EL PASO, Texas — Whitney Schieltz didn't grow up knowing she wanted to be a Catholic sister.
From the age of 4, she wanted to be an architect and has a bachelor's degree in architecture from the University of Cincinnati and a master's degree in historic preservation from the University of Kentucky in Lexington.
However, after graduate school, she met some sisters from the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati and found a connection to their community.
"It was kind of an intuition of this connection with people and really feeling like we shared something in common. My entire life I've known that I wasn't called to family life; I never had a big desire to get married and have children," she said.
Talking with two novices who were about her age opened her eyes to the possibility.
"Getting to know them and seeing how energetic and hopeful they were and seeing someone who is my age — that has my life experiences and has grown up in the society I have grown up in — made me see it as a viable option," she said.
As they finished celebrating National Catholic Sisters Week, which was March 8-14, nuns and sisters across the country wanted to highlight the worthiness of being part of a religious community. According to nationalcatholicsistersweek.org, there are 47,170 Catholic sisters in the country, many of them representing different and diverse backgrounds, including education, health, first responders, activists and artists.
"Catholic sisters don't seek the spotlight," Molly Hazelton, site director of National Catholic Sisters Week, headquartered at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, said in a news release. "Humility is in their DNA. But we know that raising awareness of their ministries can inspire the masses, and that's what we're aiming to do. In a time when there isn't much good news, we need more than ever to hear stories of how they help and heal a fractured country."
There are challenges to attracting women to the religious communities, much as there are challenges drawing men to the priesthood. But Sister Janet Gildea, liaison for women religious in the Catholic Diocese of El Paso, says there has been an upswing in both young men and women having more awareness about the possibility of religious life.
Gildea said, "Maybe in the past 10 to 15 years, there has been a much greater emphasis in confirmation classes, university campus ministries and national organizations really promoting discerning for young adults. To really say that what you decide to do you with your life as a person of faith means opening up your decision-making processes to God. And that 'what am I called to do' is not automatically falling into a job. It's a much greater awareness among young adults that this is a responsibility they have to discern."
Gildea said many young people decide to do a year of volunteer service after college and studies have shown that people who do that are more open to the possibility of religious life.
And like Schieltz, today many young people are showing interest in religious life after having life experiences and careers.
"We don't take people out of high school anymore. We look for what's been there already in their experience of ministry," Gildea said. "Almost all sisters do further their education or might enter with a particular degree or focus and then through needs of the congregation might do further studies to better serve the people."
Schieltz, 29, said she started to feel that she didn't have the personality to be an architect during her classes.
"The school I was in seemed focused on making a personal statement ... and I just liked designing things that worked for people. I was focused on user friendliness and functionality. So, there was this discord ...."
At about that time, she began wanting to become more involved in working with people.
Then she met the Sisters of Charity and a new direction for her life began.
Schieltz is in her second year of being an affiliate. She won't become a sister until she enters the second stage, which is that of novice. The whole process, including first vows and final vows, takes about seven to eight years.
"This is the entrance into the community. We move out here to El Paso to the formation house in New Mexico and we do ministry in El Paso, and Anapra, Mexico, and just to get the experience of community living and life on the border," she said.
Moving to El Paso from Ohio pushed Schieltz out of her comfort zone. She didn't know any Spanish but since then has been trying to learn. And she was hesitant about living in the desert, envisioning being surrounded by rattlesnakes and scorpions.
Across the country, the order is known for working on issues of social justice, such as immigration, refugee resettlement and human trafficking.
In El Paso, Schieltz spends a few days assisting women at the Villa Maria shelter for homeless women at 920 S. Oregon St. and helps at a health clinic, Clinica Proyecto Santo Niño in the Anapra area in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, across the border from El Paso.
"Within 12 months of being here, I realized I didn't want to go back to Ohio," she said. "I want to stay here now."
She has been exploring which ministries she might be able to take part in along the border.
And her background still might be put to good use.
"The idea of shelters and working with the homeless population took me back to college and making the buildings work for people, not just to make pretty buildings," she said.
"Getting to know them and seeing how energetic and hopeful they were and seeing someone who is my age — that has my life experiences and has grown up in the society I have grown up in — made me see it as a viable option."
Whitney Schieltz, Sisters of Charity affiliate