Story by Rose Talbot and Photography by Ed Mann
Sister Mary Juliana Cox, O.P, the principal of Cardinal Hickey Academy in Owings, Md., is in constant motion. A hundred questions fly at her from students, parents, teachers and staff: Will school be canceled because of an imminent snowstorm? Which hymns should be sung at tomorrow's prayer service? Can she locate extra clothes for the elementary student who just got sick? Her cell phone rings from a hidden pocket in her habit: someone with more questions. Sometimes the questions are in code: Did she see the thing about that thing? Miraculously, she has the answers.
"This is what my day is like. I walk around and people just throw [questions] at me," the Texas native says, as she visits the classrooms of all eight grades of Cardinal Hickey Academy, plus the kindergarten and preschool rooms. Even when she's in her office, she tries not to sit down, lest she get too comfortable. She checks email standing up.
She ends the school day by leading the faculty to victory against the eighth graders in a volleyball game. Sr. Mary Juliana has her Master of Science degree in Educational Leadership, but you'd think her degree was an MBWA-Management by Walking Around.
The first thing that strikes you about Sister is that she looks so young-all the Sisters at Cardinal Hickey Academy do-and given that they don't wear makeup and their hair is covered with their black veils, their age is hard to pinpoint. Sr. Mary Juliana is reluctant to share her age, not because of vanity, but because she is younger than many of her students' parents and most of her faculty and staff. All four of the sisters living in the convent in North Beach range from their early 30s to mid-40s.
These young Sisters debunk the conventional wisdom that the population of Catholic nuns and priests is declining as the religious age and vocations decrease. The average age of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecelia, based in Nashville, is approximately 35. The Sisters of St. Cecelia is one of the fastest growing religious orders of women in the United States. Their postulant class last summer had 23 candidates; two more joined in January. They focus on serving God through education and serve in 34 Catholic schools nationwide.
Sr. Mary Juliana knew from an early age she might have a calling from God to a consecrated life. "Second grade was when I had the first thought [of it]. I knew that sisters were married to Jesus, and if my goal were to get into heaven, if I was married to Him, he'd have to let me in. At that point, I figured that was the only way I'd get in," she says cheerfully. Even while attending Texas A&M on a soccer scholarship, "the idea of a religious vocation just kept popping up," she says, "like a Wack-a-Mole game." She eventually decided to visit the Motherhouse in Nashville to satisfy her curiosity, and once she was there it felt like home.
"God chose that peace for me," she says.
Like other growing orders that are attracting younger members, the Dominicans are traditional. They live communally. They eat together in silence. As brides of Christ, they wear habits of black veils and full-length white garments (even while shoveling snow or mowing the grass) that symbolize their wedding dress. The Domincans forego the custom of wedding rings that many Orders wear. "There is a tradition in our community that during the Depression, the Sisters felt it was not in keeping with our vow of poverty to have a wedding band, so we do not wear one, though we still see Christ as our spouse," she explains.
Sr. Mary Juliana says she relies on the sense of peace and spirituality that God offers to keep her balanced, especially on the more hectic days. "I remind myself that it's not my school; it's His school. That's the core of the balance."
All Dominicans start each day at 5 a.m. Thirty minutes of silent meditation is followed by Lauds, or prayerful chanting and daily Mass. Then they leave to teach school. Upon returning to the convent, there are evening vespers and recitation of the rosary. Following dinner, there is a mandatory recreation hour when many Sisters play sports, crochet or knit. "During the winter at the Motherhouse, there can be some quite heated cards games," like canasta or Uno, Sister Mary Juliana says. At 7:30 p.m. the Sisters engage in spiritual reading and nightly prayers. Quiet time is from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. "That's when I return emails or make phone calls. It's often my most productive time of day," she says.
"That rhythm of prayer keeps us balanced. It helps me remember that fine line that while I have full responsibility for the school, my first responsibility is to Him.
"Everything today is "self" centered: MySpace, Facebook, even our devices-iPhone, iTouch-are self-centered. One of the older sisters at the Motherhouse says 'Get off of yourself and onto something bigger. There's a world out there to save.'"
After spending time with Sr. Mary Juliana, you believe she just might save the world-one child at a time.