"Do you have electricity in North Dakota?" I remember being asked that question as a 13-year-old on a trip to the southern part of the country. The person asking was an earnest-looking cowboy type at a Nashville restaurant. At the time I was totally surprised and offended. People thought that we were that backward in North Dakota? "Yes, of course we do!" I exclaimed indignantly to him.
Is North Dakota part of Canada? How do you survive the constant bitter cold and raging blizzards? Does everyone talk like they do in the movie Fargo (ya, sure, you betcha)? Is there any culture at all there?
All ridiculous questions I have heard about my beloved home state of North Dakota.
I joined my community in Bismarck, North Dakota, at the same time as a woman named Mady from New York. Mady had never been to North Dakota before (in fact, she had to look up where it was on a map) and she arrived for her visit in July with a floor-length down jacket that had a hood trimmed with faux fur. Her friends had also given her special anti-ice covers for her shoes . . . which, ironically, she only ever used while walking on her own slippery driveway back in New York! Mady's friends had freaked out when she told them she was going to North Dakota. Their first question was: who does that? They did not know anyone who had ever wanted to visit North Dakota, much less move there. Once they had come to terms with her visit, they accordingly equipped her with supplies more worthy of a trip to the North Pole than to North Dakota. After she arrived, Mady learned quickly that temperatures in Bismarck are often actually warmer than in many parts of New York State.
Sister Mady's New York friends are, of course, not alone in their stereotypical thinking. One of our community members, Sister Gerard, used to host people from all over the country through a program called Elderhostel (now Road Scholar). I cannot remember how many of those travelers told me that North Dakota was the very last state they had visited. They all confessed, however, that they had not realized how much there was to see and do in North Dakota.
Living in North Dakota can make a person feel like a perpetual underdog. We always seem to be defending ourselves against unfair accusations. No, we are not all farmers. No, the state is not completely flat. No, we do not drive tractors everywhere. No, the temperature is not below zero all year long.
Living in North Dakota is kind of like being a religious sister today. Young sisters, especially, can feel like underdogs. The number of sisters is getting smaller . . . we all know that. However, that does not mean that the future is not exciting. It is simply unknown. Let's go back to North Dakota for a moment. For many years the population of North Dakota was shrinking and things looked bleak. Young people were moving out in droves, farms were failing, and businesses were dying. And then the recent giant oil boom happened. And people from all over the world started moving to North Dakota for jobs. No matter how one feels about oil wells or fracking, one would have to admit that business and profit went up in our state, and the population became more multicultural. And then after a few years, the oil boom waned, and people started moving out. Ups and downs, booms and disappointments — the recent North Dakota oil boom mirrors religious life in its peaks and valleys.
We are currently at a valley in religious life. Our community members are dying faster than we are replacing them with new members. There are a variety of reasons for this, but the point to remember is that lower numbers are not necessarily a bad thing. It is not true that North Dakota is stuck in a perpetual tundra (it is 91 degrees here as I write this), and it is not true that religious life is dying because there are fewer young women joining.
We are simply at a different time in religious life. Like North Dakota, sisters today may be seen as perpetual underdogs but, also like my illustrious state, we are resilient and will be around forever no matter how many booms and busts we go through. Why will religious life prevail? Because our foremothers were strong, tough women who, I believe, have passed on their undying will and strength to us. Like sisters today, they faced challenges that seemed insurmountable. Their challenges, when they moved to the United States, included starting schools and hospitals out of nothing, trying to figure out how to be "enclosed" on the American frontier, and surviving in near-poverty conditions. Those women had no idea how the future would turn out. They relied almost exclusively on trust in God and trust in themselves as strong faith-filled women who could make it through anything together.
We need that kind of confident bravery today, and I think we have it in our younger generation of sisters. There are fewer of us — that is a fact — but there were far fewer sisters in the beginning also. Just three Benedictine sisters first arrived in the United States in 1852, led by 27-year-old Sr. Benedicta Riepp. By the time Riepp died 10 years later, her tiny community of three had grown into six independent flourishing communities of Benedictine women. They had no idea what would happen in the future, but they plowed on with their work, always trusting in God.
North Dakota finds itself in a similar situation. I do not think anyone in my home state right now could tell you what is going to happen in the next years in our state. And I could not tell you what will happen in religious life in the future. I am confident, though, that it will be something meaningful, when I think of all of the amazing younger sisters I have met through organizations such as Giving Voice and at events such as the recent "55 and Under Benedictine Gathering." Such brilliant, creative, brave women I have met. I have no doubt that we will continue to try to make the world a better place no matter what mountains or valleys we find ourselves in.
Both North Dakota and religious houses are seen as rare, strange places to visit. Going beyond visiting and actually moving to North Dakota is seen as even stranger, as is actually joining a religious community! But just as moving to North Dakota can turn out to be much more exciting than one would ever think (it really can!), becoming a sister also is a lot more exciting than one might first assume. Sister Mady has no regrets about moving to Bismarck — she loves the open spaces, the sunsets, the four seasons, and especially (oddly) the mighty wind! She and I also do not regret becoming Sisters in this era of uncertainty. I love being a young sister, especially in this time of not knowing what the future holds. Even though religious life is sometimes seen by some as a dead-end route (like moving to North Dakota), I know that with the love and support of our communities and with our rock-solid faith in God, we will survive and thrive well into the future.
[Hannah Vanorny is a Benedictine sister at Annunciation Monastery in Bismarck, North Dakota. She joined her community in 2006 and made her final monastic profession in 2013. After serving as the assistant director of Campus Ministry at the University of Mary in Bismarck, she is currently the vocation director of her community, where she has the privilege of working with many women, young and old, as they grapple with God's call in their lives.]