Two episodes into Lifetime’s “The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns,” the series has already attracted the attentions of real women religious across the country.
"The Sisterhood" follows the lives of five 20-somethings who are purportedly entering a period of discernment, in which they contemplate entering the world of women religious.
In reality, discernment can take years, even decades. But producers Shannon and Eric Evangelista, who gave the world the “Breaking Amish” series, didn’t have that much time. They attempt to cram all the drama and tears into six short weeks, during which the young women will dorm in three different religious communities before making a decision.
Social media savvy sisters have been doggedly following -- and even live-tweeting -- the show. They’ve been paying close attention to any potential misrepresentations, while remaining excited that the topic of religious vocation is getting national attention.
But perhaps none of these women looked forward to the first two episodes as much as The Carmelite Sisters For The Aged And Infirm, the religious community that was the first to let “The Sisterhood” into its convent. The Carmelites have been gathering in their Mother house every week to watch the program live.
Mother Mark Louis Anne Randall, the congregation’s Superior General, said she was hesitant at first about letting cameras into the sisters’ peaceful Germantown, New York home. But she was certain the integrity of the sisters could withstand that kind of scrutiny. Plus, she saw this as a unique opportunity to dispel stereotypes about religious life.
“We’re not the flying nun,” she told HuffPost with a chuckle, “We’re genuine people.”
So what do the Carmelite sisters think about the series so far?
Overall, Mother Mark said she believed the sisters were portrayed fairly and that the producers respected the women’s faith. However, she admitted that some parts of the show were larger than life.
For example, at one point during the first episode, Mother Mark is seen taking the young women’s cell phones away and asking them not to wear makeup. The request causes tension and one young woman bursts into tears. These are things Mark would usually ask of a postulant -- someone who is much farther along in the process -- but not to someone who is just beginning the journey.
“It’s not exactly the way we do things, but each thing we did with the studio and the network had a purpose and a reason,” Mark told HuffPost. “If they had worn regular clothes and makeup, it would take away from the process of looking inward, especially since they knew they were going to be on TV.”
The production company, Hot Snakes Media, would not comment directly on this issue.
Then, there’s the question of how the cast members were chosen in the first place. Were they genuinely searching for God -- or looking for a shortcut to fame?
Most of the young women seem made for TV. There’s Eseni, the tall, beautiful aspiring model with a troubled past and a lover she left behind. Christie is the party girl who fantasizes about having Jesus as her boyfriend. Francesca, the youngest, is emotional and dramatic. She was the first to erupt into tears. Stacey is an actress and lifelong Catholic who creates Christ dolls.
And the show wouldn’t be complete without the one girl who actually has a shot of making it -- Claire, a parish music minister who has already thought deeply about life in a religious community. Claire has participated in silent retreats and dedicated herself to 5 years of singleness -- but her apparent maturity becomes a source of tension in Episode 2.
Mark said that she had engaged with the women when they were off camera -- and that they all seemed to genuinely be on a faith journey.
Sister Marie Richards, the congregation’s secretary general, agreed.
“We do think they’re serious about their faith and their expression of their faith,” Richards said. “Whether or not they’re ready to make a commitment like that, I don't know."
"The Sisterhood" arrived on the scene during an important moment for religious sisters in America. The number of Catholic women entering religious orders in this country has dropped about 72% since 1965, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
Jo Piazza is a journalist who’s interviewed a number of nuns while writing the book “If Nuns Ruled The World". She suspects that the drastic drop coincides with the expanding number of careers that are available to women today.
“Women used to join vocations because they didn’t want to be a wife or a mom, they wanted to travel the world, be missionaries, and get an education,” Piazza said. “But young women have more options these days.
In her blog, Sr. Marie Paul Curley writes that “The Sisterhood” is a “wonderful” first glance into a convent.
“I hope that The Sisterhood: Becoming Sisters will highlight the validity of the choice for consecrated life and make it more understandable to viewers who might otherwise never give religious life a second thought,” she writes.
In fact, Richard claimed she’s received several emails from young women who expressed an interest in discernment that may be directly linked to "The Sisterhood." She suspects many of her fellow sisters will continue watching the series.
“We really enjoyed the whole process,” Richard said. “And we learned a lot about young women.”