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The Associated Press

Convents Are Praying For Recruits

April 14 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- Perched above colonial walls surrounding Old San Juan, the Servants of Mary Convent has survived wars, hurricanes and the surf that lashes its foundations. But without new recruits the convent will soon die.

``You see what condition some of us are in,'' said Sister Carmen Urriza, 69, the mother superior. ``We have very old nuns, some who are fairly sick and have been here for many years.''

Years ago, flocks of nuns would lead songs and prayers during Holy Week processions through the island's narrow cobblestone streets. This year, lay people have had to assume many of their roles.

Very few women are becoming nuns in Puerto Rico, where their number dropped by 35 percent between 1970 and 1999, to about 1,100. The Caribbean island's embrace of U.S. culture has eroded its conservative Catholic traditions.

The pattern follows the same trend in less traditional Latin American countries, scholars say.

``There is a kind of American separation of religion and life that ... has begun to seep in to (Latin America),'' said Don Briel, director of the Catholic Studies Center at the University of St. Thomas, which has its main campus in St. Paul, Minn.

Four nuns in their 30s do most of the physical work and care for the elders at the Servants of Mary Convent. Their morning routine includes hoisting a 93-year-old sister out of bed and into a wheelchair. A 74-year-old nun has Alzheimer's disease.

``I wouldn't trade this for anything,'' said Sister Nery Ortiz, 31, the youngest in the convent of 30 nuns.

In recent years, the majority of recruits to the Servants of Mary convents in Puerto Rico have come from the poorer, more conservative Dominican Republic, where religious feelings are strong.

In some areas, notably Mexico, Central America and Colombia, the number of nuns has increased. But in Latin America overall, it dropped by 1,345 to about 128,000 between 1993 and 1998, according to the latest figures available from the Vatican.

Brazil, with more Catholics than any other country in the world, lost about 3,500 nuns between 1970 and 1996, said Father Joao Roque of the Brazilian Clergy Conference. Since then, the number has remained steady at around 36,000, he said.

In Chile, many convents ``survive thanks to one or two (new recruits) they receive every now and then, like little drops,'' said Father Jose Carraro at the Archdiocese of Santiago.

``The congregations are human groups, and as such they must have their beginning and their end,'' said Father Osvaldo Perez, who heads the Puerto Rican Confederation of Clergy.

Puerto Rico's relative wealth has meant fewer women joining convents, and an influx of Protestant missionaries has been another factor.

However, Briel sees a backlash against secularism around the world, especially among young people.

Maria Ramos, 42, spent years working at a computer chip assembly plant before deciding to pursue religious life. She is the first serious recruit since 1984 at the Santa Escolastic convent in Humacao, 30 miles southeast of San Juan.

``My family pressured me to get married, and I didn't have an interest,'' she said. ``What people call normal life didn't fulfill me.''

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