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A life like nun other: A 20-something discusses her life-altering choice

She may not wear a habit, but Tracy Kemme has vowed to pursue life as a religious sister with the Catholic Church

CINCINNATI – Tracy Kemme says her first “call” from God came when she was 22.

“It’s not like a phone call on a cell phone,” Kemme said, laughing. “That would make it a lot easier. I think God’s call sounds very different in different people’s lives.”

At the time, Kemme, who had been volunteering with underprivileged children and those suffering from HIV and AIDS in Ecuador, had considered marrying her serious boyfriend. But when she imagined growing old with him, someone she called “the best person” she’s ever met, she said she felt like a door was closing.

And when she imagined her life as a sister, she felt more fulfilled.

“Even though every ounce of me didn’t want to feel this way, it felt like a big blue sky opening up,” she said.

Kemme, back right, shares a house with sisters in their 50s, 60s and 70s — sometimes more than twice her age.

Members of the Cincinnati congregation, Sisters of Charity, say they’ve noticed an increase in the number of women pursuing religious life in the Catholic Church.

Since 2012, six women, two of whom are younger than 30, have joined the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati in an effort to pursue a life as a religious sister. Between 2003 and 2012, there were none, according to the charity.

It is too early to detect whether a national trend is developing and whether Pope Francis’ presence in the church has influence, according to researchers at Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). It takes many years for a person to discern a vocation, said Mary Gautier, a senior research associate at CARA. She added that the decision to choose religious life takes time.

Tracy, now 29, made her first vows to the church over the summer. She said she knew the life was for her, even before Pope Francis was elected. She now lives in a home with three other women in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. Though she doesn’t wear a traditional habit, she is living a life of celibacy, obedience and poverty – things, she says, reinforce her commitment to God and her life to be lived in community. 

As a sister, Kemme spends her time volunteering and doing community outreach.

“Society portrays religious life a lot as giving up things. We always portray it as no sex, no money, [and] you have to do what the superior says. That sounds horrible,” she said. “Who would do that? And I think that’s kind of the idea that I had going into it, which added to my terror.”

Instead, Kemme said, the life is filled with gifts. Thousands of women throughout the world have chosen a similar life, she said, and they don’t do it because it’s a terrible life.

“There’s something beautiful and wonderful that you get in the giving up of those things that are so normal for our culture,” she said.

She compared her choice to that of someone who is called to become a mother.

“Someone could say to them, ‘Well, you don’t have to have your own kids. You could just become a babysitter and have people over at your house all the time,’” she said. “My No. 1 relationship and commitment in my life is with God and my congregation.”

Now, Kemme, who is fluent in Spanish, spends her time volunteering and doing outreach in the Latino community. She is also getting used to her new roommates. Not having many people around who are around the same age can be a gift and a struggle at the same time, she said.

“The beauty is living with women who have all different experiences — different kinds of wisdom from the age that they are, and being able to share that together in prayer in the morning,” she said.

And one of the most difficult parts of this life, she said, is being one of the few “younger” sisters.

“There’s a lot of sickness, a lot of death,” she said. “People who are kind of coming to the end of their life, whereas I’m just coming into mine, full steam ahead.” 

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