At a brunch near the University of Colorado last year, I met a film professor, Jim Palmer, who told me his 34-year-old daughter, Sydney, was becoming a nun and about to have her “clothing ceremony,” when she would receive a new name and have her long, strawberry-blonde hair cut off to go “under the veil.”
Palmer was struggling to come to terms with his daughter’s choice. She had been raised Episcopalian, was stylish and sophisticated and had studied comparative literature at Smith College. “This was not the trajectory we envisioned for her,” he said. Yet Palmer spoke with admiration of the women in the monastery his daughter was joining, the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, a unique community of 39 exceptionally bright and gifted women, most of whom attained success in the world before becoming a nun. The median age is around 40, unlike other religious orders in America where the median age of nuns is 69.
Historically, a monastery has been seen as a retreat from society, a place where spinsters, difficult women, God-obsessed women or those who can’t handle life might be parked. But when Lady Abbess Benedict Duss founded the monastery in 1947, she decided that every woman who entered must have some gift, talent or profession and must be ”equal to or superior to others in her field.”* * *
From the start the Abbey attracted strong women, including a movie star, Delores Hart, who made two films with Elvis Presley; a member of the Connecticut legislature;...