot where, in 1917, three children apparently saw the Virgin Mary, and all of a sudden she heard the words, ‘You are going to be a sister.’ ‘And this peace and this joy came rushing through me,’ she recalls.

When she got home, she says, she asked the Virgin Mary to pray for her speed-­skating career. And it immediately took off. She became US national champion, junior world champion, and broke world records — ‘It surprised me, it surprised my mum, it surprised everybody,’ she says, laughing.

She was training four or five hours a day, six days a week. As well as skating she was weightlifting, running, cycling, doing drills.

That year, though, she was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma, and had to take a ‘ton of medication’. Preparing for the Olympics was tough, she says, and, in the middle of the trials, she announced that after the Nagano Games she was going to retire.

‘I really couldn’t see myself speed-skating my whole life,’ she says. ‘In the sport people focus everything on being a speed-skater — not getting an education, not moving on… I really felt there was more to life for me than sports.’

What she found instead was art. For four years she studied photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The art crowd, she says, were very different from the sports crowd. None of her friends was Catholic, or Christian. She prayed outside abortion clinics, which was not a popular activity. ‘I didn’t get any hostility because, honestly, in art school people are very accepting of other people’s views. It was more that I knew a lot of people didn’t agree with me.’

When she finished, she didn’t know what to do. She moved back in with her mum in Denver, Colorado. She had not thought much about her faith, or the call she felt to be a sister. But she continued to pray outside abortion clinics, and met a group of people who were about to walk across America to promote the pro-life cause. The next day she decided to join them. ‘It was crazy — I met them on a Friday and started walking with them on the Sunday.’ She says she had never before met people living their faith so joyfully. ‘I knew it was because of their love for Jesus and I knew, reflecting on my own life, that I wasn’t experiencing that same joy.’

That was only the start of the walking. The following year Sister Catherine walked for a month and a half to Toronto for a global gathering of young Catholics called World Youth Day. There, she met the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal.

After that, she felt ‘on fire’ with her faith. ‘All I wanted to do was be with nuns,’ she says. She helped out at different religious communities in Denver before she finally phoned the Franciscans and flew out to join them in New York.

The hardest moment in her life, she says, was leaving her family. ‘Even though I knew I wanted to do God’s will, it’s still a big step to dive into your vocation and really focus everything on the Lord, with no turning back.’

She served the homeless in the Bronx and then, in 2009, moved to Leeds, where she and a handful of other sisters give talks at schools, help at a care home and run a mothers’ group.

The Franciscans of the Renewal are, in many ways, the Olympians of religious life. They pray five hours a day — the amount of time that Sister Catherine used to train for. They are relatively new (they were founded in 1988) and, with their habits, sandals and rosary beads, seen as radical in a traditional kind of way.

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