How legit is ‘The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns?‘ Former nun gives her review

Trolling Facebook a few months ago, one of my friends — a religious sister— posted the news release for Lifetime’s new ‘docuseries,’ The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns. I laughed out loud! The title alone is saturated with incorrect stereotypes and inaccuracies, so naturally, I had to go immediately and see if there was a trailer— and indeed there was. Still, I vowed not to even watch the series (while trying to remember if any of my streaming subscriptions even had Lifetime), chalking it up to another mind-poisoning hour of un-reality television that informs society the “truths” of today. With irritation and a bit of fury, I knew clearly I was going to hate this show.

The Sisterhood Lifetime

See, I called this one roughly eight years ago. Recalling the context, I was engaged  in some brainstorming with several sisters in my community when I jokingly offered ideas of starting a “specialized cruise line,” a version of a “speed dating” concept or maybe a reality show, all as a way to see if people were interested in religious life. The ideas were crazy — and inevitable fitting the entertainment trends of the last few years perfectly.

So I may have called it a few years ago. The difference? I knew it was a joke.

The trailer ridiculousness began with the language and tone of the overly dramatic Voice-in-the-sky context setting and moved on to the girls’ “uniforms,” the clips of their crying and falling to the floor (in the chapel of course), half-second flashes of working in a soup kitchen and staged prayer silhouettes until it ended with a worm’s-eye camera pan of these formidable nuns standing in a line waiting to receive the five young women.

I should probably back up. I was a Sister in a Franciscan religious community; officially in the community for six years. The discernment phase — the phase portrayed in the series — for me was an on-and-off discernment for a span of nine years. Not unlike the young women we will meet on The Sisterhood, which premieres TuesdayI was in my early 20s when I started my process, — and it occurred on a very different timeline than the 6-week attention span of the average reality TV binger.

If I had seen a “casting call” offering me the chance to explore my vocation with people, values, a mission, a lifestyle that I know nothing about — and I would do it in a mere six weeks — I would have laughed heartily.

Nonetheless, I took the plunge and viewed Episode 1 with an unapologetic judgmental attitude and a ton of questions. Starting with which congregation? (There is no congregation I know of that has discerners who wear a pencil skirt and matching headbands.) How was this show cast? Were the women vetted (and by whom) in terms of their physical and psychological health — a regular practice of many religious communities? What were the ladies told—about the community, the lifestyle, the process, the show and so on? Were they informed that there are many different “flavors” of religious communities? Were the women compensated? Is the congregation compensated? What motivation does this order of nuns have to agree to this?

I began viewing with a “scorecard” mentality, fully anticipating that there would be few tally marks in the “good” column, and multiple sheets of “bad” and “ugly.”

RELATED: The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns recap episode 2: Too legit to quit?

We begin as the ladies are “on their way” to the convent. Surprisingly, my first check mark was in the “good” column as appropraite context was set of how life is like for the women in their comfort zones: at home, with family members, boyfriend, girlfriends, etc. I was particularly impressed that parents and siblings were invited to share their thoughts about their family members pursuing this experience.

As in many situations where ‘children’ begin to develop into their own person and make independent life choices, parents have questions and concerns — because they want the best and for their children to be happy and fulfilled. The interviews were genuine, not scripted, and they posed realistic and authentic questions, fears, joys and support of their daughters. These interviews also primed the viewers for a sense of how the Catholic faith is practiced within the family, which in turn helps us understand some of the characteristics and understanding of faith and religious vocation of the women themselves. Interviews of the family with genuine responses: +1pt.

Then we are introduced to the women, flashing between interviews in their “natural” habitat and in their uniforms in the chapel (of course). It felt like a set-up — women answering obvious leading questions in their interviews — to set a concrete display of the typed roles each will play in the series. We meet Eseni, the 23 year-old “model” with a boyfriend. Then  Christie, a 27 year-old party girl with a naïve and very unique interpretation of relationships and faith. Then Francesca, a 21-year-old princess with an extra-large fondness for d-r-a-m-a. Then Stacey, 26, an actress/artist, who won me over immediately with her maturity and a surprisingly realistic story about why she’d be attracted to give this a try. And of course, this show would not be complete if we didn’t have the “perfect” one — practically a nun of her own making already and instantly superior to her new peers at the old wise age of 26. My impression: the casting seemed fake, unrealistic and, frankly, intentionally dysfunctional. Introductions and casting: -2

the-sisterhood-becoming-nuns-cast-2

Having been a Sister in a community on the other end of the spectrum of “religious life flavors,” it annoys me that the majority of nuns portrayed in the media — factual and fictitious — are typically the more conservative, habited and cloistered/semi-cloistered. It is important to clarify that I have a great respect for healthy religious communities, encouraging women to explore their call in a supportive and healthy manner. Of course a “reality show” would choose an order that only tells half of the story— the one that is most externally familiar on calendars, gag gifts and in the movies—so it’s disappointing to know that the women (and the viewers for that matter) will not experience access to the convents that are reflective of the reality of the different paths available. Stereotyping: -.5

The Sisterhood: Becoming NunsThen we met the nuns via sporadic interview snippets — just enough to get a taste — not enough to know them. Surprisingly, though, I liked them! Their comments were genuine, reflective of their role in the congregation and illustrated the spectrum of personalities one might find in any extended family. Sr. Maria Therese is a gentle, warm, understanding woman—perfect for a role as vocation director. Mother Mark is serious and administrative; she’s the head honcho! She seemed nervous and skeptical throughout (that was refreshing, too). Her interviews were— appropriately — about how the congregation works, what they stand for and so forth.

Mother Mark won me over completely when she talked about these sisters’ habits. Being in or out of habit often is perceived as — or is — a point of and a symbol of “validity” on the degree of “nun-ness” one may have. My community did not retain the habit since the ’60s, so I had been asked on many occasions whether or not I was a “real” religious. Some congregations use the habit as a way to “put on” an identity; others are reflecting a symbol from centuries ago that is no longer relevant and even reflective of oppression of women over the years. Using the phrase “our congregation chose to retain the habit” and further explaining the symbolism for them acknowledged that habit/no habit is a choice, that this decision was thoughtfully considered and that there is a clear reason supporting what it means to have common dress for this congregation. One of my biggest fury-laden snap judgments entailed the preposterous pseudo-habits/uniforms that actually reflect the ladies “living as sisters” as a meaningful part of discernment. Mother Mark addressing this in relationship to the process with which they are attempting to replicate, made good sense. This was the moment that the show transformed some of my anger to intrigue. The Nuns: (a surprising) +2 points

Sr. Cyril adds another +1.5 points. If you watch the show to take away a little bit of reality, it’s her. She rocks (and shocks) —and that’s all I’m saying about her. She’s worth the anticipation.

Final Score: The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns earns a solid 2 on a 1-5 scale. And I’m in … for now. My attitude is better; however, skepticism and fury still linger. The women are obnoxious, each in a forced and stereotypical way, but the congregation appears to be significantly more integrated and healthy than I would have guessed.

Episode one in a nutshell?
Reality factor: 20%
“DRAMA” factor: 80%
Making it: Sr. Cyril
Faking it: Claire

The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns premieres Tuesday, Nov. 25  at 10pm ET/PT on Lifetime. Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

About the Author
Katy LaFond was a member of Franciscan community for 6 years. Valuing the discernment process, she continues to discern and explore where “home” in religious life may be for her.  Katy is currently completing pre-requisite course work and will apply for medical school in 2015.

Photo: Lifetime/Scott Gries Copyright 2014

15 Comments

  1. Im not religious vocation. Theyd with theses young girls
    seeking to pursue a religious life via becoming nuns nor am I impressed withe the older nuns trying to relate to the girls by saying they too had to deal with boyfriend vs. Convent. Just ridiculous.
    none of these people old nun young girl have had a real education or are psychologically astute to know what is going on with their desire
    for a religious vocation. I believe they are being preyed upon by the catholic church who need fresh young blood somewhat like a vampire. Most of the contents are filled with old women over 60.

  2. I was very interested in the show and have found myself wondering how each of the girls are doing now. Forty years ago I was in the same position. I was a “pre-postulant” for 2 years before entering the convent. As silly as some of their reactions seemed I had to admit I acted in a similar fashion. I had a boyfriend promising to “wait” for me and a hidden black eye-liner I refused to give up. I do believe Clare was very sincere- but I also know how easy it is to become impressed with your own spirituality. I think the casting directors made a point to portray her as self-righteous to create more drama.
    I was so impressed with the nuns. They were not only real- they were also realistic. If anyone watching the show was contemplating becoming a nun, those ladies were excellent role models.
    I lasted 2 years in the convent. I will always cherish the experience. I think there was growth illustrated in each of the women. I share the concern that others expressed about Christy’s fantasies of dating Jesus. I am hoping that was just creative editing intended to invoke more drama. If it was not, I do not feel it can be confused with a charismatic prayer relationship. She will need some strong guidance to allow her to be grounded in her faith.

  3. I watched all the episodes, twice. Granted, I will agree the casting feels a bit contrived, but I wouldn’t say the young women’s faith journey is exposing their ‘horrible nature’. I would like to think it would please our Lord that they are searching…whether they have a real vocation to enter religious life or not (that decision up to the very estute Mother Superiors, anyway).

    I really liked Christie. She appears charismatic, so traditional catholics may not get her. I worship similarly and belong to a charismatic catholic prayer group. Her style is not unusual. I will chalk up her romantic explanations to film editing and exuberance. If you read her Facebook page, she is taking her time to continue discerning and to raise her own dowry (if it’s still called that).

    I liked the show. It was encouraging to see young people seek God and ask the big question…what do You want from me? Then take the time to listen. I will pray for the five young women, the sisters and their ministries. God is good.

  4. I think one must acknowledge that this was a daring project, not without criticism. Yes, the girls were, for the most part, uninformed and unready to contemplate this vocation. This show exposed the selfishness, attachments to makeup and clothing, and materialism of the girls. When your boyfriend drops you off at the convent, you know that is not a good sign for serious discernment.

    This show, in a roundabout way, illustrated what must be given up to seriously consider this vocation. It was great that the sisters and nuns were very authentic in conveying their message. This was a great opportunity for these nuns to engage the culture in this social medium.

    On a personal level, I was very interested in watching this series. I understand the importance of vocations. I am a catechist with a lay single vocation, unlike these girls who are seeking a religious vocation outside the secular culture. In fact, studies have shown that those orders ,who still wear the religious habit, are the ones who are growing in numbers. I think the reason is that these candidates see an authenticity and simplicity, apart from the culture.

  5. I believe the girl who talked about having a “romantic” relationship with Jesus Christ, is seriously mentally ill. Schizophrenics are always referencing their “talks” with Christ, in the same way she did. She does not need to be in a convent; she needs a psychiatric evaluation.

    The girl who is a model and has a boyfriend has come from a severely dysfunctional family. There are trust issues between her and her father; that need resolution, before she continues with this discernment process. She should seek out therapy and address these issues, before making this type of decision. She also seems ambivalent, in choosing between her boyfriend and becoming a sister.

    The thing that stood out most was that none of these girls had served on mission trips. None of them had nursing degree’s or degree’s in elementary education. The majority of work sisters do; is working in nursing homes, teaching, and ministering.

    They never mentioned having done any volunteer work in shelters, at food banks, in prison ministries, or volunteered in any capacity in nursing homes or with the mentally challenged. These are all the things sisters do.

  6. I know Claire personally. I fact I have known her since we were children. She is the “perfect one” super traditional Catholic and not faking it. Honestly she comes across on the show a bit less pure hearted then I know her to be. I’ve been waiting to see what convent she’ll join for years now. I think she would do best in a very traditional environment and I am pretty shocked she is on a lifetime show.

    • As one of the sisters mentioned in Episode 2, you can’t know where others are coming from.

      Claire appears to have been raised in a family of very devout Catholics, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, in Episode 2, it becomes clear that she has assigned some sort of “righteous” position to her upbringing and experiences.

      I pray it’s not the case with Claire (or me or you), as Jesus proclaimed a group of such righteous and religious people “a brood of vipers”.

  7. I just started viewing,first,we don’t “say” the rosary,we pray the rosary.
    It is prayed incorrectly.
    Hail Mary,full of grace,blessed art thou among women& blessed is the fruit of thy womb,Jesus.Holy Mary,Mother of God,pray for us sinners now&@the hour of our death.Amen
    Please teach this beautiful prayer correctly
    God Bless&thank you
    Susan

  8. Katy,
    I am a religious sister and your comments are relative, well thought out, legitimate and your perspective/opinion was clear, non-judgemental and rooted in an educated manor. Thank you. I also agree with your response to the inadequate judgement of young Catholics.
    I woukd hope that future posts be educated and positive critique rather than uneducated, inexperienced name calling . let’s be adults, ok? Thanks

  9. I had no background coming in on the actual realities of the life of a nun. My feelings, like yours are mixed. I applaud even the effort because the show does not present as “exposing” the process, but as documenting the process and exploring how it effects the young ladies involved.
    I sincerely doubt that the young women who enter this process act as vapid and lost as these people do. There were some serious head scratching moments, such as them bringing so many clothes when they were going to be wearing a uniform.
    In particularly cringe worthy was the young woman who was romantically attached to Jesus. It is hard because I came in to try and understand the process, but I don’t think this is a normal reaction. I was under the impression that there was a screening process, and that sort of thought process doesn’t seem like it would make it through screening. It doesn’t even make good television, I watched this with my fiance and every time she went into her….. attraction…. to Jesus we just waited for it to stop.
    But for now we’re watching. It’s worth a shot to get a show about young people venturing deeper into the faith.

  10. I just watched the first episode of this because I saw an ad for it on one of my Mandarin education apps – it was indeed infuriating (but so was your disgusting feminist assertion that habits are “no longer relevant” and “oppressive” – but such is the wonderful “fruits” of your empty, syncretic, modernist church). However, as staged and fake as it is naturally bound to be, it does reveal a good deal about young “Catholic” women today – they are vain, empty-headed, unchaste, irreligious, and apparently taken to sexual fantasies about Our Lord. Considering the evil core of the post V2 church, it’s hardly surprising that girls raised in its schools turn out to be sickening, stupid little harlots. But ultimately, this is a good thing – the old religious will die off and either be replaced with more traditional, devout third-worlders, or just plain die off – and there will be no religious communities of irreligious modernist posers left, making room for true Catholics to move in. So I give this show a 5/5 for encouraging people to think of young American Catholic women as being self-absorbed, perverse little tarts. Bravo, Lifetime – bravo indeed.

    • I couldn’t have said it better myself. I too could tell from the 10 mnuts of home life that they showed that these young women were just looking for their next high or boyfriend prior to making this “life-changing decision.” I’m glad you were also able to detect their true horrible nature. Your post doesn’t come across as completely judgemental on little to no information at all! Good job representing the ACTUAL stereotype of “True Catholics.”

    • Talitha, I find your interpretation of my review interesting. I in fact did not share a personal assertion of irrelevance or oppression of wearing a habit; I invite you to reread that portion of my words. I was illustrating a continuum of reasons, in my experience, communities have chosen to keep the habit.

      Speaking of continuums, it saddens me to hear such pungent descriptors of these young women and generalizations of the church: empty-headed, ‘evil core’, stupid harlots…no God I know would look upon people with anything less than love.

      Post-V2 is a struggle for many, and yet it’s hard to refer to any workings of the Holy Spirit as possessing an “evil core”. Some parts of our church history have evil tones (ie crusades, murder and scandal in the papacy for motivations of wealth and power); inviting people to open the doors, religious to go back to their roots…that’s not evil.

      Flavors of religious life are what makes discernment a possibility! As married people, generally in this country, do not flock to one “cookie-cutter” spouse, nor do women and men discerning a call flock to only one design of communities with whom to share in mission and make a life commitment.

      I also see these women as a reflection of a slice of the continuum of the current generation; not evil, harletic, nor stupid. They are searching, for themselves, meaning, etc…as most people in their 20s are. Discernment is a process of discovering one’s self, his/her heart, and where one may be called. These women are doing it publically. My hope for them is that they end this experience with a more rooted and grounded sense of themselves and where they may fit in this world. Might I encourage you to transform negativity and insults into prayer for them and their discernment?

      Also…religious life in America, it’s alive and well. It’s transforming. It will look differently in the future. Think about it…isn’t that exactly what Jesus asked his disciples to do? Transform the church? St. Francis of Assisi? Pope John XXIII, Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis…transform the church! Religious Life can’t remain the same. It most definitely isn’t dying out!

      Food for thought…always an opportunity to connect with our own rootedness in our faith.

Comments are closed.